A chicken wears a backpack containing small sensors that monitor their movements.

To help poultry farmers fight parasite infestations, researchers have invented a new insect detection system they believe could transform the industry: “backpacks” for chickens.

Amy Murillo, entomologist at the University of California-Riverside, recalls attending poultry meetings and wondering what could be done to control parasites.

Infestations can have devastating economic consequences, and parasites aren’t just a problem in caged birds. Some parasites, Murillo said, are more likely to fester in complex habitats with nest boxes where they can live in cracks and crevices, emerging at night to feed on chickens.

Poultry producers have methods of observing flock health, but examining individual chickens is painstaking. There must be a better way, Murillo thought.

One day in 2017, when Murillo was looking at a Fitbit watch — a wearable device that measures people’s activity such as number of steps walked, quality of sleep and heart rate — an idea struck her.

Murillo knew chickens behave certain ways, such as dustbathing more often, when battling parasites such as blood-feeding livestock mites. It struck her that tracking chickens’ behavior might help detect mites.

“Looking at the watch, I thought: Hey, it picks up whenever I step. Why can’t we do this for chickens?” said Murillo. “It seemed like an outlandish idea at first for sure. It seemed silly to put a Fitbit on a chicken.”

But that didn’t stop her.

Murillo approached UC-Riverside’s Alireza Abdoli, a data science graduate student.

Abdoli loves chickens, so he said he was excited when Murillo asked him to join the project — along with biologists, entomologists and a poultry health expert.

Abdoli designed an algorithm to track chicken behavior.

The first algorithm he created measured shapes. When you shake hands with another person, he explained, it looks about the same every time you do it. If you were wearing a sensor on your hand, the motion would show up in a dataset as a consistent shape.

Similarly, with chickens, pecking looks like a recognizable zigzag.

But some chicken movements are complex. It’s hard, for example, to tell the difference between dust bathing and preening on a computer screen — important distinctions when measuring parasite activity. Abdoli modified his algorithm to account for speed and force.

Then, Abdoli and Murillo inserted the sensors into tiny backpacks, which they fastened onto chickens’ backs.

“You can imagine how hard it was to put these backpacks on the chickens,” Abdoli said.

He laughed.

But after a minute of pecking and squirming, the chickens got used to the packs.

When the researchers analyzed the data, they were excited.

Murillo said the sensors accurately detected which chickens had parasites.

In the long term, the researchers say, this could help poultry farmers accurately detect parasites and target birds with problems before an outbreak.

But Murillo estimates a commercial-scale product won’t be available for at least a few years. COVID-19 has brought much research to a “screeching halt,” Murillo said. A real-time model is still in progress, and the researchers will need commercial flocks to be part of experiments.

“We’ve got a ways to go, but I think the technology does have amazing promise for the poultry industry,” said Murillo.

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