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Domestic chicks are able to find a food goal at different times of day, with the sun as the only consistent visual cue. This suggests that domestic chickens may use the sun as a time-compensated compass, rather than as a beacon. An alternative explanation is that the birds might use the earth's magnetic field. In this study, we investigated the role of the sun compass in a spatial orientation task using a clock-shift procedure. Furthermore, we investigated whether domestic chickens use magnetic compass information when tested under sunny conditions. Ten ISA Brown chicks were housed in outdoor pens. A separate test arena comprised an open-topped, opaque-sided, wooden octagonal maze. Eight goal boxes with food pots were attached one to each of the arena sides. A barrier inside each goal box prevented the birds from seeing the food pot before entering. After habituation, we tested in five daily 5-min trials whether chicks were able to find food in an systematically allocated goal direction. We controlled for the use of olfactory cues and intra-maze cues. No external landmarks were visible. All tests were done under sunny conditions. Circular statistics showed that nine chicks significantly oriented goalwards using the sun as the only consistent visual cue during directional testing. Next, these nine chicks were subjected to a clock-shift procedure to test for the role of sun-compass information. The chicks were housed indoors for 6 days on a light-schedule that was 6 h ahead of the natural light-dark schedule. After clock-shifting, the birds were tested again and all birds except one were disrupted in their goalward orientation. For the second experiment, six birds were re-trained and fitted with a tiny, powerful magnet on the head to disrupt their magnetic sense. The magnets did not affect the chicks' goalward orientation. In conclusion, although the strongest prediction of the sun-compass hypothesis (significant re-orientation after clock-shifting) was neither confirmed nor refuted, our results suggest that domestic chicks use the sun as a compass rather than as a beacon. These findings suggest that hens housed indoors in large non-cage systems may experience difficulties in orientation if adequate alternative cues are unavailable. Further research should elucidate how hens kept in non-cage systems orient in space in relation to available resources. © 2008 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

Original publication




Journal article


Applied Animal Behaviour Science

Publication Date





204 - 210