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Research for hen welfare: Dr. Karen Schwean-Lardner

Some people merely confront their fears. Karen Schwean-Lardner, on the other hand, is devoted to improving the lives of hers.

“When I finished my undergraduate degree in Saskatoon, I was terrified of poultry!” says Schwean-Lardner, an assistant professor of poultry science at the University of Saskatchewan.

Given her most recent research, that fear might not be completely unfounded. In this work, she has been studying hen behaviour–particularly aggressive behaviour–and the management practices in egg production that curtail behaviour like cannibalism and feather pecking.

“Scientists don’t really understand all the factors that are part of [aggressive behaviour],” says Schwean-Lardner, checking off potential-but-still-unproven causes like housing, lighting, nutrition, even the particular strain of bird. “You cannot pinpoint one individual item that causes this.”

There’s a good reason, though, why it makes sense that Schwean-Lardner–despite that self-professed phobia–would delve into this mystery. For much of her career, Schwean-Lardner has been passionate about poultry welfare, about improving the lives of the birds she studies.

It all started with a chance conversation while she was a research technician at the University of Saskatchewan in the early 1990s.

“One day, a group of us were down in our old basement, where our coffee room was…talking about poultry welfare, birds, housing, things like that,” recalls Schwean-Lardner. “We got talking about housing systems for laying hens. It was just so amazing, such a cool thing to talk about.”

That conversation would eventually lead to her Master’s project, where she designed an enriched housing system for laying hens, one with amenities like nest boxes and perches.

“It probably would have been the first one in Canada, at least,” says Schwean-Lardner. “We still have those cages here. I use them as breeding colony cages at the university.”

Schwean-Lardner went on to complete her Master’s degree, balancing her studies with both her technician job and her two young children. In 2005, she decided to go back for her PhD, graduating for a third time from the University of Saskatchewan in 2011.

An experienced poultry researcher, Schwean-Lardner’s most recent projects have explored the effect of light on flock behaviour, and have also focused on advancing techniques used for  infrared beak trimming.

With this technique, an infrared beam causes the tips to slough off after a few weeks. The procedure, she says, is generally considered less invasive than earlier methods.

If this work leads to better outcomes for hens, Schwean-Lardner will feel a strong sense of accomplishment.

“I love the birds, but I [also] love the research,” she says. “It’s such a cool thing to be able to look at things that make [the birds’] lives better.”