To avoid unpredictable social effects, animals’ behavioural priorities are almost always tested using individuals housed singly, yet many species kept commercially are social animals housed in groups. Our aim was to develop a method of investigating environmental preference in group-housed laying hens, Gallus gallus domesticus, that maximised the external validity of our findings. In a simple test of preference, eight groups of ten hens were given free choice between furnished cages with minimum heights of 38 cm (low) and 45 cm (high). A preference for one cage height over the other would be evident as a shift from a binomial distribution of flock sizes in the two cages. No height preference was found as hens distributed evenly between the two cages more frequently than was expected. This suggests at high stocking densities maximising average inter-individual distance could be a priority over increased cage height. In a second experiment, to investigate the value that hens placed on a change in cage height; a ‘cost’ in the form of a narrow gap was imposed on movement from a low or high start cage to a high or low target cage, respectively. Cage height did not influence the latency of the first three hens to enter the target cage. However, latencies for subsequent hens were shorter and more hens worked to access a high target cage than a low target cage. We suggest that titrating animals’ willingness to tolerate higher stocking densities against access to a resource could be an effective way to compare responses of group-housed animals to resources that are expected to satisfy the same motivational state
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