06/26/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Purdue U Researcher Develops 'Kinder, Gentler' Chicken

How to thwart violent skirmishes between chickens in humane breeding pens?

Invent a more peaceful bird.

At least that's what one Purdue University professor is trying his hand at.

The Associated Press reports:

The white leghorns bred by William Muir stand sedately wing to wing, staring back timidly from their cages at a Purdue research farm in northern Indiana.

The easygoing egg-layers Muir has dubbed "Kinder Gentler Birds" don't need their beaks trimmed and blunted, another industry practice deplored by animal rights groups but which is intended to prevent pecking deaths.

Breeders working over several decades chose the most productive birds to reproduce, resulting in white leghorns that each year can lay 300 to 320 of the large bright-white eggs most popular with Americans. Muir said that approach unintentionally produced birds that also have a heightened self-preservation instinct and desire to literally be at the top of the pecking order.

More states are moving to enforce open breeding pens for egg production. But the open pens aggravate hens' territorial instincts, leading to fights and potentially doing more harm than good.