What's wrong with raising backyard hens?
The hens get to roam around the land – eating a fairly natural diet – you house them in a coop, get them vaccinated, and in return receive their eggs.
Furthermore, what's wrong with buying eggs from a friend with hens in their garden, or a rescue centre?
The majority of people would agree that factory farming practices are heinous, so on the face of it, this way of obtaining eggs is far more ethical.
It's better for the animals' welfare, and for your conscience.
Even animal rights activists may struggle to see any problem with eggs from backyard hens, and many advocate this as a preference to mass farm breeding.
However, there are a number of considerations to this practice that are often overlooked, either through ignorance, or because people just don't want to talk about the negative implications.
But in this post, I'm going to do just that…
1. The Origin of Backyard Hens
The Perils of Selective Breeding, Sex-Link Chicks, & Male Gassing
It’s important to remember the harm that industrial animal agriculture has done to chickens — both in their treatment and in their breeding.
Chickens today are bred to lay their body weight in eggs every single month, between 250 to 300 each year — a feat that no chicken in the wild could accomplish.
The Red Jungle Fowl, from which the domestic hen was bred, lays just 10 to 15 eggs per year.
The hatchery industry uses a breeding technique called “sex-link” to ensure a high percentage of the eggs are female.
Male chicks are an annoyance because they won't become laying hens.
So male chicks are often gassed turned into snake food. Or they are thrown into a grinder and discarded like rubbish.
In some countries, trucks offload them into pits and earth is poured on the chicks to bury them alive. It's cheaper this way.
Sex-links are cross-bred chickens whose color at hatching is differentiated by sex, thus making chick sexing an easier process. Sex-links come in several varieties.
As hybrids of laying or dual-purpose breeds infused with extra vigor via heterosis, sex-links can be extremely good egg-layers which often produce 300 eggs a year or more depending on the quality of care and feed. The color of their eggs vary according to the mix of breeds, and blue-green eggs are possible.
Chicks of a single breed that are similarly sex-linked are called autosex chickens, a term developed to differentiate between sex-linkage in purebred chickens versus sex-linkage in hybrids.
Hatchery Chicks Vs. Rescue Hens
Some people rescue hens from sanctuaries. These are hens that have been saved from the horror of the industrial agriculture complex.
Even though these chickens may be living a significantly better life in a neighborhood coop than they would have been on a farm, their bodies have still been altered by selective breeding and the effects of this will physically remain.
Rescuing chickens is undoubtedly more ethical than buying from a hatchery, which is where the majority of those raising hens source their chicks.
People want high egg production, and hatcheries deliver that.
Even 150 eggs a year is considered low “in the game”. Most owners want around 300 per year.
These hatcheries are part of the same industry responsible for the grinding up and suffocation of 6 billion male chicks a year.
The hatcheries aim to produce highly productive hens through selective breeding. They don't care about the welfare of the birds.
Buying from a hatchery is basically the same as supporting factory farming and the systematic exploitation of chickens.
Lifespan & Egg Production Decline
While a chicken’s natural lifespan is usually 5-8 years, it can last up to 30 years.
Backyard usually survive for around 8 years, but this depends on the breed, and how much of a toll the intense strain of egg laying has on the body, which shortens the quality and length of their lives.
Taking eggs as soon as they're laid, rather than allowing a clutch to form, encourages the hen to keep laying and doesn't allow for a rejuvenation period (more on that later).
Some hens, like the Heritage Breed, will stop laying as much in winter. To combat this owners cruelly use artificial light exposure.
This adds to the constant physical drain of laying and will shorten the hen's life.
Egg production declines rapidly year on year. By years 3-4 egg production may have fallen by as much as 50%.
And what of hens that suddenly stop laying after a year or two, or never lay properly? As one hen owner put it:
Occasionally you will get a hen that just doesn’t seem to lay well at all right from the start. This is usually resolved once the ‘egg machinery’ gets into top gear; but even so, there may be one or two that just never seem to produce well. This is usually a genetic ‘oops’ and little can be done to resolve the issue. If the hen is laying internally, she will likely get egg yolk peritonitis and succumb to the infection.
This is all about the eggs. It's about production. No one wants a hen that isn't productive.
This is why rescue centres are inundated with unwanted hens.
There is a third category, and that's breeding for show. But that's for another post.
2. Refuge and Care, or Eggs and Exploitation?
I've spent hours reading backyard chicken forums, and there's a running theme.
Everything comes back to the egg: How to increase egg production, how to get the best quality eggs, what to do when producing poor quality eggs…
Of course, all of these posters believe they genuinely love and care for their chickens, while I am forced to continually question what came first: the thought of free eggs or the prospect of caring for chickens?
As author Charles Horn points out:
If the desire is there to eat the eggs, did that consciously or subconsciously go into the decision to adopt in the first place? If so, the intention was never just one of providing refuge; it was also one of exploitation.
It is usually questionable as to how heavily the decision to buy a hen is based on the production of eggs.
Would people love and care unconditionally for hens if they weren’t getting eggs in return?
The backyard chicken trend is a huge problem for animal rescue sanctuaries and the RSPCA now, because when hens stop being productive, people don’t want them anymore.
In addition, the specialist veterinary care can cost a lot of money. Owners aren’t prepared to fork out money for a hen that isn't productive and into it’s twilight years – they just wanted some free eggs.
While your neighbor’s backyard coop is likely not the horror scene immortalized in documentaries and exposes, it’s important to discern whether or not the chickens are being treated well.
By this I am referring to:
- sufficient outdoor space
- an abundant source of naturally nutritious food
- appropriate shelter
- funds for medical care
Adopting chickens shouldn’t include neglect just because they are atypical pets and, traditionally, farm animals. They are non-human sentient beings that must be treated with respect.
Those who keep chickens in their backyard often using a telling phrase when referring to their farm pets. The relationship is usually described as a “win-win.”
A win for the chickens because they get good treatment, and a win for the keepers, who get free eggs.
While it’s a relationship that makes sense to many who engage with industrial animal agriculture and those who freely consume animal products, it’s a bit more nuanced for those who eschew such foods and products.
The truth of the matter is that hens' bodies have been manipulated to produce eggs for people’s benefit.
This unnatural modification colors the relationship between chickens and their keepers.
Furthermore, as non-speaking beings, chickens are obviously unable to communicate with their caretakers and unable to consent to the trade of eggs for care and shelter.
While many consider this a relationship of mutual convenience, it can also be considered one of pure exploitation.
3. Blocking the Progress of Animal Advocacy
While accepting eggs from a neighborhood coop may seem like a harmless approach to dietary change, it can actually be quite damaging for those advocating for an end to unnecessary animal exploitation and pushing for policy change.
Consuming eggs from local, backyard chickens is still a practice that labels the consumer an ‘egg eater.’
While this may sound dramatic, it’s important to remember the strides that animal welfare advocates have made in eschewing animal products, eggs included, because they are inherently cruel.
When we adopt behaviors like eating eggs — regardless of the source — we reinforce that eating eggs is okay, and, in a broader sense, that eating eggs from just about anywhere is okay.
Practices such as this give rise to the labels “humane meat”and “free-range eggs” – which as we have come to know are hugely contradictory.
When we engage in behavior that has been normalized, no matter the qualifications you make about the source of the egg, the behavior becomes justified, making it harder for advocates to influence people’s opinions for the sake of animals’ welfare and dignity.
Furthermore, it gives large businesses and agriculture industries leverage as their marketing teams go to work, producing packaging and accompanying literature that make their inhumane animal product seem as innocuous as the eggs from a backyard coop.
The efforts of big agriculture to make industrial chicken coops seem more homegrown and approachable are highly effective.
The last thing the animal welfare movement needs is for advocates to unknowingly support the continued economic success of this deplorable industry.
4. But Why Waste Discarded Eggs?
If you’ve ever talked to someone who ate eggs from a local chicken or neighborhood coop, you’ll likely hear them rationalize the behavior by saying they don’t want the eggs to go to waste.
Food waste is certainly a factor that we’d like to avoid, but leaving the chickens’ eggs uneaten may not be as wasteful as you anticipate.
Female chickens (hens) only lay eggs until their nest is full — after which, they’ll nest.
When eggs are constantly taken away, chickens continue to lay so that they can achieve a full nest. This is an enormous strain on a chicken’s body and internal organs.
Laying an egg also requires the chicken to expend an enormous amount of calcium, which forms the hard, protective shell of the egg.
Calcium depletion can lead to serious disease, pain, and — in many cases — death.
The natural way to combat this serious mineral loss is to allow the chicken to peck and eat the shell of their own egg.
By leaving the eggs in the coop, owners allow chickens to regain proper nourishment through the reabsorption of calcium, protein, and other nutrients.
This practice also removes the stress of continual egg laying, as the hens won’t feel the need to continually re-lay to fill their (perpetually emptied) nest.
The question is this: Are backyard hen owners prepared to allow this natural cycle to occur, and ultimately care for chickens without any eggs in return?
No. The answer is to add calcium to feed, so I'm told.
5. Backyard Coops: A Potential Hazard for Health & Harm
If you’ve got a neighbor with a backyard coop, your only qualm about them keeping chickens may be the early-morning squawks.
But in recent years, health officials have cited backyard coops as a potential human health hazard.
Scientists at London’s Royal Veterinary College have found evidence to suggest that backyard chickens in London may easily spread Marek’s disease, Newcastle disease, and infectious bronchitis.
Keeping hens outside exposes the animals to parasites and other ailments and illnesses.
Some backyard keepers also neglect to vaccinate their birds, making them — and the human communities around them — more susceptible to disease.
This is particularly worrisome in a time where the fear of bird flu is rampant.
One study also showed that owners were not caring for birds properly:
Most of the flock owners did not comply with the regulations of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) on the feeding of catering waste.
Disease prevention measures such as vaccination and biosecurity, including limiting the access of human visitors, wild birds and rodents to the flocks were rare.
A lack of avian and zoonotic disease knowledge and awareness among the owners has implications for disease control and highlights the need for improved communication between owners, authorities and veterinarians. (Study)
Many farmers and health experts note that the less poultry there is, the better, while acknowledging that people are at liberty to keep chickens in their backyards.
Still, scientists and health experts agree, backyard chickens should be kept in hygienic conditions and should be appropriately vaccinated to control any outbreaks.
The Risk of Natural Predators
Keeping chickens is no easy task, and many people realise this too late.
One hazard is keeping natural predators like foxes and coyotes away from your yard and coop.
By keeping chickens in a backyard, they become a sitting target and are easily stalked.
They can't relocate or run away into denser forestry.
Moreover, the selective breeding has made it difficult for these domesticated chickens to escape prey: they are slower and lack the attack methods that their Red Jungle Fowl (wild) ancestor has.
There are those who rescue hens from factory farming conditions.
They care for them until death, and do not take their eggs for consumption – allowing the natural clutch laying and calcium regeneration process to take place.
No one can take issue with this practice. The aim is to rescue the bird from suffering and give it the best life possible.
But those who buy from hatcheries, with the intention to have a free supply of free-range, organic eggs, are only contributing to, and perpetuating, the inherently evil egg industry. (more on that here).
For those who don't own hens, before accepting any backyard coop eggs, consider the ethics of the relationship between a keeper and their chickens.
Think about the health implications for chickens who repeatedly lay eggs, the conditions that they are living in, and the implications for the community’s health should they fall ill.
Consider also that leaving eggs in coops is not food waste, but a productive method of revitalising the health of the hard-working hens.
The bottom line is that we don't need to eat eggs, and refraining from the consumption of eggs under any circumstance will contribute to improving the treatment and welfare of chickens in our society.