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.
thuoc ga da says
Raising and taking care of chickens is not an easy task, but for me raising chickens is a very happy job to see that chickens are always healthy and give lots of eggs.
May 26, 2019 at 7:15 am
Jonathan B says
I often get asked this question. This article was very educational. Thank you.
Jan 17, 2019 at 10:14 am
Because laying daily is not normal and increases their risk for ovarian cancer at extremely high rates, uterine prolapse, and other reproductive diseases, many vegans with chickens are implanting (suprelorin) to stop the unnatural continuous ovulation cycle.
Dec 21, 2018 at 1:50 pm
If you really want to answer the question “What’s wrong with raising backyard chickens” I think you should avoid over-generalisation like in your points 2 and 5. There may be owners who treat their chickens badly, neglect vaccinations and even eat them if they do not lay enough. But that’s easily avoided if one chooses to avoid it. I really dislike that kind of argument as it is the same kind of argument that is constantly brought forward against veganism, i.e. being too dangerous with respect to B12, protein etc.
Also “taking away the eggs” is not really as problematic as you you describe it.
IF you choose to have chickens, than it usually is best for them if you take away their eggs.
The assumption that chickens lay to “achieve a full nest”(see point 4) is false. As you mentioned several times, most chickens races are bred to be laying machines (with negative effects on their life spans and their socialization). The number of eggs that are taken away or not has no bearing on that. Furthermore, leaving the eggs with the chickens usually encourages them to breed, which itself can also be harmful for the chicken, since it usually involves sitting on the egg all day long, often without food or drink for up to 3 weeks.
A lot of this depends on the race. There are many races which have a low to very low tendency of breeding and lay only “mediocre” amounts of eggs (e.g. 80 per year), which do not lay in winter etc. If you keep them in your garden without a rooster so you avoid procreation, they can live a relatively happy life there.
Of course, that’s no reason to ignore to the severy ethical problems with hatcheries, breeding etc.
As you have laid out correctly, most chickens races are bred for production (of eggs or meat) and in many ways have not “natural” behaviour as they are basically “man-made” creatures.
This itself and its consequences (most importantly the mass-killing of males) can be enough of an argument to stay away from backyard chickens. In reality this is even more severe than you have described. If you keep your chickens with a rooster and allow them to procreate, then the males HAVE TO BE killed! In contrast to their wild origins, todays hens have a hierachy involving one rooster looking after at least 2-3 hens. Multiple roosters do not get along at all, especially in a tight space. Since the eggs are generally half male, half female, that creates a continous and enormous surplus of males which usually canot be kept toegther and which usually cannot succesfully be sold, except to a kitchen. This is something that really shocked me when reading up on chickens.
Sep 17, 2018 at 8:06 am
Hi Daniel, thank you for your comments.
I can’t see any over-generalisation in points 2 and 5. Can you let me know specifically what you are referring to?
Can you find me one instance, on any backyard chicken forum, where an owner is not primarily concerned with egg production? The reality is that people keep / raise chickens to use them for their eggs. I even go on to say in this section: “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
Point 5 uses two reputable sources to highlight the potential risks to the birds when not cared for properly. That is not to say that all owners do not care for their birds properly, but rather to highlight some serious concerns.
This post presents moral arguments around keeping chickens, many of which people seldom consider. The intention is to open up the discussion, and I invite anyone to present a credible opposing view that shows that the interests of the chicken are the primary motivating factor and that this practice is in any way necessary. If I remember correctly, one commenter was a lady who keeps rescue chickens, and does so with the bird’s best health interests at heart – I have no opposition to that.
Can you provide research/science to back up the following: “If you choose to have chickens, then it usually is best for them if you take away their eggs”. Why would we want to discourage a chicken from partaking in its natural instinct to nest and breed?
This is a case in point: We have bred these species of chicken to be egg-laying machines and completely interfered with the natural order. Mother Nature originally designed this bird to lay a clutch and sit and nest. But now, what with decades of selective breeding, even the chicken doesn’t quite know what to do with all these eggs.
I just read on the Cackle Hatchery website boasting about a hen that laid 371 eggs in one year. Wonderful. Humans manage to exploit a species of bird so it spends its entire life as a factory producing cholesterol bombs for humans.
One thing people seldom consider is the physiological stress a bird goes through to lay an egg. To engineer hens to lay every day is evil. Even those involved in the industry know this. I quote:
Phil Brooke, of Compassion in World Farming, who said: “Selectively breeding hens for high productivity, whether larger eggs or larger numbers of eggs, can cause a range of problems such as osteoporosis, bone breakage and prolapse. We need to breed and feed hens so that they can produce eggs without risk to their health or welfare.”
Sep 17, 2018 at 8:55 am
Hm, I thought I had relatively clearly laid out my arguments. But anway:
1. Why other people keep chickens or not and what they post about it on the internet is really not my concern when I wanna decide whether to have chickens or not. Just as psychopaths who starve their babies to death by forcing a soy-milk and apple sauce diet on them (which HAS happened) is (while horrible) not may concern when pondering a vegan diet. I do have a straightforward choice to do it better myself. The same is true for keeping the chickens safe, well-fed and healthy.
And for the record, my neighbor has been keeping chickens for 25 years and has never ever killed any of his chickens, even when they have long stopped laying eggs. They are his pets and he enjoys they’re company (just as I do when they jump the fence from time to time).
This approach is found mainly among keepers of bantam chickens, which lay tiny eggs anyway, and I’m sure you can find post confirming that on bantam forums if you want. If these post of unwavering love to their chickens are written with a bucket from KFC in hand is another story and a reason for me not to care to much about what other people do tbh.
2. I have no time to do literature search for it right now, but it is basically as straightforward as I said and you have said pretty much the same in your reply it seems.
Yes, the whole breeding of chicken races and much worse, the commercial hybrid chickens has produced animals that are almost devoid of a “natural” behaviour, as they have been bred for centuries to serve exclusively human interets like meat and eggs. That is pretty bad and unethical and leads to pretty bad stuff like the killing of almost all male chickens everywhere in the world.
BUT, if you have a chicken sitting there that is laying an egg, that is the exaclty hte freason why it most often has no “natural” use for it.
Laying the egg is a significant physical strain for the hen, but breeding is even more so. Breeding usually involves taking care of the eggs 24/7 without eating. As most eggs are unfertilized, the hen might spend up to 3 weeks with unsuccesful breeding. If you take the egg away, the chickens are at least spared that extra stress for nothing. Depending on the race the chicen might start to lay another egg the next day or the next week, but the absence or presence of eggs has no bearing on that.
Eating their own eggs is only done in case of emergency, e.g. if there is no other food available.
Again, all of the above is the result of a highly ethically questionable process of “domestication” and breeding of the chicken races we know today. Of course, for the chicken, there is no use whatsoever in laying unfertilized eggs all the time. But that is exactly why there is no “natural” solution to it that you seem to insinuate, i.e. leaving the eggs to the “rightful owner”.
Sep 17, 2018 at 10:24 am
Lisa 38 years of chickens says
Uh. Almost none of what you wrote is true. Most hens don’t set, clutch or no. They lay their eggs where ever seems like a good spot.. In the coop, in a boot, on top of a door frame, etc. and could care less about what happens to them later. Leaving eggs in the coop actually encourages egg eating and does not slow their laying. Egg eating often has nothing to do with calcium deficiency.
And, having grown up where there were copious Jungle Fowl, I know from experience that they also lay copious amounts of eggs in order to compensate for predation. 10 -15 a year would have meant extinction a long time ago. Why? Everybody likes chicken.
Furthermore, predators usually get chickens at night, when the birds are roosting. All birds (unless they are nocturnal) are vulnerable when they roost at night.
Clearly, you absolutely nothing about chicken behaviors.
As for keeping a sick chicken alive because it makes YOU feel better, that, I think, is far crueler than letting her die.
Finally, humans cannot get either Marek’s or Newcastle, yet you clearly wanted to imply that having chickens puts people at risk for these avian diseases.
If you want to not eat eggs, fine, but don’t engage in the same kind of fake “facts” which I despise in the president.
May 10, 2018 at 8:33 am
Hens will peck at eggs to replenish nutrients, in particular calcium, which they lose a lot of when laying. You’re right though, it might not be calcium, it could be a protein deficiency too: Here is the advice from Mcmurray Hatchery:
Here is the advice from PoultryOne.com
May 10, 2018 at 10:26 am