While the New Hampshire Animal Rights League recognizes that the average backyard chicken is almost certainly better off than the average commercial hen, there are a number of problems with keeping chickens for the purpose of eating their eggs.
For starters, “layer” chickens enter the world in bodies that have been selectively bred for maximum egg production. This is most clearly illustrated in the uniform-looking birds crowded into long sheds at the biggest egg production facilities, but it is also true of the coveted Heritage breeds poking around New Hampshire back yards. Both are saddled with bodies that lay 20 to 30 times more eggs than their wild ancestors, who laid a reasonable 10 to 15 per year.
The hen’s hyperactive reproductive system makes her susceptible to a number of different health problems, which can be painful and ultimately fatal. Some common ailments are impactions (eggs getting stuck in oviduct) and osteoporosis.
Being prey animals, chickens may hide their pain so as not to appear vulnerable. A seemingly “happy, healthy” backyard hen could actually be masking great distress. If she dies, her keeper may say, “She just dropped dead,” without recognizing the likelihood of an undiagnosed chronic condition.
Chicken autopsies (necropsies) performed on birds who seemingly died for no reason have revealed accumulations of impacted eggs in their abdomens that were the size of baseballs.
Another ailment common among egg laying hens is osteoporosis. Laying eggs requires calcium, which is taken from the hen’s body to produce the egg shell. If calcium is not adequately replenished, a hen’s bones can become so fragile that handling her could cause a fracture or break. Once again, there may be no outward sign that the chicken is in pain.
Life Before the Backyard
Chicks purchased at farm supply stores or from mail-order poultry suppliers almost certainly come from large hatcheries where chicks are mass produced assembly-line style. Wild chickens have strong family bonds, with both mother and father helping to raise young, but chicks born in hatcheries never know their parents, and their parents never know them.
When hatchery chicks emerge from their shells (if they are able, as there is no mother to assist) and instinctively seek the warmth and protection of a mother, they instead find themselves surrounded by a sea of other bereft chicks.
For the males, who are not wanted because they don’t lay eggs, their experience of this earth likely consists of a few lonely hours before they are ground up, gassed, or tossed into garbage bags to suffocate (the latter method is discouraged by the American Veterinary Medical Association but is not illegal).
As mentioned, chicks can be ordered online to be shipped through the U.S. Postal Service when they are just a few days old. Many chicks die during the journey, but such losses are expected and factored in. Their lives are of negligible value to the producers. Adding males to the box as “filler chicks” to take up extra space and keep the females warm is an accepted industry practice.
Only female chickens have value in the egg industry, but male and female chicks are difficult to tell apart. Therefore, a certain number of “sexing errors” are expected at the hatchery (error rates may be as high as 10-15%). Males mislabeled as females avoid being destroyed, but since they will grow into roosters their chances for a happy future are not good.
The main objection to roosters (aside from their not laying eggs) is the crowing. Many cities, towns, and neighborhoods that allow chicken keeping specifically prohibit roosters for this reason (even though barking dogs likely generate far more noise). Roosters may also be considered a “nuisance” for doing what nature intended — trying to protect the females and guard the eggs.
For these reasons, roosters are routinely killed, abandoned, or passed off to animal sanctuaries, which are reportedly inundated with such requests.
Another concern with backyard chickens is that they often have inadequate shelter to protect them from predators. The average chicken tractor or coop cannot guarantee safety. Coyotes and bears can easily tear through chicken wire, and raccoons have the dexterity to open latches. Rather than providing protection, the coop may actually be a death trap, as the chickens have no way to escape. Wild chickens have the option of flying up into a tree to flee predators.
Backyard chicken keepers may come to accept these deaths as just part of having chickens. One chicken keeper reported using “spent hens” (older hens whose egg production has declined) to test the impenetrability of a new pen before moving the rest of the flock in. She lost a few of these older hens during the test period, but their lives held no value for her.
What to Do If You Have Chickens
- Don’t eat eggs, including eggs from your own chickens. Although it may seem harmless to eat the eggs of a well cared for chicken, doing so reinforces the idea that eggs are an appropriate food for humans. Until eggs are no longer considered food, profit-driven people will find ways to produce them as cheaply as possible, at great cost to the hens.
- Help protect your hens from nutrient deficiencies by feeding their eggs back to them. This may seem weird, but it is normal behavior in nature and can benefit her greatly.
- Seek regular veterinary care for your chickens, and ask your veterinarian about options for reproductive relief.
What You Can Do to Help
- Educate friends and family about the problems with eating eggs, even those from backyard chickens.
- Next time someone points out their “happy” backyard hens, ask where their brothers are to start a conversation.