Thursday, December 17, 2009

Five Reasons to Never EVER Give Your Chicken to a Shelter for Adoption

As I wrote in my previous post, a coalition of the following animal shelters and sanctuaries has issued a press release and position paper advising municipalities to disallow chicken-keeping:

Animal Place

Chicken Run Rescue
Eastern Shore Sanctuary and Education Center
Farm Sanctuary
Sunny Skies Bird and Animal Sanctuary
United Poultry Concerns

They cite a host of reasons, most of which I address
here. They also urge people who want chickens to adopt a chicken they have rescued, rather than buying one from a hatchery.

There is no doubt that any creature given to these organizations will be well cared for, and that their members are deeply committed to the humane treatment of animals. These organizations have also performed a useful service in raising awareness of cruelty in industrial poultry operations, and in rescuing chickens injured and maimed at these sites. Nevertheless, I still urge my fellow chicken enthusiasts to never, EVER give a chicken they cannot care for to these organizations for adoption. Here are five reasons why:

1. Those who want to adopt your chicken from the shelter will likely be required to surrender a degree of their privacy.
Farm Sanctuary’s adoption application form asks for your birth date, the number of children you have, their ages, your marital status, and your employer. What bearing any of this information has on one’s suitability for keeping a chicken is hard to imagine. The application also asks you to check whether sanctuary adoption officers may visit your home. Similarly, Chicken Run Rescue’s terms for adoption require would-be chicken-adopters to allow their staff to “examine or make inquiries at any time.” That means you agree to allow them to come in at will to check up on your poultry management and ensure it meets their standards.

2. Would-be chicken adopters may be denied if they are not vegans or vegetarians.
Farm Sanctuary’s adoption application asks you to check whether you are vegan or vegetarian, and if neither, to explain why. They also require you to be a member of the Farm Animal Adoption Network (FAAN).
Membership requirements for FAAN include “a vegetarian lifestyle.” Chicken Run Rescue’s adoption form asks whether you raise animals for slaughter. Note they do not say simply that you may not slaughter the chicken you are adopting. They ask about raising animals for meat generally.

3. Potential adopters will never truly own a chicken they obtain from these organizations.
Chicken Run Rescue requires that you agree not to show the chicken, breed it, sell its eggs, or give it to anyone else. If you can no longer keep the chicken, you are required to give it back to them. Further, if they determine during one of their “inquiries” that the “health and well-being [of the chicken] is being jeopardized the bird will be returned to Chicken Run Rescue immediately.”

4. Low-income persons who wish to adopt a chicken will likely be denied.
Several of the adoption application questions suggest an expensive standard of care that would exclude many low-income persons. For example, Chicken Run Rescue asks whether there is a heat source in the building where the chicken will be housed and whether the temperature of the building can be maintained at 32F or higher. Farm Sanctuary asks outright what your income range is and whether you can afford veterinary care for the bird.

The heat requirement is not only expensive; it is likely unnecessary and may even be harmful to the chicken. There is some debate among authorities on chicken husbandry about whether chicken coops should be heated at all, except on the very coldest days in northernmost areas. An early 20th century book,
Open Air Poultry Houses, which advises keeping chickens in open front coops, even in places like Canada, is now coming back into vogue. One long-time chicken keeper here in Madison advised me against ever heating a coop; she never does, and her chickens are healthy. Some of the older breeds, such as Barred Plymouth Rocks and Rhode Island Reds were developed in New England in the mid-19th century. I doubt anyone was heating their coops in those days.

The problem is that chickens are more susceptible to frostbite and disease at higher temperatures when air in the coop is humid than at lower temperatures when the air is dry. (Warm air holds more moisture.) All authorities agree that proper ventilation in winter is vital to move humid air (chickens emit a lot of water vapor through breathing and pooping) and thus keep chickens healthy. After seeing our set-up, our poultry extension specialist advised me to leave the pop door open during winter, despite the fact that we have ventilation holes in the roof of the roost box.

I can only imagine what it would cost us to keep the coop heated to 32F or higher with the pop door open on days when highs are in the single digits. It’s a waste of energy when it’s not required for the health of the chickens, and during the day, they won’t go in there anyway, except to lay an egg. They prefer to be out in their pen. Further, safely heating a coop to Chicken Run Rescue’s standard would require proper wiring – not simply running an extension cord - another expense that could exclude low-income would-be chicken adopters.

The bias against low-income people is particularly egregious to me. The focus of this blog is “gardening as an investment in food security.” Chickens are an integral part of my garden, providing a protein source, free organic fertilizer, and natural help with pest control. Excluding people who most need to invest in their own food security from having chickens simply because they cannot afford to meet standards that are unnecessary is unconscionable.

Chickens are relatively inexpensive to raise; poor people around the world do it. Chicken rations can be supplemented with kitchen vegetable scraps and discarded produce from grocery stores that is in good condition. If allowed into pasture or yards, chickens can forage for some of their own food. In fact, they prefer it. Coops can also be built rather inexpensively (though maybe not to the standard of some rescue groups). We spent several hundred dollars on ours, but I’m more impressed with people who report they used scrap wood or repurposed an old shed and ended up spending only forty bucks or so.

5. Finally, you should never, EVER give your chicken to one of these shelters because they will use it as a reason to pressure municipalities to restrict, or refuse to allow, chicken-keeping.
In their press release, this coalition of shelters and sanctuaries “urge[s] municipalities throughout the U.S. not to allow backyard flocks and exhort[s] those that are already zoned for this practice to establish and enforce strict regulations for the care of these birds,” and claims that since keeping chickens has become popular, they have been “inundated with calls to take in chickens.” In their position paper, they raise the issue of the expense of “an extra burden, like enforcing chicken licensing laws and related complaints” for municipal shelters.

Every time you give a chicken to one of these agencies, you add to the numbers they will use when urging city officials not to change ordinances to allow chickens, thus making it harder for your fellow chicken aficionados to have chickens, and harder for yourself, should your circumstances change and you are again able to keep chickens.

So, what should you do if you have or find a chicken that you cannot care for? One option should be to give or sell it to someone. I’m lucky here in Madison, because although I live in a city, we are surrounded by farmland and rural communities. Many people from these areas come into Madison to work, and are happy to take a chicken off my hands – they have the space to do it.

I’ve had good luck finding such people on Craigslist. I gave six nearly three-week old chicks to one guy (they are sold in lots of five, and I was only allowed to keep four), and recently sold Little Jerry to another. When I gave away the chicks, the question crossed my mind: How do I know they’re going to a good home? Then I remembered that no one questioned my credentials when I showed up at Farm and Fleet to buy my very first baby chicks. I should extend someone else the same courtesy, unless they give me a reason not to.

As it happened, the guy turned out to be practically a “chicken whisperer.” He knelt down and gently stroked the head and neck of one of the chicks with one finger, and she never moved! It was like she was hypnotized. There are many good people who will care well for a chicken; many more than are bad, I believe.

Roosters present a more difficult problem, as I wrote in my previous post. They’re harder to give away because many cities will not allow them, and outside cities, healthy flocks require fewer roosters than hens. It may be that your beautiful bird will have to be sacrificed to feed someone less fortunate than yourself. For a rooster that has had a good life, it is not a bad way to go.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Who's A Chicken Lover?

That’s a photo of Little Jerry taken yesterday. She will be leaving us sometime today. Her comb-picking of the other hens has gotten completely out-of-hand. It appears to happen when they go up to their perch at night. We never see this going on during the day (unless, like the bratty kid you grew up with, she waits until the grown-ups aren’t looking to start trouble.)

Certainly the only place we have seen any blood – and that was just a few drops – is on their droppings tray under their perch. The blood isn’t in their droppings, so I know it’s not disease of some kind. Then yesterday morning there was blood on the back wall of the coop, near the perch.

I’ve been dithering for awhile over what to do about Little Jerry, ever since we caught her acting aggressively towards the other hens. Yesterday, after seeing the blood on the back wall, Rick said to me quietly, “She has to go.” It was his way of saying, “The time for dithering is over.”

I decided to try to sell her, and if I couldn’t do that quickly I’d turn her over to our friend who’s experienced in processing meat to dispatch her to freezer camp. I found a buyer with 60 acres outside Madison. He asked whether Little Jerry was mean. I told him what I’ve written above about the comb-picking, but assured him that she’d never feather-picked. Except for the comb scrapes, our hens look perfect.

The buyer was honest with me, as well. “If she behaves,” he told me, “she’ll have a good life here.” But if she starts trouble, he warned, she would become dinner. I accepted those terms.

It never occurred to me to drop her off at a shelter, or even that animal shelters would accept chickens. I’d always understood that if a chicken needed to be culled from our tiny flock that she would have to be slaughtered – efficiently and with as little pain as possible - or given or sold to someone else.

Some shelters claim that the trend in chicken-keeping has resulted in an upsurge in chickens dropped off at their organizations; chickens whose owners can no longer care for them or roosters that they are not allowed to keep in the city.

So a coalition of groups is now advocating banning chicken keeping in backyards citing humane, health, and other reasons. This is what happens when you hand responsibility for some aspect of your life to others; they feel empowered to tell you what to do; to regulate and control the activity in question. Before I go on to respond to this coalition’s objections to chicken-keeping and critique their agenda, I want to beg my fellow chicken enthusiasts to take responsibility for your chickens. Do not hand your responsibility for your chickens over to agencies that will use it as an excuse to advocate bans on backyard poultry keeping.

I understand how tempting it is to avoid making the hard decisions, to want to hand over your problem chicken or rooster to an agency that you believe will treat your chicken kindly and not kill it. I’ve waffled myself for weeks trying to figure out what to do about Little Jerry. But we have to be grown up enough to understand and accept that sometimes the humane thing to do is to cull a chicken, that nature requires far fewer roosters than hens, and that if you lack to the skills to do the job you should learn how (my eventual goal) or turn the job over to someone who does and compensate them accordingly. And if you can’t eat your own chicken, give it to someone who can. There are a lot of hungry and out-of-work people in this country. Healthy meat should not go to waste.

Would it be better to keep Little Jerry and allow her to continue to torment the other birds? Or to give her another chance at a good life in the country? She’s actually not that aggressive. I think if she’s in a place where she has more space, she won’t be a problem. She’s a good layer and very healthy, so I didn’t want to rush her demise. And if she’s still a problem, then she will make a healthy meal for someone. She was raised on organic feed and lots of greens and bugs. She’s had a good life here with us.

That said, let’s take a look at the assertions and agenda of the coalition, which appears to lack a name, but includes these organizations:

Animal Place
Chicken Run Rescue
Eastern Shore Sanctuary and Education Center
Farm Sanctuary

Sunny Skies Bird and Animal Sanctuary
United Poultry Concerns

Specifically, their assertions are these:

*Many backyard chicken enthusiasts don’t know about the conditions in hatcheries and what happens to the unwanted male chicks.

Unbeknownst to many well-meaning hobbyists, the massive hatcheries from which most chicks are purchased by individuals or feed stores are notorious for animal mistreatment . . . Hens are in much higher demand than roosters; therefore, most males [sic] chicks are killed onsite at these hatcheries as soon as they are sexed, adding up to millions of birds every year that are killed shortly after they hatch.

In fact, many of us do know of the conditions in both hatcheries and large confinement operations for layers and meat birds. That is a major reason many of us want to keep our own birds; to treat them humanely, to allow them to scratch, run around outside, eat bugs, and to produce for ourselves eggs from hens that have been raised healthfully and treated decently throughout their lives.

My preference would be to buy from local breeders, and I will when I’m able to do so. Around here, chickens from local breeders are limited in supply, but I fully expect that as the return to chicken keeping grows, there will be more opportunities to buy locally from good breeders.

The issue of what to do with the male chicks is a problem. Municipalities that allow chickens generally ban roosters. Even if we could keep roosters, the fact is that too many roosters in a flock creates problems; the hens suffer from too many attempts to mate with them and the roosters fight amongst themselves. Why does nature produce more roosters than are needed, and how does nature cull the excess males? I’m not an animal specialist, but I suspect that in the wild, the numbers of roosters are reduced through fighting over the hens.

Traditional farms generally kept a few roosters, but raised the rest of the male chicks just to maturity; then slaughtered them for meat. Giving them a good life before processing them for meat is to me preferable to dumping male chicks into a grinder at the hatchery. However, whether in the wild, on traditional farms, or in hatcheries, most males will die at earlier ages than females.

*Shipping day old chicks is cruel.
Day-old chicks are shipped to buyers through the mail, deprived of food and water and exposed to extremes in temperature for up to 72 hours.

Here is another reason it is preferable to obtain chicks from local breeders. This isn’t always possible, with large operations dominating the markets. It should be noted however, that before hatching, chicks absorb the yolk in their egg, allowing them to go the first three days of life without food or water. It’s a survival trait – useful in the wild where the mother hen might not be able to feed all of her chicks right away.

I doubt they’re exposed to extremes of temperature, else they’d die en route and the hatcheries would lose business. Generally, they’re packed to ensure sufficient heat and with detailed instructions for care of the chicks on arrival.

*Chickens attract mice and rats.
Even the cleanest coop is attractive to rats and mice who enjoy the free bedding (straw and shavings) and food.

This is one of the many statements that indicate the idealistic perspective of this coalition. Chickens would be thrilled to find a mouse in their pen or coop. Chickens eat mice, as well as frogs, small snakes, worms, grubs, and bugs. They are omnivores, as we are. I get the distinct impression that at least some members of these groups imagine chickens to be sweet little birds that daintily peck at corn. They’d probably faint dead away if they observed a chicken beating a mouse or frog against a rock before tearing it apart with its beak.

Or maybe they’d try to retrain the chicken, and teach it to be a vegetarian. Eastern Shore Sanctuary & Education Center claims to have “developed an innovative and effective method to deprogram fighting cocks so that they can live normal lives.”

One poster over at the Oil Drum wondered what this deprogramming involved, and reported (tongue in cheek):

I looked it up:

Here at Eastern Sanctuaries, we have proudly innovated the "Un-cocked and Loaded" program, a 12-step practice of Reparative Therapy for Fighting Cocks. A traumatized cock is first plied with "Monster Mash," an avian intoxicant formulated only from the finest non-GMO Indian corns. Then the cock is cooped up with a flock of youthful, organically-raised laying hens that gently croon "Give Peace a Chance" in his ear.
A picture of the treatment is given at


It’s true that rats are attracted to chicken feed. Of course, rats are attracted by many things. If I left my garbage can outside with the lid off, I’d attract rats. The advice generally is to store chicken feed in galvanized steel containers. That’s easy enough.

This coalition focuses much of its statement and position on the practices of large scale commercial operations, but “urg[es] municipalities throughout the U.S. not to allow backyard flocks and exhort[s] those that are already zoned for this practice to establish and enforce strict regulations for the care of these birds.” It defies logic to go after small holders if your major concerns are with the practices of large producers. If backyard chickens are prohibited, the only source of eggs and chicken meat will be the industrial producers. It’s for this reason that some people believe this coalition is a front for large scale producers who want to drive small scale producers out of business.

I don’t believe that to be the case with this particular activist movement. Clearly, this is more about the idealization of animals and nature, and among some members, a desire to deter meat-eating. They seem to believe that no animal should ever be killed. (Sunnyskies Bird and Animal Sanctuary even rescues mice!) They urge would-be chicken owners to “adopt” chickens rather than buy them from hatcheries, to contact sanctuaries to obtain birds, and they emphasize that roosters especially are in need of homes. They refer to us as "hobbyists" and note that chickens can be "wonderful companions."

This perspective sees chickens as pets rather than livestock. We do grow fond of our chickens, and many backyard enthusiasts keep one or two spent hens, beloved chickens who are allowed to live out the rest of their (non-productive) lives. But most of us keep chickens primarily to provide healthy eggs, produced by hens that are treated decently. We seek a degree of self-sufficiency and we want some control over how our food is produced. Urging municipalities to ban backyard chickens forces us to remain dependent on large commercial producers and thus supports their odious practices.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Snowbound Chickens

Last night we got over a foot of snow. Rick had to dig out a path to the coop.

We brushed the snow off the roof of the coop and the plastic over the side pen. When I opened the door, they were still in their coop. Usually, they’re out at the crack of dawn. Two of the girls poked their beaks out of the pop door. Once I started talking to them, they all ventured out.

They haven’t known what to make of the snow. The day I wrote the post about the first snow of the winter, very little fell that morning, and it melted soon after. Late that afternoon, I let the hens out in their tractor. I’d been trying to make sure they got out as much as possible before the snow trapped them in their pen for the winter.

So I parked their tractor near the laundry room window and went in to fold clothes. I finished that job and puttered around, before glancing out the window and seeing heavy snow falling. I ran outside to find the girls huddled together whimpering. Just a few minutes earlier they’d been energetically digging in the ground. When I started pushing the tractor toward their pen, they at first refused to move, unwilling to walk on the snow. I finally had to nudge their fuzzy butts along and they quickly scampered into their pen when I opened the tractor door.

On the other hand, they do love to eat snow. Whenever I walk into their pen with snow on my boots, they eagerly peck it off. But today was the first day they actually had some snow in their pen. Previously, the plastic over the wire fencing on two sides kept the snow out. Last night, swirling wind blew snow into the back of their pen. So they were a bit wary when they came out of their coop in the morning.

The great thing about them disliking the snow is that I no longer have to struggle to get into the pen when I open the door. Usually, they go crazy when they hear us at the door, and start bawking loudly and banging their beaks on the wire fencing. When I try to open the door to go in, they’re trying to slip out. Today the wind blew the door wide open when I was trying to bring in the waterer and nobody made a move. I guess they’re not so dumb after all!

My big worry is keeping them warm enough tonight. The low is going to be 1F. Right now, at 9:21 p.m., the temp outside is 13F, but it’s 28F in their coop. (We have a remote sensor thermometer – one of the few gadgets I thought we really needed.) Only their body heat and two 2+ gallon plastic gas cans (which never held gas) filled with hot water are keeping the coop this warm. I got that idea from a poster at Backyard Chickens (BYC), who also has a tiny flock and coop about the size of ours. She only used one can, but she closes her pop door all the way, and I try to leave some ventilation. Truthfully, I'm just anxious about them.

Posters at BYC who live in Alaska and Canada claim chickens are more hardy than we think, and that heavy breeds especially, can withstand temps down 0F without harm, if properly housed. That’s what I’m clinging to tonight. I hope our little gals do alright.

Oh, and if you’re wondering, Little Jerry still lives. As it happens, we were in a car accident last Saturday (nobody hurt, but the car is still out-of-commission), so thankfully, the decision about whether to take her to see our friend about freezer camp was made for me!

Update: This morning at 5, it was -1F outside, and 9.7F in the coop. So, a good 10 degree difference. We removed the water bottles (that we placed in the coop at 8 last night) and refilled them with hot water...

Update II: At 1pm it was 6F outside; 18F in their coop. Where do you suppose those little chickies were hanging out??? Certainly not in what Rick calls their "luxury penthouse apartment"! I guess those folks from Alaska and Canada on Backyard Chickens were right!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Dead Chicken Walking

Yesterday was the first day I thought to myself: Is it really worth it to have chickens?

I’ve surprised myself with how well I adapted to caring for them, cleaning up after them, and generally tackling the work associated with keeping them. But yesterday I really felt weary. I noticed again little black marks on the combs of the Barred Rocks, indicating that somebody, probably Little Jerry again, one of the Rhode Island Reds, was pecking their combs.

We first realized Little Jerry was bullying the BRs when we noticed that the BRs were not going after the greens we put in the suet cage like the reds were. The BRs would content themselves with the other daily treat, the chicken scratch we scattered.

So we observed for awhile, and saw the BRs occasionally head for the suet cage only to get chased off by Little Jerry. (Interestingly, LJ never bothered Tracy, the other RIR. Maybe she is some kind of racist chicken.) She must have done it many times before, because sometimes she’d barely make a move in their direction, and they backed off. Sometimes Little Jerry would even chase them off the chicken scratch, although she herself didn’t want it. After she chased them away, she’d go back to eating the greens.

The BRs have come to be our favorites. They are friendlier and have a sweeter disposition than the Reds. So far as I know, they have never pecked anybody. The combs of the RIRs have never had a mark. Amelia got the worst of Little Jerry’s pecking. Her comb had large black spots at one point, and whenever I’d come into the pen, she’d follow me almost whining. When I learned about the pecking problem, I thought: She’s trying to tell on Little Jerry!

Anyway, Amelia is Rick’s favorite, so Little Jerry definitely picked on the wrong bird. He was so angry when he saw Little Jerry go after Amelia, he picked up LJ, put her in the coop, and shut the door without thinking. She squawked loudly (as she always does, she’s the loudest of our hens and can be really annoying.) Rick left her in “time out” for a few minutes; then let her out. She behaved for a bit; then went after Amelia again. He again put her in time out. I thought this strategy was inspired, so we stayed with them for awhile, attempting a bit of behavioralist training. Rick ended up putting LJ in timeout several times more that evening.

The next morning, I spent some time with the birds doing the same training. I also bought another suet cage, realizing that one wasn’t enough for four large hens. And, I started giving them greens twice daily, thinking sufficient rations would also cut down on the pecking problem.

It seemed to help for awhile, so Little Jerry got a stay of execution. Rick has always said he had no problem sending a chicken to “freezer camp” as they say on
Backyard Chickens, if she caused too much trouble. I was told by an older friend of mine, who has a cattle farm now, but grew up raising chickens, that at 6 ½ months, LJ wasn’t too old yet for roasting. (I have yet to find clear information on appropriate ages for harvesting meat birds of different breeds. I do know I’d be reluctant to eat a stewer. I happened to get one from a local farmer once, and it was stanky! I boiled her and boiled her, but she didn’t get any more appetizing and I even threw out the broth, it smelled so bad.)

I also consider myself lucky that the trouble-maker turned out to be Little Jerry, named by our 14-year-old grandson after Kramer’s rooster in the old Seinfeld sitcom. Since Nathan’s quite a bit older than our other two grandchildren, and has about zero interest in the chickens, I don’t think it will bother him if she is, ah, removed. (Note to self: NEVER let the grandkids name chickens again!)

But, as I say, things seemed to settle down and Amelia’s comb mostly healed. Then yesterday I went into the pen and saw small black marks on BOTH Amelia’s and Batgirl’s combs. Now LJ was messing with my girl! I adore Batgirl’s independence (I’ll write more about her in a few days) and secretly admire her every time she escapes. She’s now up to six successful jailbreaks, and I’m at the point where, when I see her get away again, I smile and think to myself: Way to go, Batgirl!

She’s at the point where she doesn’t even try too hard to evade capture. I guess it’s something of a game with us now. She knows she’s a far more proficient player, so she gives me a handicap. Or, maybe she just likes a little attention from me. Once, when I had them out in the yard in 4 ½ foot high temporary netting, Batgirl flew over it, but stayed right next to me while I gardened, scratching around in the earth nearby.

Back to Little Jerry. I’ve turned the problem over and over in my mind, trying to decide what best to do. My biggest concern is winter, when they will be stuck in their pen for weeks at a time. I don’t want to worry about pecking problems on top of worrying about winter care for them. That’s stressful enough on its own. I keep saying, I can’t wait until I’m through the first year with them, when I have gone through all the seasons and stages of growth. The learning curve has been huge, and lately I feel tired.

I also think about how we don’t really need four chickens for just the two of us. I only kept four in case one of the little chicks died. Still, as angry as I get with Little Jerry, it’s hard to go through with it. I ask myself whether I’m being overprotective of the other hens, whether LJ is just being a chicken, whether once she is removed, somebody else will take over the bully role. But somehow, I don’t think so.

We have a friend who’s experienced, and has agreed to do the deed. We have never done it and wouldn’t be skilled enough to quickly dispatch her. I just have to make a decision!

This morning, as I was writing this, I thought, if I could just have some sign! I noticed it was time to go out and give them their morning greens and scratch and looked out the window. A light snow was falling, the first of the season, and I thought, this is it. Little Jerry has really only lasted this long because we have had unseasonably warm weather. Usually, by this time we have plenty of snow on the ground. So up to now, we’ve been able to continue regularly letting them out of their pen, which keeps them busy and Little Jerry occupied with something other than tormenting the Barred Rocks.

So, I guess the decision has been made. Hasn’t it? I’m pretty sure.

Now you know what Rick goes through!