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.


Green Bean said...

Very good points. I'm new to chicken keeping and one of my chicks just crowed today. Uh oh. But I'm a big girl and, even though my city won't let me keep a rooster, I understand that it is not the right thing to just dump it off at a shelter. I've suspected for the last few weeks that we've got two roos in our mix and have been hard at work finding them new homes - either ones where they'll live or ones where they'll become someone's dinner - though I prefer the former! ;-) Anyway, I do think there is a risk, with the backyard chicken craze, that shelters will see more chickens, that more will be euthanized, that many will be neglected by people who got in over their heads. I also think that there will be, as you say, more opportunity to buy from local breeders as chicken keeping grows. More happy chickens producing higher quality eggs out there. Thanks for posting this.

wolfie said...

Hallo, Good that you found a place for Little Jerry other than the big hen run in the sky or the broiler pot!

Wisconsin Garden Chick said...

Aw, green bean, I hope you find good homes for your roos. They are beautiful creatures, and I'd love to have one running around. If I had the land, I would.

I happen to agree with rules in our city about chickens that include prohibiting roosters. I understand, as you do, that there are and should be some limitations on chicken keeping in cities. As I've said before on this blog, I have great neighbors and I want to keep it that way. PLus, from what I've read, you really need more room if you're going to have a roo, otherwise they can get mean.

I also agree with you that some people are going to get in over their heads - as some people do with dogs and other animals. The best way to deal with that, I think, is education, not advocating bans on ANYONE keeping chickens.

Thanks for stopping by!

Wisconsin Garden Chick said...

Hi, Wolfie--

I'm glad I found what I think will be a good home for her, too! I have to say, I felt a little sad as he drove away with her. She is one of my first ever chickens; I've had her since she was a day old chick!

It was nice to see the other girls without new peck marks on their combs this morning!