The Truth About Chickens. (And cute baby chicken photos.)
I’m going to play it cool like I haven’t been MIA for the last week+ and treat you to some gratuitously cute photos. Deal? Okay.
I also want to talk to you about chickens. Do you have a minute?
The Nest (my new apartment) is located conveniently behind one of my very closest friend’s homes, and over the years she’s been developing a little urban homestead. Now that I inhabit the immediate vicinity, I get to help. There are garden boxes, composting, an in-progress greenhouse, and, best of all, CHICKENS.
Why are chickens so awesome? Well, for one, I’m an animal fanatic and they happen to be animals. Second, I’m well-versed in the food consciousness movement and keeping chickens 1) provides you fresh eggs in your backyard, 2) fresh fertilizer for your plants, 3) fun for the whole family, and 4) meat if you want to eat them.
The vast majority of eggs available in grocery stores come from egg farms, where the conditions for the chickens are horrendous. The birds are kept in tight living quarters called battery cages. I would love to link you to some photos but I don’t have the stomach right now to look at them myself. Google it. Battery cages don’t allow for the birds to turn around or stretch out, or do much moving at all. The cages are crammed in tight together, so that the birds can’t get away from each other. Since this system breeds the easy spread of disease and the chickens have suppressed immune systems from the constant stress of living in tight, unhealthy quarters with each other, the chickens are fed antibiotics. They don’t receive a healthy diet, either, contributing to their ill health. (Click on that link to read about the link between conventional chicken farming and salmonella in eggs.) In many cases, they’re kept in lighted conditions all year long; essentially, conventional chicken farming burns the chickens out before they’re ready. Some have their beaks seared off to prevent fights since they can’t get away from each other. In my opinion, it’s pretty close to torture, and it effectively produces the millions of eggs Americans buy for $2.00 a carton each week. We think we’re getting away with a great price and really what we’re doing is contributing to the suffering of millions of animals annually.
From United Poultry Concerns, which fought to ban force-molting (a method by which farmers starve hens that have stopped laying eggs so that they will lose their feathers, and then begin producing eggs again for a little while):
Hens were, and still are, nutrient-deprived to regulate egg prices, reduce the sickly oviduct fat that accumulates in unexercised hens, and “rejuvenate” reproductive organs ravaged by the continuously burning lightbulbs in the houses to which hens’ bodies respond involuntarily by trying to form eggs as if every day were the middle of summer.
Because of the way chickens are typically kept, the eggs they produce are not as healthy as those produced by humanely-raised chickens. Access to sunlight, pasture, healthy food, lower stress, and exercise dramatically increase the health of the bird and therefore the nutrient properties of her eggs. Humanely raised chickens are provided with more space in proportion to their number, allowed to perform natural behaviors like foraging and roosting, cared for properly when illness arises, and supplemented with healthy food appropriate for chickens.
How do you know if your eggs from the grocery store come from humanely-raised chickens? The truth is that you don’t. There’s no regulation on labeling for eggs, so “free range,” “cage free,” and similar terms really mean nothing. Furthermore, it’s expensive to treat chickens to a healthy lifestyle and most consumers are convinced they don’t want to pay much for eggs. So really, there’s little incentive for farmers. From Mother Earth News:
“Cage Free,” “Free Range” or “Free Roaming.” None of these terms are currently regulated by the U.S. government, although there are some third-party verification programs (see below). Nevertheless, “free range” usually means the laying hens are raised in large flocks in big open warehouses rather than in stacked cages. They can walk around, flap their wings and preen their feathers a little. “Cage-free” does not mean outdoor access. “Free-range” implies some outdoor access, although it is probably very limited, and on dirt or concrete rather than pasture.
“Certified Humane” allows for natural behaviors, but debeaking is still permitted and outdoor access is not a requirement. “Certified Organic” includes organic, vegetarian feed (sometimes livestock gets fed ground-up livestock body parts that are unusable for humans), no use of antibiotics and no cages. Still, the requirement of outdoor access is fuzzy. As a side note, if your eggs are labeled “vegetarian fed,” the chickens may be mainly being fed grain feed, whereas in a natural environment, chickens eat vegetable matter and lots of invertebrates. All of that being said, aiming for Certified Organic and Certified Humane (if you can get it) ensure that some very basic humane practices are being followed.
So what can you do? If you’re not allowed in your area to have chickens or if livestock isn’t your thing, have hope. There is most certainly a number of local farms not far from your home and if any sell eggs, they should be willing to take you to meet the chickens. Humanely raised chickens don’t need acres to thrive, so don’t be put off by the thought of adequate space. My local farmer is more than happy to show off his hens and although they don’t have a ton of space, they can absolutely get adequate exercise, sunlight, and good grub. If your farmer doesn’t want you to see the hens, be suspicious. Check out farmers markets for an idea of who’s near you and what they have to offer.
If you want to raise your own chickens, it’s not that hard and most of the cost is in supplemental feed and the upfront cost of building a coop. Coops aren’t tough though, and many people supplement the chickens’ living space with moving “chicken tractors,” which are kind of like little coops on wheels that can be moved around your yard to increase the foraging space for your flock without taking up space permanently. (BTW, if you’re serious about raising chickens, check out this great article by Ducks & Clucks on the realities of having a flock.)
Most of us have the luxury of not thinking about where our food comes from, especially our meats, dairy, and eggs. It’s my opinion (and only that) that if you eat those things, you should understand how they are produced. If you eat eggs and don’t mind battery cages, then at least you’ve made an educated decision. People usually don’t want the responsibility of the effort of eating humanely raised products because it takes time, energy, and sometimes heartbreak to learn. But once you get through all that, you can make decisions that support a healthier planet, healthier animals, and your own health.
Here’s an activity for you: When you locate eggs that you feel have been humanely raised, go to the grocery store and buy some of the ridiculously cheap eggs. Crack one of each open in separate bowls and compare the differences. Healthier eggs from healthier chickens have a darker orange yolk, more solid whites, and stand up more firmly. Eggs from unhealthy chickens are runny, have blander yellow yolks, and don’t stand up very tall.
You can imagine how excited I am by the opportunity to try my hand at chicken-rearing and by the prospect of fresh eggs in my backyard. Thanks for reading, and enjoy these photos of adorable baby chicks!
Learn more about eggs and nutrition at the Exploratorium.
Mother Earth News is an amazing resource for learning about chickens, livestock rearing, eggs, and more. Use the search bar to find something you’re interested in!
United Poultry Concerns works to promote the respectful treatment of domestic fowl. Go activism!
Posted on March 4, 2011, in Connected Living, Fauna and tagged antibiotics, battery cage, beaks, cage free, chickens, conventional farming, disease, eggs, farm, free range, humanely raised, inhumane, nature, nutrition, organic, stress, vegetarian. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.