The Dark Side of Backyard Chickens

Every wannabe urban homesteader dreams of having a small flock of chickens in the backyard, hens that leave a daily gift of superfresh organic eggs. Backyard birds bestow something else, too: the satisfaction that comes from knowing they weren't doomed to suffer in the battery cages of an industrial egg farm. But there's also a dark side to urban coops, as Mary Britton Clouse, founder and president of Minneapolis-based Chicken Run Rescue, knows all too well.

In 2001, Britton Clouse founded Chicken Run as a shelter for roosters rounded up in cockfighting busts. A decade ago, Britton Clouse was finding homes for about 40 chickens annually. In 2008, that number shot up to 150. And last year, Chicken Run rescued almost 250 hens and roosters.

Why the massive jump? Britton Clouse blames the urban husbandry fad—a lot of backyard farmers find they just aren't set up to care for poultry. Among the things many beginners don't realize:

Many roosters probably died for your hens.

Few backyard farmers want roosters, which are aggressive and noisy (some cities have ordinances forbidding them in backyard coops). Yet mama chickens still insist on laying boy birds.

"For a demographic so enamored with the 'natural,' people are hopelessly ignorant about basic biology and chicken behavior," says Britton Clouse. "They all apparently missed biology class when the 50-50 principle that determines sex was taught. Otherwise intelligent people assume there is a magic process by which only hens are produced. Most never stop to wonder what happened to the boys."

What did happen to them was death. Hatcheries and commercial egg-breeding facilities attempt to sex chicks—that is, find out if they're male or female—at one or two days of age. "Male chicks are ground up alive or suffocated," says Susie Coston, national shelter director for Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, New York, which has also seen the number of rescue calls for chickens skyrocket since urban homesteading took hold.

By the way, sexing chicks isn't easy. An expensive DNA test is the only way to tell for sure, at least until the chicks are at least four months old. Many baby "hens" grow up to be roosters, a surprise to backyard farmers, who often end up dumping them on a rescue like Chicken Run. Callous hatcheries also use male chicks as "packing material." "We receive many surrender requests from people who received twice as many chicks as they ordered because males were added to the shipment to add body heat and cushioning during transport," notes Britton Clouse, a fan of roosters (she calls them "dogs with wings").

Chickens are expensive to care for.

Pastured eggs are so expensive at the store, you think you'll save money by raising them yourself. Indeed, hatchery chicks cost only a few bucks apiece, and they'll eat just about any food you give them. But there are other costs. "Chickens attract flies, bird mites and lice, mice, yard birds, squirrels, raccoons, dogs, coyotes, fox, mink, opossum, rats, owls, bobcats, hawks, snakes, weasels, ferrets, fishers, martens, and vandals," says Britton Clouse. Also, a vet visit for a sick bird starts at $50, assuming the vet even knows how to handle chickens.

Setting up a coop with maintenance, tools, cleaning equipment, heating and cooling appliances, dishes, nets, food storage, a scale, fencing, security locks, lighting, motion detectors, monitors, cameras, and a city permit to make sure the whole thing is legal costs about $5,000. Food, bedding, supplements, utilities, and vet care cost about $300 more per bird, Britton Clouse says.

In a previous post, urban homesteader Jennifer Reese, author of Make the Bread, Buy the Butter, estimated that after all of her chicken-keeping costs, she's spending $2.12 per pastured egg. You could save on some of these costs, of course, by treating your chickens cruelly. Sadly, Britton Clouse has seen chickens kept in freezing conditions, with missing toes from frostbite, or kept in tiny coops no better than the battery cages.

Hens don't lay forever.

Humans have bred chickens to be egg machines. Wild hens produce a few clutches of eggs yearly to replenish the flock, but starting at about six months, domesticated hens lay an egg daily. After about 18 months, egg production slows down, and eventually stops.

That's when Chicken Run Rescue or Farm Sanctuary typically gets a call, or when the homesteader kills the hen. Chickens can live for up to 15 years, same as a dog or a cat. Any homesteader serious about being humane needs to ask herself this: Am I OK with being a retirement home for nonlaying chickens? The chickens would surely prefer a yes.

Image source: Flickr member Bob n Renee under Creative Commons

Former CHOW contributor Joyce Slaton is an editor and writer in San Francisco. She takes her tea with sugar and milk and will sew you an apron if you ask nicely. Follow her on Twitter. Follow CHOW, too, and become a fan on Facebook.