In the past two years, shelters and sanctuaries around the country have witnessed a dramatic increase in their intake of chickens, particularly roosters. Hatcheries producing chicks for shipment to feed stores and individuals are backlogged with orders. The desire to keep chickens can be linked to organic farming and a desire to have direct access to eggs as well as to the sheer pleasure of keeping a few chickens as pets.
While it’s nice that real live chickens are making a comeback in some people’s minds and yards, the risks to the birds and communities involved are significant and need to be carefully evaluated before zoning ordinances are passed to permit people in the community to keep chickens. What looks like an idyllic pastime could become an unwelcome burden if care is not taken initially to ensure responsible husbandry practices and municipal regulation.
Many suburban chicken-keepers purchase their chickens by mail order from industrial hatcheries. People ordering chickens this way are often surprised at how sickly the birds are, not realizing that the hatchery experience plus the shipping ordeal weakens the birds’ immunity, predisposing them to illness and early death. Hatcheries that mass-produce chicks for feedstores and backyard flocks treat the birds and their offspring the way puppy mills treat breeding dogs and their puppies. Since there are no welfare laws regulating these operations, suppliers’ website images of green grass, sunny skies and happy chickens are more likely fictitious than true.
As well as the hatchery experience, airmail shipping takes a toll on the birds’ wellbeing. Birds shipped by airmail are often deprived of food and water for up to 72 hours or more, while being exposed to extreme temperatures and rough handling in their shipping crates. Even birds who survive these traumas and deprivations may be permanently debilitated, particularly if they become dehydrated during long flights and airport layovers. This can lead to the abandonment of hens who don’t thrive or are not laying enough eggs to please their purchasers.
But this isn’t all. Many people are shocked to discover that their order of female chicks includes unwanted roosters in the shipping box. Hatcheries frequently use rooster chicks as packing material - they call them “packers” - regardless of whether male birds were ordered, and chicken sexing is often done incorrectly. Ordinances permitting chicken-keeping put purchasers in the position of having to find homes for their unwanted roosters. Because good homes for roosters are very hard to find (most good homes already have as many roosters as they can handle), most roosters end up being turned loose or dumped at shelters, where they are typically killed, having nowhere to go.
The rooster problem is compounded by the fact that most incorporated or urban regions that do allow chickens to be kept allow only hens. Municipalities that have passed, or are considering passing, ordinances to allow chicken-keeping are restricting the flocks to hens only, even though half of all chicks born are male.
Sickly birds, unwanted roosters, and people getting tired of their pet chickens have already resulted in thousands of castoff birds, many desperately in need of veterinary care. Buyers who were led to believe that keeping chickens would be “easy” are surprised to discover that chickens actually demand much more care than they realized. In deciding whether to keep chickens, it is imperative to make sure at the outset that they will have good veterinary care, which can be expensive. Chickens need predator-proof housing and yards with nest areas, roosts and natural sunlight. Their living quarters require daily cleaning and maintenance, yet even the cleanest coop attracts rodents who enjoy the free food and straw bedding.
Municipal shelters run on tight budgets dealing with animal cruelty cases, dangerous dog calls, and the normal day to day operation of their facilities. Adding an extra burden, like enforcing chicken licensing laws and related complaints could divert scant resources from other animal care services. All of this needs to be considered in determining whether to allow chicken-keeping in a community.
Chickens can be wonderful companions. Roosters are cheerful and hens are heartwarming creatures. If responsible people want to keep a few chickens, and the zoning allows it, the best way is to adopt birds from a shelter or sanctuary and be ready to provide the quality care, including veterinary care, that chickens need and deserve.
Karen Davis, PhD is president of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl. www.upc-online.org