Is the Hen Trend about to End?

» February 22nd, 2013

Is it my imagination or is the trend of keeping backyard chickens on the wane? This is obviously a very difficult thing to measure. But I ask the question for a basic reason. In the last month two hen keepers I know well have announced that they’re phasing hens out of their lives. Not a statistically significant sample, but perhaps a harbinger?

Both have found safe homes for many, but not all, of their birds. The ones that remain behind, not surprisingly, are finished laying eggs and, because it would traumatize the kids,they’re also immune to becoming dinner. They are, in essence, a major headache. One that will be around for another decade  for these well-intentioned but misled locavores.

Unlike my friends, many hen keepers acquired their birds on a lark. They saw a show on television, read an article or two, digested one too many foodie books, or decided they had to “know where my food comes from.” The wave of support that encouraged the hen trend abjectly failed to come with warning labels. It’s sooo easy, everyone said. And now the truth is coming home to roost: it’s not.  There are realities that the media never mentioned. These birds might be self-sufficient in the wild, but not in your little crabgrass frontier.

Chickens get killed by dogs, hawks, snakes, and foxes. That’s a bummer. The kids get attached to the chickens and when they stop laying eggs you cannot slaughter them without racking up psychological bills for life. When you head to the Cape for the summer, you now have to pay someone to care for them. Your colleagues get over the novelty of eating local eggs. The calm hen turned out to be a crazy rooster and your neighbors now hate you.  Hen or rooster, their poop sort of stinks.

Humans may be gullible but we’re not stupid. Given that enough clueless consumers bought hens, and given that the downsides have had plenty of time to sink in, perhaps we can take some solace in the prospect that maybe, just maybe, my friends aren’t alone in saying “never again.”

tomorrow: a report on my bill and lou project (and a request)

26 Responses to Is the Hen Trend about to End?

  1. John T. Maher says:

    another middle class fad

  2. John T. Maher says:

    hey it posted! my morrisey comment would not post yesterday which led me to suspect i was blocked! thank goodness i am not, but that raises the question: am i pushing the frontiers of argument enough if i am still permitted to post?

    hens are a disposable middle class fad (See, Harriet Ritvo, The Animal Estate). Hens confer a sort of faux utilitarian greenwashed status upon middle class hipsters. they are being abandoned in much the same way as humans will sometimes abandon a more traditional companion animal. i found such a one in an urban park and had to scramble to find her a home before my dogs ate her.

    in closing i argue it will happen again as humans reinvent history to reflect how they want to see themselves. maybe it will be sheep or goats next time

    • James says:

      John,
      I would end my blog before I blocked you!
      J

      • Mountain says:

        If the hen trend is about to end, that would be a shame, my friend.

        Baselines matter. Every chicken that is being raised in someone’s backyard is living a better life than a chicken raised on an industrial farm– whether caged, cage-free, free-range, or broiler. And that’s in spite of the fact that many backyard chicken people are ignorant of how to properly care for chickens, and therefore are causing more harm than they need to.

        The choice for the vast majority of chicken keepers is: eggs from industrial farms or from backyard chickens. So the hen trend, in spite of its problems, has led to less harm being done to chickens. That’s worth keeping in mind even as you critique it.

        • Lori says:

          It’s not necessarily this choice. There are many who choose not to eat any eggs and thereby not support any type of exploitation. Less demand = less breeding, less abuse. Mountain, do you really think that backyard chicken eggs will replace all industrial product use and need? How’s that gonna work exactly?

          • Mountain says:

            It is necessarily this choice. The (as James put it) “clueless consumers” who bought hens were almost certainly egg eaters. Vegans are 2-3 percent of the population, and (one would think) less likely to raise backyard chickens, so we can confidently predict that 97% or more of backyard chicken keepers were egg eaters even before they starting keeping chickens. By raising those chickens in their backyards, those chickens had better lives than they would have had in industrial egg farms. That’s a really freaking low bar, but it is what it is.

            Chickens may have been better off had these people chosen to be vegan instead of chicken keepers. That’s an empirical question, but it’s entirely plausible. But that’s not what most of these people were deciding. Their question was: keep buying eggs from the store, or keep some chickens in the backyard? And by choosing to keep backyard chickens, they made life better (or less bad) for those chickens.

          • Mountain says:

            I don’t think backyard chicken eggs will replace all industrial eggs, though they could if enough people cared. More likely, the egg industry could be taken down by a network of farms that operate much like ours.

            Approximately 50 chickens can feed themselves on an acre of land, even while that land is growing other crops (easiest with tree crops like fruits & nuts, but doable even with row crops). There are approximately 300 million chickens living in industrial cages to supply the eggs America eats. 300 million chickens could live without cages, feeding themselves on just 6 million acres of land (there are currently more than 900 million acres of farmland, so this would be less than 1% of all farmland), without needing to do anything other than be chickens, and without diminishing the amount of food grown on those 6 million acres.

            I don’t know how to fix most of the agricultural industries in America, but it’s obvious to me how to fix the egg industry. I don’t see much interest, from either farmers or vegans, so I’m just going to continue doing it myself. In time, I believe the farm will be successful enough that others will start farming like we do. But if not, I’ll be happy living & working on a farm that looks & feels like an animal sanctuary, but runs like a successful business.

          • Lori says:

            Mountain, I think you are dreaming about how many people could and would have backyard chickens and how easy it is. I’ve seen evidence to the contrary…lots of it. Most backyard chickens need their feed supplemented, firstly. Secondly, I’ve seen them devastate gardens (you know how they love to dig and scratch and they certainly love to eat some of the tasty veggies too.) Urban egg eaters are not going to be able to have chickens, and I don’t care what you say, it ain’t gonna happen. There might be a way to have a coop, but even that is implausible for most busy urbanites. And that is where the majority of the population lives. As I see it, busy people are much more likely to stop eating eggs than hassle with driving or going on a separate trip to get a friend or associate’s backyard chicken eggs. (And most eggs at farmers markets are from businesses that, even if they are “pastured” chickens, are replaced and killed after a couple of years.

            I have no personal issues with people eating eggs from their own or family/friend’s rescued chickens, but I do have issues with it if the chicken aren’t rescues. Considering time factors and the latest reports about the ill-health effects of eating lots of eggs, I think it is more prudent and more likely to convince people to stop eating eggs than to convince them to have backyard chickens.

          • Mountain says:

            Lori, I’m not sure who you’re arguing with, but it isn’t me. As I said, “I don’t think backyard chicken eggs will replace all industrial eggs.” All the issues you bring up could be dealt with if people cared enough, but people don’t.

            In the meantime, I’ll go on and feed people eggs that have been raised without harm, and you go on advocating for veganism. In our own ways, we’ll each pull people away from the egg industry.

  3. Layne says:

    Hi,

    I just wanted to share my experience with my three pet hens here in Vancouver. They were rescued on their way to slaughter after spending 15 months in a battery cage operation. Upon arrival here they were scrawny, bloody, featherless (almost) and terrified of humans. Now, 14 months later, they are beautiful, fluffy, friendly, and enjoying the run of my (fenced) back yard when I am home. Otherwise, they have a little “penthouse” with a runway, where they spend their nights and time when i am away from home.

    It’s true that it’s necessary to find someone to pay to clean their coop and feed them every day should I go away. But I’m not a traveller anyway. The great thing about having them is, aside from their beauty and charm, that many children and parents come to my home (I am a piano teacher) and they are delighted to watch the hens and generally marvel at their delicacy (and their songs!) My hope is that the next time they see a plastic-wrapped thigh or breast they will look at it differently.

    Layne

  4. Tiffany says:

    I hope you’re right that this fad is on the decline. I have 4 rescued hens and 8 rescued ducks — all of them are refugees from the so-called “sustainable urban farm” movement. Now if only we can convince everyone to stop treating chickens like disposable egg machines.

  5. Doug says:

    I dunno, I’m not a vegan, so I like getting my eggs from my own hens, who are pampered. They seem like very happy creatures.

  6. Mountain says:

    Well, I certainly hope it loses the buzz that makes annoyingly shallow people decide they just “have to” do something without thinking it through.

    That said, it really is sooo easy. If chickens aren’t self-sufficient in your yard, there may be something wrong with your yard; I mean, they live on weeds & bugs. They can be killed by predators, but that’s true in (and of) nature. And their poop, well– if you’ve got functional, permeable surfaces in your yard, even that doesn’t stink. If you’ve got concrete & brick & plastic, then yes, it will sit there and stink.

    But people complicate things needlessly.

    • Lori says:

      Mountain, even though “wild’ chickens may have been eaten by predators, I do hope you are doing everything in your power to protect your chickens from that fate. After all, they are NOT wild now. :-)

      • Mountain says:

        It’s within my power to lock the chickens up in cages to keep them safe from predators, but I would never do that. It’s within my power, but not within my rights (as I see them).

        I’m building fences, though I’m a little conflicted on that– they do interfere with the free movement of sentient beings (coyotes), after all. But I like chickens (and ducks, and goats) better than coyotes, and I’m willing to accept that level of speciesism.

        Finally, I’m not so sure the chickens aren’t wild. They certainly aren’t truly feral, but wild is debatable. They are free to move about the property and hone their senses; the predator pressure is greatly diminished, but it isn’t eliminated completely, and the chickens seem to understand that.

        Long story short, I’m doing what I can. But there is a trade-off between freedom and security (for humans or any other animal), and I want to trade away as little freedom as possible.

        • Lori says:

          It just seems to me that if we take on the responsibility of having chickens then we should take on the responsibility of keeping them safe and healthy. At Animal Place, we let the chickens and turkeys run around in the day, but put them in safe stalls in barns at night. They like it. They like to settle down and roost at night. And it seems to me, they like to feel safe.

          • Mountain says:

            We have a secure shed they stay in at night. But there are predators during the day, too, just not as many.

            Again, I’m trying to provide as much security as possible, without interfering with their freedom. I like that they have a secure roosting space at night, and I’m happy they all go there of their own accord, but if a chicken showed a clear interest in roosting outside in a tree at night, I’d have to at least consider letting her. I don’t like the idea, but we could all stand to be more hands-off, and let them do what their instincts tell them they should do.

  7. Coleen says:

    I don’t think it’s on the decline at all. Sounds like you have freinds who didn’t think it through in the first place. Unfortunately there are many who do that. There are also many who don’t care about the date if make chicks and treat their hens like either living egg factories or dinner. Thankfully there are many of us who aren’t like that at all.

  8. Karen Davis says:

    Let’s not blame hens for stinking poop. Human excrement smells much worse and in modern society, we avoid our own excrement by flushing it down the toilet (but it doesn’t just “go away”). Imagine if our own excrement were in the public domain (as traditionally it has been and still is in many parts of the world). The victims of the hen-keeping craze are the hens and the roosters and their progeny.

    If chicken droppings are a problem, this is because their human captors don’t clean the coops every day as those of us who run responsible sanctuaries for abused and neglected chickens do. Chicken droppings in an open yard and wooded area are not a problem at all. These scattered droppings conribute niitrogen to the good of the soil and the foliage.

    Every misery chickens suffer from, every “problem” ascribed to them, is caused by human beings. We are the culprits. We create the misery and the mess. Chickens evolved in the tropical forests we are destroying. They are clean, vibrant birds. Their minds and behavior, free of our intervention, are sane and healthy. They are excellent parents.

    I look forward to the day when chickens and all other animal species are free of our destructive influence.

    Karen Davis, PhD, President, United Poultry Concerns.
    http://www.upc-online.org

  9. Karen Davis says:

    Typos fixed.

    Let’s not blame hens for stinking poop. Human excrement smells much worse and in modern society, we avoid our own excrement by flushing it down the toilet (but it doesn’t just “go away”). Imagine if our own excrement were in the public domain (as traditionally it has been and still is in many parts of the world). The victims of the hen-keeping craze are the hens and the roosters and their progeny.

    If chicken droppings are a problem, this is because their human captors don’t clean the coops every day as those of us who run responsible sanctuaries for abused and neglected chickens do. Chicken droppings in an open yard and wooded area are not a problem at all. These scattered droppings contribute nitrogen to the good of the soil and the foliage.

    Every misery chickens suffer from, every “problem” ascribed to them, is caused by human beings. We are the culprits. We create the misery and the mess. Chickens evolved in the tropical forests we are destroying. They are clean, vibrant birds. Their minds and behavior, free of our intervention, are sane and healthy. They are excellent parents.

    I look forward to the day when chickens and all other animal species are free of our destructive influence.

    Karen Davis, PhD, President, United Poultry Concerns.
    http://www.upc-online.org

    • Mountain says:

      Just a point about cleaning the coops: in the wild, chickens don’t clean their roosting spaces every day, but they choose spaces where that isn’t a problem– typically, up in trees with substantial leaf litter below. If people emulate that with their coop designs (roosts up high, absorbent carbon material below), they can spend far less time cleaning. Just turn over the carbon material (we mostly use sawdust) every couple days, and add some fresh material once or twice a week.

      I point this out because many people seem to think chicken keeping demands lots of time, but it really doesn’t. I don’t want fear of time demands to keep people from rescuing chickens. One hour per week is plenty of time to keep a few chickens in clean & sanitary conditions.

  10. Lori says:

    Everyone on this thread is correct. Having chickens can be easy or difficult. It depends upon many factors, not the least of which are: your yard/facilities (i.e. fencing, coops, grass, land, etc.), how careful/caring you are with your chickens (i.e., are you going to let predators get them or are you going to protect them?), how many chickens and roosters you have, and how much time you have or are willing to invest in them.

    I don’t know if keeping chickens is on the rise or decline, but one thing we and everyone should keep in mind is that having any animal, whether it be a chicken, dog or horse, comes with huge responsibilities to make sure the animal is healthy and happy. We know that many people take on animals and do not take great care of them. And unfortunately, it’s usually the ones who don’t think things through before obtaining an animal who are guilty of abandonment, abuse and neglect.

  11. Kent Price says:

    Your friends’ experience pretty much parallels my son’s family’s. But they live in Long Beach, in SoCal.

    My wife and I live on 43 acres in semi-rural Maine, and we have had a mostly happy experience with hens for 27 years now. The eggs are great (we sell quite a few) and we never slaughter any chickens, save for the roosters the chick company sometimes sends. When the ladies are through laying, they live out their lives in leisure, free of responsibilities. I enjoy “Eating Plants” enormously. Thanks!

    • Mountain says:

      Hi Kent,

      I would recommend not slaughtering the roosters that get sent occasionally. They are more adventurous than the hens, and will likely run across predators before they have a chance to get to your hens. It sounds like you have plenty of space for them to gather all their own food, so if cost is an issue, there’s no need to provide any chicken feed for them. Finally, well, they’re roosters, so they provide the opportunity to grow or renew your flock without having to rely on a hatchery.

  12. Bea Elliott says:

    The hens in the Elliott flock came by way of extreme abuse to a place of relative safety and tons of love! They’re not going anywhere if/when those daily secretions stop. It would break my heart not to have their beautiful fluffy bodies enthusiastically greeting me when I enter “their” yard.

    Now – What will probably further end this quasi “humane” fad of keeping chickens for eggs? I’m betting/hoping it’s Beyond Eggs – http://www.cok.net/blog/2013/02/new-company-shells-out-innovation-taking-us-beyond-eggs/

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