Backyard Chickens: The Key Issues
A recent summary in Faunalytics’ Research Library outlined the increase in food recalls and a general decline in consumer trust in modern foods. This phenomenon and concerns about issues such as resource intensity and pollution commonly associated with factory farms have become the main drivers of the “locavore” movement. Attempting to minimize their individual carbon footprints and produce high-quality food for their families, locavores are often choosing to keep backyard chickens. Although touted as a prime example of local food production, keeping hens for their eggs can expose the birds to various welfare issues and threaten public health.
There are numerous issues that backyard hen keepers should be aware of. Common concerns include (but are not limited to) predation by wild birds or urban carnivores, bacterial and viral infections, and malnutrition. However, some injuries and deaths can be prevented by investing in proper housing solutions and ensuring high levels of hygiene and sanitation, and the keeper can take responsibility for providing adequate nutrition.
Hens who aren’t given hormonal implants to subdue their reproductive cycles are prone to developing nutrient deficiencies, most notably leading to the weakening of bones, or osteoporosis. This issue is extremely common in backyard birds because they’ve been bred to lay upwards of 300 eggs a year, compared to the 15 or so that their wild ancestors, junglefowl, lay.
The dynamic plays out similarly with selectively bred broiler chickens, who have essentially been mutated into the fast-growing birds they are today. This means that another common health hazard for backyard birds is obesity. Keepers are urged to monitor birds’ weight and ensure they have enough opportunity for exercise, in addition to giving them nutritionally complete feed.
However, backyard hen welfare issues aren’t limited to their lives in the coop. Should a keeper notice that a bird is ill or injured, they’ll often have trouble finding adequate veterinary care. Most vets aren’t trained in avian medicine, so the keeper will most likely be told to look for an exotic-animal expert.
Yes, you’ve read that right—exotic. More than 13 million Americans kept these “exotic” birds in 2013. Unfortunately, we don’t currently know how many of these chickens received regular or preventive vet care. Avian vets who do have the knowledge needed to treat backyard birds usually work for the commercial food industry, and their services aren’t available to the public out of fear of disease transmission.
Issues such as zoonotic disease and heavy metal contamination are especially pressing. One recent study revealed that backyard hen keepers might have an exaggerated sense of their knowledge of chicken health and well-being or simply might not have an adequate level of concern about potential risks. History has shown that diseases can spread from backyard birds to the public, so it’s vital that keepers gain access to information on healthcare practices and safe flock-management methods.
The problem of heavy metal contamination is a similar one. Few keepers can recognize the symptoms of lead poisoning, with arguably even fewer having tested their soils or the hens’ eggs for the presence of lead. This poses a significant risk that birds will become ill and that humans who eat their eggs will suffer from lead poisoning (children are particularly vulnerable), contradicting the principle that the urban locavore movement should be a trustworthy, safe source of healthy food.
Many backyard chicken keepers express that their relationship with the birds goes beyond that of farmer and farmed animals. As Lori Marino, a well-known neuroscientist and expert in animal behavior, writes in her famous scientific review, “Thinking chickens: A review of cognition, emotion, and behavior in the domestic chicken,” chickens are no less cognitively, emotionally, or socially complex than are other companion birds and mammals. This explains why it’s so common for keepers to develop a deep bond with chickens when they dedicate enough care and time to establishing that relationship. Many backyard hen keepers choose to rear birds themselves because they object to inhumane intensive farming methods and believe that they can provide chickens with better care. In fact, a research summary in the Faunalytics library touches upon the importance of farmed animals attaining companion-animal status. The author of the study argues that humans have a responsibility to care about the well-being of farmed and companion animals alike.
Although backyard flocks usually enjoy better welfare than factory-farmed chickens in terms of available space, coop enrichment, and longer lifespans, animal advocates will likely have some concerns about the increase in the number of people rearing these birds, many of whom are purpose-bred, not rescued from the commercial egg industry. There is certainly a knowledge gap among keepers, but farmed-animal sanctuaries (e.g., Farm Sanctuary) and vets are publishing more and more high-quality resources on chicken care—which could help address health and welfare issues.
It’s true that most people who keep hens do so in order to eat their eggs, but nonetheless, chickens might very well be on their way to companion-animal status. Looking to the future, some researchers suggest that farmed animals such as hens could be kept as companions while also being used as stem cell “donors” for clean-meat production.