Chickens - Egglaying Hens
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Humanity has debased egg-laying hens to the level of fertilizer and cheapo egg makers.
Humans have made chickens the most common and widespread bird on Earth. There are at least 50 billion chickens worldwide (see Chicken Statistics). Egg-laying hens number about six billion of this figure (see Table below) and their eggs are the most commonly eaten bird egg.
Chickens are domesticated descendants of the red junglefowl (Gallus gallus
) that lives in south-east Asia. The parental needs of domesticated hens are fundamentally the same as their wild ancestors.
For every billion female chicks a billion male chicks must die. See below: Male Chicks.
A free-living domestic hen searches for a suitable site to make a nest. When she finds a site she scrapes a hollow and gradually builds up her nest. After laying a number of eggs she starts incubating them. Before the chicks have hatched they 'talk' to each other, she clucking and they peeping back. The unhatched chicks entice their mother to turn the eggs over and call her back if she leaves the nest. After hatching, she runs about clucking and pecking the ground, showing her brood how to get food and what to eat. Should chicks stray, she rounds them up and keeps them warm at night under her wings. After six to eight weeks they roost together in the trees and after a further four to six weeks she leaves them to rejoin the other adult fowl.
A red junglefowl lays 12 to 20 eggs a year. The chicken industry breeds domestic hens to lay nearly 300 eggs a year. A red junglefowl can live several years in the wild. A commercial egg-laying hen lives up to one year then goes for slaughter, worn out by egg-laying.
The chicken industry divides the domestic hen into three groups. The industry breeds egg-laying hens for egg production, broilers for their meat, and retains a few hens as breeding stock to make the next year's crop of egg-layers and broilers. All males, except for a few breeders, have no use alive and die as chicks for use in various products (see Male Chicks, below).
- The US has 280,000,000 egg-laying hens.
- They lay 86 billion eggs annually (annual average 1999-2003).
- On average each American eats 250 eggs a year.
- 99 percent of egg-laying hens are caged.
- Most egg farms each hold 75,000 or more egg-laying hens.
- Some egg farms hold one to five million egg-laying hens.
- Britain has 30,000,000 egg-laying hens.
- They lay nine billion eggs annually.
- 22 million are caged hens.
- Two million are barn hens.
- Five million are free-range hens.
Number of egg-laying hens in the top five egg production countries and worldwide.
||Numbers Of Hens
Egg-laying SystemsHens in commercial egg production begin their lives at a chicken-breeding farm. Then at around 20 weeks of age they start a new life of egg-laying and transfer to one of three systems: cage (sometimes called 'battery') system, barn system and free-range system.
Tens of thousands of hens live permanently in cages in a long dark shed. Hens are crammed several to a cage so tightly they cannot stretch a wing. Numerous sheds like this make up a chicken farm.
Cages are staggered in tiers three to six high and made of wire mesh so that droppings pass through for easy removal (see photo below). Eggs roll away for collection out of reach of the hens on the cages' slopping floors. Feeding, watering, heating, ventilation and electric lighting are automated. No one gives hens individual care because they are cheap and expendable. Workers chuck out seriously ill hens to die with those already dead.
Hens packed together in the same cage. Note the laid eggs rolled for collection into the gutter. Courtesy Farm Sanctuary.
Hens live confined in huge, long, dusty, windowless sheds called barns or percheries. A battery chicken farm consists of many shed like this. Within a shed the hens have litter areas, nest boxes and rows of perches. In theory hens are free to roam about a shed but with up to 16,000 hens per shed there is practically no room. Care and feeding regimes are the same as for hens in the cage system. After a few weeks poultry hands clear out the chickens for slaughter and clean and disinfect the sheds for the next batch of hens.
'Free-range' suggests that hens live unhindered in green and pleasant fields. Indeed, during daylight hours hens can exercise in fresh air, see real sunlight and get environmental stimulation. But there are downsides. Free-range farms may pack thousands of hens into a few semi-barren acres. (Some countries try to prevent overcrowding with a maximum legal density, eg 1,000 hens per hectare or 2.5 acres in Britain). On large farms less than half the hens may actually venture outside their housing, which can be as poor as the barn system. The lives of free-range hens are as short as caged and barn hens; after about a year of egg-laying they go for slaughter. A variant free-range system is organic free-range, whereby the hens live on organic land and eat organic food.
WelfareThe living conditions of hens, especially caged and barn hens, ensures hens suffer a wide range of mind and body health problems. Some constant problems are:
Caged hens especially cannot fulfil basic behavioural needs such as wing flapping, dust bathing, scratching and pecking the ground, perching and nest-building, and laying eggs in a nest. A domestic hen never sees a rooster (her eggs, the ones you see in supermarkets, are unfertilised, though with the same nutritional value as fertilised eggs).
Hens suffer brittle bones that break easily. The cause is living without sunlight or exercise in cages and barns and a constant loss of calcium by laying so many eggs (shells are made mostly of calcium). They die from paralysis and starvation (unable to reach food) if stock keepers do not find and kill them.
Caged hens cannot scratch the ground to keep their claws trim. Their claws grow long and twisted and may get trapped in the wire floor of their cage. The hens may then starve or dehydrate to death unable to reach food and water. Stock workers sometimes cut off claws to prevent injury.
Cannibalism & Debeaking
Hens peck and attack each other in their packed cages and barns and suffer serious wounds and feather loss. Ultimately it ends in cannibalism when birds constantly peck a downed bird's wounds. Debeaking is the chicken industry's response to try and diminish this problem - part of a chick's upper beak is sliced off ('no pecker - no problem'). Farm hands debeak birds without applying anaesthetic and hens suffer acute and chronic pain; some die from shock. Beaks are sensitive to touch and contain pain receptors (birds feed by pecking and preen themselves with their beaks so they must feel what they are doing). Without a functioning beak a bird must endure a poor life.
Free-range hens are also at risk. They suffer pecking and cannibalism at some 'free-range' farms and are similarly debeaked.
End of Hens
Diseased and stressed the hens suffer a high death rate during their egg laying life. Possibly up to a quarter die. After twelve months of egg-laying the rest are sent for slaughter because they are too weak to continue as egg-layers - they are 'spent'. Being very cheap they finish up in pet food and low-priced human food.
End of Hens
At the end of her egg-laying life a hen is ready for the abattoir. A stock worker grabs her by a leg upside down. Workers gather up hens four or five per hand and pack them into small crates. Bones often brake in the process. Workers stack the crates high in a truck. The hens suffocate for hours in hot weather before the journey begins. Abruptly wrenched out of her crate at the slaughterhouse more bones may break. Day and night 'chicken-hangers' shackle thousands of hens upside down by a leg on an endless conveyer line for automated stunning and dismemberment. (See Transport & Slaughter in Chickens – Broiler Hens.)
A chicken hanger reaches into a cage to pull out another chicken to hang on the conveyer line at a slaughterhouse. Courtesy Farm Sanctuary.
For every female chick in the egg-laying industry there is a male chick. But male chicks are unwanted and must be eliminated. So neck dislocation or decapitation follows for male chicks soon after hatching; or for very large numbers poisoning by carbon dioxide (CO2) gas or mashing alive in a mechanical mincer. Thus for every billion hens, a billion male chicks must die. They go into animal feed, pet food, cheap human food and fertiliser.
LabellingMost labels on egg cartons in the US have little bearing on welfare, no legal enforcement of standards, and serve to confuse. In Britain, eggs from caged hens are sometimes deceptively labelled 'farm-fresh' or 'country-fresh' and their true origin is not stated. However, under new legislation egg producers in the European Union must, irrespective of sales blurbs, label their eggs:
- Battery eggs are from caged hens
- Barn eggs are barn eggs
- Free-range eggs are free-range
- But few people read the little labels or wonder what the wording means.
MoralityWelfare workers have tried tirelessly to ban cages. Now European Union law bans cages from 2012 (the Laying Hens Directive). However, the chicken industry fought back and the cage system continues with 'enriched' cages. These are slightly bigger than normal cages and include a nest, perches and some sort of litter for the hens to peck and scratch. So the old system remains much the same and hen suffering continues.
People give some animals a modicum of consideration, but they give chickens virtually nothing. Crammed into cages or densely packed into sheds, their eggs constantly removed, hens cannot engage in even the most elementary nest-building and mothering behaviour. Even such a fundamental act as stretching their wings is denied them. These are sentient animals, subjects of a life who can suffer and deserve moral standing as much as any other creature. Yet they are granted no rights and their treatment flies in the face of the Five Freedoms of animal welfare.
The chicken industry is a microcosm of man's inhumanity to animals. Humanity gains by keeping a massive human population in as many eggs as it can use and waste in foolish pursuits. In the quest for efficiency and maximum production the chicken industry has lost all touch with its roots on the traditional animal farm and has abandoned every notion of virtue. The industry and the public who willingly, unknowingly or uncaringly support this industry represent humanity at its moral worst. Eating battery and barn eggs (and eggs from dubious free-range farms) is a trivial indulgence of already well fed people that costs hens intolerable lives and appalling deaths.
Also see the entries Chickens - Broiler Hens, and Factory Farming.
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