Chicken Care Information
Hens from the egg industry
There are currently between 250-300 million hens used to produce eggs in the United States. Before bringing a bird home, it is important to understand from where she came.
All chickens sold commercially for egg production, private purchase or meat production are born in hatcheries. Normally, a chick is born in a nest with her mother providing warmth. She learns how to be a chicken from her mother, father and other flockmates. On commercial operations, however, it is impossible for her to develop an appropriate knowledge of a normal chicken flock.
Approximately 150-200 million hen chicks are born and used for egg production. The sex ratio at birth is 50:50 that is, half of all chicks born are male, half are female. The other 150-200 million male chicks are of no commercial value to producers. They do not produce eggs, there is no market for them as pets or for their flesh, and it requires very few roosters to re-impregnate the breeding females.
All male chicks are killed the day they are sexed, 1-2 days of age. There are no laws dictating method of slaughter. Most are processed through an industrial grinder while fully conscious. Others are gassed to death or placed in plastic bags and suffocated.
Chickens maintain a dynamic social structure. There are dominant birds and submissive ones. This social hierarchy, or pecking order, can only be fairly maintained with appropriate space available for the submissive animal to escape.
But 99% of hens in the egg industry are confined in such a manner that a normal social structure is impossible. 95-98% of all hens are confined in battery cages, wire enclosures housing 5-8 hens at a time. The remaining 1-2% are primarily housed in what are called "cage-free" operations, "free-range" operations or pasture operations.
In both caged and cage-free operations, all hens are debeaked. The first 1/3-1/2 of the chicken's beak is seared off. Research into avian physiology has, for decades, established that the beaks' of chickens contain nerve endings that can sense pain. There is no doubt debeaking is painful. When done improperly, which can happen frequently at high-volume hatcheries, a painful neuroma can develop. This is a bundle of scar tissue which contains highly sensitized nerve endings ? the bird is constantly uncomfortable.
Most hens arriving at Animal Place's Rescue Ranch are from cage or cage-free operations and have thus undergone the painful debeaking process. Please see the Care Instructions below for how to appropriately care for these birds. Some hens arriving at Rescue Ranch are from free-range or pasture operations and have not been debeaked.
It is illegal to give chickens growth hormones, so the high rate of production found in strains used for egg production are the results of breeding. The average White Leghorn on commercial egg farms is laying 270-300 eggs a year. This is 3-5 times more than non-production hens. With high egg output comes health problems, all associated with egg production. Osteoporosis and low Calcium levels are common, as are egg-related disorders including egg-yolk peritonitis and ovarian cancer.
Caring for Hens from the Egg Industry
Lifespan Due to high egg production, these hens may have medical problems that reduce their natural lifespan. Healthy birds may live to be ten or older. Most live between 2-7 years.
Nutrition Hens in the egg-laying industry have been bred to produce an unnatural quantity of eggs, leaching from their bodies more calcium than in other breeds of chickens. This means they have a higher than normal need for calcium and protein.
For this reason, we suggest the following:
Commercial Grade Non Medicated Layer Crumble: We suggest offering it ad lib/freely or monitor weight and adjust feed accordingly. You can find this in most feed stores. You can search for organic feed as well. Diets high in corn can lead to fat deposits and liver problems in these hens, so please avoid "chicken scratch" as the primary food source for hens from the egg industry.
Fresh Vegetables & Fruit: Lettuce, chard, grapes, corn, melons are examples of appropriate food. Avocado is poisonous, please do not feed.
Grit & Sunflower seeds: Grit is key for digestion and sunflower seeds can add good fat and calcium to your hens' diet.
Boiled Eggs: Consider boiling up the eggs laid, crushing them and feeding them back to the hens. This provides much needed calcium and protein. In the wild, chickens will always eat a cracked egg ? besides finding it tasty, eating the egg reduces the risk of predator detection.
Debeaking As mentioned above, the hens you adopt are most likely debeaked. This can cause lifelong pain for the hen. She will have difficulty eating and preening. She may remain "ratty" in appearance for some time because of her inability to preen properly. It is imperative to use deep dishes filled with layer crumble for ease of feeding. Even debeaked, these hens are able to defend themselves from other birds but may be at a disadvantage. Carefully monitor initial interactions between debeaked birds and beaked ones.
Water: Birds should have access to fresh, clean water at all times. You can purchase poultry waterers at your local feed store.
Dust-bathing: Chickens love to dust-bathe. This keeps the bird clean and prevents some parasites. If a natural dust-bathing area is unavailable, create your own with a litterbox filled with dirt and diatomaceous earth.
Quarantine: We suggest you keep your new birds separate for at least 2-3 weeks prior to introduction. This will give the birds time to adjust to their new environment and also time to gain muscle strength. Wash your hands before and after handling new birds. Keep the new birds out of visual and physical contact with current birds.
Perching: It is both an instinctive and learned behavior, serving as predator protection at night. Hens from battery cages have never perched and have spent two years in a wire cage. Their muscle development is poor and their bones weak.
Perch Height: Initially provide perches 3-6" off the ground until hens are physically able to perch. This can take several weeks. This may mean keeping your new arrivals separate from other birds until perching becomes natural.
Teaching to Perch: Unfortunately some hens will avoid perching unless taught by you or other birds. At night, if the hens are calm, we suggest gently placing each hen on a low perch so that she learns. Some hens will take to perching easily, others will do so after seeing other birds do it, others require assistance from you
Clumping: Hens from battery cages have only known close confinement with other hens. Suddenly being placed in an enriched, free environment can be overwhelming. If you are adopting multiple birds, you may discover them clustering or clumping at night. This is a safety hazard and is best avoided ? hens can smother each other. This is not because they are stupid but because they have endured significant trauma and are exhibiting what they've experienced as "normal".
Avoiding clustering: Place hens on perches (3-6" off ground) at night, which will teach them to perch and also to avoid clumping. Oftentimes if you catch hens right when they are about to sleep and they are clumping, simply "un-clump" and place next to one another. Some hens see what other birds in your flock are doing and adjust their behavior.
Nest Boxes: Initially, your hens may not want/know where to lay eggs. Regardless, provide nesting areas. You should have one nest box for every 2-4 hens. A good size is 12x12x12" or larger. You may initially want to have the nest boxes near the ground so the hens do not exert themselves jumping. A perch bar should be installed in front of all nest boxes.
Roosters: If you have roosters in your flock, we strongly encourage you to keep these new hens separate from the rooster for several weeks. Caged hens are weak from lack of exercise and inadequate nutrition. Their bones can break easily, even when mounted by bantam roosters.
Predator Proofing: Chickens are prey animals and must be provided ample protection from predators, both ground and aerial. Coops should be four-sided and fully enclosed. Fencing should be minimum of 6', taller is preferred. Fence openings should be less than 2". If digging predators, like dogs or coyotes, are prevalent, install no-dig fencing along the bottom of the fence (this can be above ground fencing or below-ground). Bobcats, cats, weasels and raccoons are climbing predators and if they are present, string barbed wire across the top or install roller-bars or predator-proof fencing. It is virtually impossible to predator proof against mountain lions.