It is remarkable how often the sounds that birds make suggest the emotions that we might feel in similar circumstances: soft notes like lullabies while calmly warming their eggs or nestlings; mournful cries while helplessly watching an intruder at their nests; harsh or grating sounds while threatening or attacking an enemy…Birds so frequently respond to events in tones such as we might use that we suspect their emotions are similar to our own. From the book, “Minds of birds”.
The lives of battery hens has been the subject of much media attention over many years. In response, many countries have banned the practice of battery cages but in Australia there are many millions of egg laying hens still confined in these small battery cages. The cages provide an area the size of an A4 page for each hen.
In crowded factory farms the hens engage in aggressive behaviors so de-beaking or beak trimming is deemed necessary. This is achieved using hot iron or laser carried out while the bird is fully conscious. The practice is deemed essential by the farm operators as the birds in such unnaturally confined conditions are likely to cannibalize each other. Learn more about battery hens here. This leads us to so called free range as an alternative.
Free range eggs
To address the public concern with battery cages, a market for “free range” eggs has emerged. Other terms like “cage free” and “barn laid” are also used in the market place.
Currently free range eggs represent about 20% of the Australian market. For the ethically minded consumer one difficulty is the unclear definition of free range in Australia. Animals Australia reports that the reality is quite different to the free range image seen in the media. To learn more about free range eggs click here.
As with any business, profit is a high priority and that means working out ways to cut costs. One way this is done is to fit as many birds in to a small space as is allowed by law. Today, free range chickens are raised in sheds of up to 120,000 chickens, with many never finding their way to the outside. De-beaking described in the section on caged eggs, is still allowed and even required in some cases since the birds are still in very close confinement so are at risk of feather picking and cannibalizing each other.
Hens can naturally live up to 10 years, but in the egg industry, from as young as 18 months, when their egg production slows, hens in all commercial egg farms (including free range) are packed into transport crates and trucked to a slaughter facility.
So with the high demand for eggs and the need to be profitable there is a constant demand for new hens. This creates another ethical concern which applies to every type of egg facility whether it cage, free range or organic. Read more about the related hen breeding operations operations below.
Breeding of hens for commercial egg operations
All egg farms whether they are cage operations, free range, or even small backyard operations, require an ongoing supply of new hens. In these hen breeding facilities, by a fact of nature 50% of the hatchlings are male. These males are of no value so are disposed of by either gassing or taken maceration (they are ground up alive). Read more about chick maceration here.
It is a common belief that backyard chickens provide an ethical way to consume eggs. Superficially this appears to make sense, if the hens are rescued from slaughter. There are however major ethical considerations and concerns as follows:
- Backyard chickens must come from somewhere. Unless they are rescued, this will be the same hen breeding facilities discussed above. Read more about male chick disposal here.
- Hens will stop laying eggs as they get older. Their output will drop significantly long before they would normally die. Therefore every owner of backyard chickens who want to eat eggs will either kill the hens, or end up with many hens that lay no (or very few) eggs. Note a healthy bird will live approximately 10 years but will stop laying long before that time. Hens rescued from crowded factory farms may die much younger due to poor health from the conditions they have endured.
- Hens happily and vigorously eat their own eggs (including the shell). Many rescue sanctuaries boil the eggs and feed them back as the perfect way to replenish the nutrients they expend to lay the eggs in the first place.
- It is clear that having backyard hens kept for consumption of eggs has similar ethical concerns as all other forms of eggs. Rescuing hens and providing them a life worth living is ethically defensible but using their eggs serves only to validate egg consumption and is not a practical for most people nor is it a sustainable ethical solution.
For information nutrition and egg alternatives see the vegan tab on this website.