This article originally appeared on Forbes.
Somehow or other, it has become the mark of twenty-first century urban hipness to keep a bunch of birds out back. We’re mostly talking hens. Exact numbers are unavailable, but the trend has become popular enough for dozens of major cities to revise their animal ordinances, thereby opening the legal floodgates for the emergence of urban animal agriculture, an endeavor that most American cities legislated out of existence (primarily for health reasons) back in the nineteenth century.
This renaissance of foodie affection for the uber-local egg has also inspired its share of outlandish rhetoric. Says the mayor of Madison, Wisconsin: “Chickens are really bringing us together as a community.” Says my Austin neighbor and co-owner of Boggy Creek Farm, Carol-Ann Sayle: “Everyone should have their own henhouse in their own backyard.”
It’s doubtful that the incoming mayor of New York City will agree with either of these sentiments. But no matter. Thousands of other urbanites nationwide—many of them so committed to keeping chickens that they do so surreptitiously—are suddenly giving a major cluck about backyard eggs.
Lost in all the enthusiasm are the drawbacks. According to Ian Elwood, of Animal Legal Defense Fund, “the solutions backyard chicken farming seeks to create—food security, local foodsheds, healthful eating—are all better served by encouraging more plant based farming.” His bottom line regarding urban agriculture is simple: “Let’s leave animals out of it.”
What follows are five reasons why, when it comes to chickens, Elwood is onto something.
1) Diminishing Production. Hens start laying eggs after about five months. Production, however, wanes at the age of two. Hens can live for well over a decade. Many backyard hen owners are as reluctant to keep a non-productive hen as they are to turn her into chicken soup. The upshot has been a sharp rise in abandoned birds. In 2001, according to the Associated Press, Minneapolis’ Chicken Run Rescue fielded six calls from individuals looking to find homes for forsaken chickens. By 2012, that number reached almost 500.
2) Commercial Hatcheries. Raising hens in the backyard seems like an obviously humane alternative to factory farming. In some ways, it is. However, on this point, two closely related facts should be considered. First, the majority of hens fortunate enough to escape the factory’s battery cage hail from the same industrial hatcheries that supply factory farms with millions of birds. This commonality not only undermines any pretense of thinking that backyard birds challenge the industrialized status quo, but it leads to a second problem, namely the fact that the male chicks born in those industrial hatcheries were likely either tossed alive into a grinder or gassed. Male birds are worthless to a hatchery supplying egg farms. Household hens might be glorified, but their cute chicken brothers are treated like trash.
3) Predation. Backyard hens are especially vulnerable to predation. Try this experiment: when you learn that a friend gets backyard hens, check in two months later and ask how things are going. Chances are good that the answer will go something like, “great, but . . . .” Dogs, cats, snakes, coyotes, possum, hawks, raccoons, raccoons, raccoons. These predators are prevalent and persistent and your poor hens, the ones you have come to love as pets, cannot indulge their natural defense mechanisms (such as finding a low tree limb hidden in dense foliage). They often find themselves trapped in some Ritz-Carleton of a coop that turned out to be less secure than advertised and, in their plush safe havens, are killed in a way that makes the slaughterhouse seem like a day spa by comparison. “What killed my chickens?” It’s an all too common question. And there are currently 23,900 answers being offered on Google.
4) Roosters. There’s about a 5 percent chance that your hen will turn out to be a rooster. There are a couple of reasons for this mistake. For one, the sex of a chicken is hard to identify upon birth, even for experts. Many roosters are accidentally identified as hens and shipped to feed stores, the place where urban farmer/hipsters flock to buy their stock. Less innocently, many male birds are tossed into shipping containers as a form of packing material, deployed to prevent the hens from banging into the side of the crate and having their retail value lowered. In any case, urban ordinances that do allow hens are markedly less accepting of roosters, who are more often than not considered poultry non-grata in urban settings.
5) Cost. First-time backyard hen owners are enchanted by the idea of free eggs. Don’t be fooled. Build the coop, buy the feed, pay the vet, count the hours spent maintaining the coop and administering care, compensate the neighbor’s kid for feeding the hens when you go to the Hamptons for the weekend, and then grab a calculator. The results? As one backyard farmer from Merced, California told an online chicken forum: “Don’t tell my wife, but I think my eggs are costing about $40 a dozen.”
By James McWilliams