We welcomed Luna and Maya to our micro-sanctuary on New Year’s Eve. They are two adorable 2-year-old White Leghorns coming from an egg factory. The first time we adopted hens rescued from the egg industry, we didn’t know what to expect and were a bit worried about their physical and mental state. Were they sick and traumatized? Would they integrate well with our flock? Would they bond with us and be happy in our backyard?
The commercial egg-laying hens (aka layers) are bred to lay an extremely large number of eggs: 250-310 eggs per year. In the US, 95% of them live in barren cages where they cannot nest, dust-bath, perch, or anything else that chickens do. When they reach 18-24 months, they are considered “spent” by the industry as their egg production slightly decreases. In California, they are gassed and trashed to the landfill. They are not meat chickens (aka broilers) who are bred to reach their slaughter-weight at 6 weeks of age, so they have no value on the meat market. A tiny fraction of these hens are lucky enough to be saved by rescue organizations. These organizations provide lifelong sanctuary for the hens, or adopt them out after rehabilitating them. Rehabilitating commercial hens starts with a quarantine period during which each hen gets a full health check, is dewormed and deloused, and receives any other treatment she may need. During that time, the hens live in an enriched environment with roosts, nest boxes, access to dirt and sun... so they can behave like chickens. After about a month when they are all healthy, they are ready for their forever home. Opening your backyard to one (or more!) rescued hen is very rewarding. Not only do you feel good about saving a life, but it’s also really fun watching her discovering the world. Look at her trying to hunt bugs, tasting kale and grapes, and learning by observing the other chickens. You witness her grow from a tiny hen with missing feathers to a beautiful bird. Her personality blossoms in front of your eyes. It’s really amazing. There are also some practical advantages of adopting a rescued hen: 1) you know it’s a hen thus no unwanted rooster to deal with, 2) she is an adult so no messy and time consuming baby chick raising, and 3) for those of you interested in eggs, she is still a very good layer compared to the heritage breeds. Some people may have concerns about getting ex-commercial hens. Our main one was the debeaking. Most of the hens in the egg industry have the tip of their beak cut off so they can’t peck at each other when confined. This makes it difficult for them to pick up things from the ground. An easy way to solve this is to feed them crumbles instead of pellets and to use a deep dish. Commercial egg-laying hens also have a shorter lifespan than heritage breeds: 4-6 years instead of 8-10. Due to their overproduction, they are more likely to develop a reproductive disease. We adopted Tarra and Marjo early 2015. Tarra died of an ovarian cancer last fall at age 5, while Marjo is still happily foraging in our backyard. The last concern we sometimes hear is the limit in choice of breeds. Commercial egg-laying breeds are almost exclusively White Leghorns and Red Sexlinks who respectively lay white and brown eggs. White Leghorns are often said to be skittish and flighty, but this is not our experience. They are our friendliest and most social hens. Each hen is an individual with a distinct personality and breed traits should be taken with a very big grain of salt. Some may just need more time to get used to their new homes. Our last 9 hens have been ex-commercial hens. And they have been all wonderful. Consider opening your home to a rescued hen.