Yes, chickens descend from the jungle fowl who themselves descend from the Tyrannosaurus rex (see "Her great-great-...-great-grandma was a T-rex"). But closer in their family tree, have you ever wondered who are the parents of your chickens? Who was the mom of your favorite hen? Did she inherit her curiosity and fancy feathers from her? or did they come from her dad? Where are her parents living now?
Almost all the chickens - the ones we eat, the ones who lay the eggs we eat, and the ones we have in our backyards - come from the same place: the hatchery. It’s a facility where eggs are hatched under artificial conditions. Fertilized eggs are placed in incubators where the temperature and humidity are controlled, and the eggs automatically turned. After 21 days, the eggs hatch and there are now thousands of peeping chicks emerging from the shells. At that time, chicks can be vaccinated to protect them from common poultry diseases. The layer breeds are sexed right away and the males are killed as roosters have no value in the egg industry and not welcomed in most backyards. The food they ate while in the egg will keep them nourished and hydrated for 72 hours, so shipping them to their final destination is time critical. Keeping them warm and protected from any drafts during transport is crucial, and not all of them make it alive especially to smaller destinations like the feed stores or individual homes.
In a natural setting, baby chicks are kept warm under their mothers’ wings until they are ready to explore the outdoors. The bond between a mother and her babies actually starts while they are still in the shell. When a broody hen is sitting on her eggs, she will start to coo and softly talk to her unhatched babies. And a few days before hatching, they will start peeping back to her.
Interesting but it doesn’t answer the question of who are the parents? Who laid these fertilized eggs that are being incubated?
To meet the parents, we have to go to the breeder farm. Hens and roosters are raised from chicks in rearing sheds. The sheds are windowless buildings where the whole environment (light, humidity, ...) is strictly controlled. Because of their different growth rates and nutritional requirements, males and females are raised in separate sheds. To prevent the chickens from pecking each other while being confined, part of their beak is cut off. Debeaking is a painful procedure as the beak is full of sensory nerve cells.
When they reach sexual maturity, they are moved into the breeding shed with 1 rooster for every 6-8 hens. This ratio ensures a high percentage of fertile eggs and reduces the fighting. In the breeding shed, there is typically an automated egg gathering system where the eggs roll from the nest boxes onto a conveyor belt to an egg gathering station. Eggs are sorted and the high-quality ones are sent to the hatchery to be hatched.
Once the parents are spent (that is to say when they don’t make economical sense anymore to the breeder), they are killed and replaced by a new batch of parent chicks.
Below is a rare glimpse at some mothers of the bantam Salmon Faverolles, Silkies, Mille Fleur d’Uccles, and Porcelain d’Uccles we find at the feed store or can order online. They have been rescued by Seggond Chance Farm and are getting to discover freedom at their sanctuary.
No wonder why we’ve never met the parents! However, this now brings the question of where the parents are coming from?
Breeding stock suppliers
The parents are supplied by breeding stock companies who own and control the ancestry of all chickens. These companies keep pedigree stocks (aka pure lines) and through very selective programs breed the grandparents and the great grandparents of all the chickens.
There are exactly 3 generations between the pure line chickens and the parents. Chickens from different pure line breeds are bred to create the great grandparents. Those get selected and bred again to create the grandparents, and a final selection leads to the parents. The selection is based on performance characteristics such as the rate of growth, the mature size, the egg-laying ability, fertility and vigor. And depending on the purpose of the breed developed, other criteria such as the meat quality, number of eggs produced, feathers color, etc. are added. Only the top ten percent qualifying birds are retained in the program, the remaining 90% are killed.
It is interesting to note that they are selected for the quality of their children and not necessarily themselves. Also, the male and female parents of chickens come from totally different pure lines. This means that if we breed the resulting hybrid children together, we will never get the same kind of chickens. So, the breeder farms continuously have to buy new parent chickens from the breeding stock suppliers.
There are many ways we can make a difference in the lives of the chickens and their parents. We can start by reducing or even eliminating our consumption of chicken meat and eggs. And if you want to share your backyard with these awesome creatures, consider adopting them instead of buying them. There are many chickens in local shelters and rescue organizations who are waiting for their forever homes.