The Happiest Chickens are Free-Range

Wendy's Free-Range Chickens

Many people do not know the difference between free range eggs and cage-free eggs. Let me explain: Cage-free is a term that the egg industry likes to use ONLY to make it SOUND like their layer hens are humanely raised when, in reality, they are treated just about the same as any battery-caged hen. Even though these hens are technically cage-free, it doesn’t mean they get more space to run around and be chickens. They are still cramped together in a small room, their beaks are still cut off at birth, and the males are still slaughtered nearly minutes after hatching. Free-range eggs are a totally different story.

If you go to a store in search of eggs from humanely treated hens, then you are sadly out of luck. Free-range eggs cannot be found in any grocery store (and if you know of one, please let me know in the comments below). The biggest difference between free-range eggs and cage-free eggs is the treatment of the chickens. Free-range chickens (notice, I say chickens because the males are typically not slaughtered at birth) are given space to roam freely, their beaks are not cut off at birth, and they are free to do what chickens are instinctively born to do.

Bantam Hen

Chickens are born with an instinct to:

  • Forage for food – Believe it or not, chickens are omnivores- they eat vegetables as well as bugs. Battery caged hens are denied the privilege to forage for food and most cage-free hens are still kept indoors, which means they can’t feel the dirt on their feet or forage for bugs.
  • Nest – Most hens have a strong urge to lay their eggs in a private place. Sometimes they will even go without food and water for days to search for a secret place to nest. Battery caged hens are denied the access or the space to sit on their eggs. Hens often go crazy without this one simple “privilege” because their instinct to mother their eggs is so intense. Cage-free hens are not provided with the privacy or room to nest either. Even though they do have more space than a battery cage hen, this instinct is still not met.
  • Dustbathe – Dustbathing for chickens is like taking a bath for us. It keeps their feathers clean and healthy and also gets rid of unwanted pests.
  • Perch – All chickens descended from the Red Jungle Fowl. This breed of bird often sleeps high up in the trees to avoid predators; also because perching is a natural instinct. Today’s modern chickens still have that instinct which is why most free-range chickens are provided with perches. When chickens are unable to perch, they often become more aggressive, more prone to develop foot damage, and some even develop osteoporosis. In a battery cage, hens will sometimes stand on top of one another to try and fulfill their urge to perch.
  • Explore – Chickens spend 50% of their time exploring, foraging and scratching. These animals are curious creatures and enjoy doing something to fulfill their boredom.

Mama hen, Eddie, and the baby chicks take a dirtbath together

Last summer, my neighbor Wendy bought some baby chicks. She built her own coop to suit her chickens’ needs and to say the least, these chickens live a good life. They are 100% free-range chickens and they get out of their coop at least once a day (that is, if there is no snow on the ground). Wendy’s coop isn’t all that large but all of her chickens have room to stretch their wings and walk around inside. Most of the time, the chickens are outside roaming around the yard, foraging for small bugs to eat, and taking dirt baths. The family’s dog, Striper, protects the chickens from getting eaten by predators like bears and fisher cats, which are always running around our neighborhood.

Wendy and her family name every chicken that they get and Wendy can tell which chicken is which. Since it’s hard to tell the difference between a female and a male chick, the family gives the chickens a female name. For example, the white and fluffy chicken (in the photo above) was left out to die in the middle of the road when Wendy found him and rescued him. Wendy first named him Edith because she couldn’t tell if he was a hen or a rooster. When she heard him crow, she and the family changed the name to Eddie.

Last week, I was walking home from school when my neighbor, who was outside at the time, called me over to see the baby chicks that had hatched the previous week. The three baby chicks, the mama bird, and Eddie were all taking a dustbath together. I had asked my neighbor before about writing a blog about her chickens, so I decided now would be a perfect time to take photos. I ran home, grabbed my camera and started taking picture’s of Wendy’s chickens. Her chickens are a perfect example of how these animals SHOULD be treated.

Penelope’s Story

Penelope

When I went over my neighbor’s house to take photos of her chickens, she pointed out Penelope. This hen has been through a lot more than other chickens have been through and she is lucky to be alive. Over Facebook, I asked Wendy if she could tell me Penelope’s Story. I was surprised by how much effort Wendy put into the story and I decided to copy and paste it straight from there. I’ve only made a few small grammatical changes but otherwise, this is completely in her own words. Enjoy!

It was back in September and I was looking for some more laying hens on Craigslist when I came upon 1 year old laying hens for sale; $3 a piece at a place up in Orange, MA. Actually, it was a fairly nice horse farm right off Route 2. One of those places that gives lessons and boards horses. They even had an indoor riding ring. The horse barn was old looking but very clean and well kept. The horses were mostly outside and they all looked real good.”

“The owner’s daughter I think it was came out to show me the chickens. Behind the nice barn and the indoor riding ring was a shed and there were some bunnies in hutches and a lot of junk and the smell was awful in the front of the shed but at the back of the shed, it look like the metal skeleton of a plant nursery (half round shape if that makes sense). Instead of clear plastic it had black plastic stretched over it but the plastic was really worn out so there were holes everywhere in the plastic where the weather could get in but not enough sun could get through to evaporate the wet ground so it was muddy and smelly. There were about 100 chickens in there mostly hens, some roosters all debeaked so I assumed they were all ex battery cage hens. I don’t know the story about the roosters that were in there; didn’t really make sense. There were also about 4 ducks in there.”

There was a small pile of dead chickens that had been dealt with enough that they were all in the same spot but not removed from the area. Like someone just grabbed them as they died and threw them in the corner. There were 2 chickens that had obviously seen light under the walls and had tried to crawl through and had gotten stuck. They were still alive and brought it to the girl’s attention. (My guess she was in her 20’s) She said ‘Oh I wouldn’t take those they will probably die anyway.’ ”

“There was NO FOOD in the food bowl and I think the only water in the water bowl was what had rained through the ceiling of the enclosure so there was not much water in there to drink. It was gross. It was thick with mud and heavy with the smell of feces and death. There were no nesting boxes so any hen that might have been healthy enough to lay an egg would have to do it wherever. The chickens looked shell-shocked for lack of a better word. I would pick a hen and watch it’s behavior for a few minutes and if it looked okay I would try and catch it.”

“I spent about 15 minutes in this enclosure and made some comments about the conditions these poor things had to deal with and she told me it was her father’s thing. He would pick up these chickens and transport them and he had had this particular batch for a while trying to get rid of them on Craigslist. It was her Dad’s thing. She had someone go get a bale of shavings to spread around probably because I was bitching about the conditions the hens were kept in. I didn’t have much money on me so I could afford to take 2 of the hens. I popped them in the box I brought, tied the lid down, paid the girl and left.”

Penelope

“I contacted MSPCA and reported the place. I named one hen Penelope (Penny) because she’s the copper color of a penny. The other one I named Clarabelle. Penny ate with gusto and started doing well quickly. Clarabelle did not do so well. She didn’t have her sister’s appetite. Clarabelle was very cuddly though and several times a day I would pick her up and pop her into my coat and she loved that. When the weather was getting colder, it was nice and warm in my jacket. I had her almost a week. I had brought her in the house and had her snuggled in my lap and she was napping when about an hour later she stretched out, released the contents of her bowels and died right there in my lap.”

“She probably didn’t have much of a chance. She was really weak but she was a very sweet chicken. On one hand, I feel bad that I couldn’t save her but on the other hand she didn’t die in the mud and get thrown into the pile of muddy anonymous chickens in the corner of that chicken hellhole.”

“Penelope has continued to do well all winter. Taking in an emaciated chicken as the cold weather sets in was probably not the best idea but I added fats into her diet to help her stay warm and not lose weight. She has actually gained weight. She looks fantastic. She is now laying an egg almost every day.”

“Honestly, when I got her, I did not ever expect to see an egg from her. She and her “sister” were in such rough shape. She was extremely shy when she first got here and would hide in the corners of the coop. She did not know how to be a chicken at all. There are certain things a chicken “likes” to do naturally. Perching is one of them. Dust bathing is another joy that helps coat the skin with fine dirt and prevent parasites. Chickens love to dust bathe.”

Penelope walking away

“It is not uncommon to see 8 or 9 chickens flopping around flapping and flicking the dirt all over them then stretching out in the sun. They will even lay there upside down with their feet in the air. IT is pure enjoyment for them. Scratching the soil and pecking at bugs of worms or whatever is also totally natural and something chickens naturally love to do. All my chickens do these behaviors. Penny did none of these behaviors for months. She was a battery cage hen obviously, her beak is clipped. I have never done that to any of my chickens. It is a cruel practice that takes place at about 10 days old. It keeps penned up battery cage chickens from pecking each other.”

“The first time I noticed Penny exhibit a normal chicken behavior was maybe early November? She found a nice pit of dirt and was joyously flopping around flinging dirt all over herself. She was taking a dust bath and I was so happy for her. She really is something special. In January, I walked into the coop and found my Penny tucked into a nesting box. She was laying an egg!!!! She lays the darkest color brown eggs of all my chickens so I know when it’s hers. She lays one at least every other day.”

“I think the fact that her beak has been trimmed makes it difficult for her to pick things up off the ground. All my other chickens look forward to when I toss out some scratch grain on the ground. It has cracked corn and oats and stuff. When I scatter this stuff out for my chickens, Penny comes running over to me now. I scoop a whole cup of it for her and bend down and let her have as much as she wants. Eating it out of a cup is easier for her. Penny’s beak doesn’t work as well at picking things up as all my other chickens so having a nice deep cup of it makes it easier for her. Penny is pretty special. Her speak is very distinct and I know it’s her even when my back is turned. She is one hen who has gone to the very worst of conditions to the best conditions and I really think she is very happy now.”

For people living in the city, I understand free-range eggs are hard to come by. If you have relatives that live in a rural area, ask if they have any small farms living nearby that sell eggs. Then the next time you visit those relatives, just stop by and pay for a two or so dozens. Supporting the small local farms can make a BIG difference! If you have the option to buy from a local farm (one that will allow you to see the chickens’ conditions), then please don’t buy your eggs from a super market! This is one way we can send the message to big corporations that we don’t like the way animals in their facilities are being treated. Hopefully these companies care about what the consumer wants (most of them do, because that’s the only way they can make a profit) and makes changes to fit our needs. Urban areas are tough to find small farms (obviously). Unfortunately, for those living in the city, there aren’t too many places for you to find free-range eggs. But for those who live in a small town, you can easily find friends or neighbors that own chickens who would be willing to share with you.

Conclusion to the Egg Topic:

  • Inform others about the abuse battery caged hens must endure to make sure you have a side of scrambled eggs are made every morning.
  • Play Farm Rescue on Facebook to find out more information I did not discuss.
  • Find a neighbor or friend who has chickens and ask if you can buy from them. Some people will even be willing to give them to you for free!
  • If you don’t know anyone with chickens but you have a yard then buy chickens of your own! I would suggest this to someone with time to spare because chickens (especially the number my neighbor has) are a large responsibility to maintain and take care of. There’s also a lot of money involved with buying feed, keeping the chicken coop suitable for the chickens (which means buying heaters/coolers), building a coop, ect. So I don’t recommend this option unless you are fully willing to take on all of the responsibilities needed to run a coop of your own.
  • Read Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. It’s a great book about Factory Farming and Foer spends a good deal of time discussing the treatment of chickens.
  • Don’t believe what you read on labels. Most have low standards on what “humane” is, especially when it comes to chickens and the egg industry.
  • Check out my favorite websites to find out more information.

The way all hens should be able to lay their eggs!

Next Discussion Topic…?

My family informed me that I need to move on from the topic of chickens and onto a different animal issue. The reason I spend so much time on chickens is because they are, in my opinion, one of the most abused animals in the United States. I haven’t even discussed chickens wasted for their flesh (broilers) yet! I’ll get to that one of these days but I think my family is right; I do need to talk about a variety of other animals. Comment below if you have any issues you would like me to discuss in the future.

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6 thoughts on “The Happiest Chickens are Free-Range

  1. I love this article. It takes me back to when I used to have chickens, ducks, geese and goats many, MANY years ago. (the geese were my favorites) It was a lot of work to keep them fed and watered but it was fun to watch them run around doing their thing. You could hold a handfull of corn and they’d fight to get on your lap. (well, not the goats. lol) They were a hoot. I HATE the way meat animals are treated. Blogging’s a great way to get it off your chest and into the world, isn’t it? Peace:)

    • I hate the way they’re treated too. I hope to own a farm of my own someday. But not until I’m retired from whatever occupation I end up doing. I want to be able to travel to different places and it’s hard to do that when you have a whole farm of animals to take care of. I agree, when I write an article and have a finished piece that I’m proud of, it feels really good and I feel like I make a difference in the world. If it were about anything other than animals, I wouldn’t care as much and would eventually get bored of it. But with animals, I love to inform people and make the world a better place to live in. Anyways, thank you very much for reading it! I think your posts are great as well! 🙂

  2. I my Lord, no your family is soooo wrong. They just need to get over it! Chickens are marvelous! I can hardly restrain myself from writing more about those little poopers, God luv em. Did you read the study (not that it told me anything new) that they found chickens feel empathy? Duh. But, when I think about those poor critters in those Godforsaken cages crying over each other, I want to DIE! Even since I rescued an abandoned Bantee rooster, I named Henry, I have NEVER looked at a package of chicken the same way since! I just keep thinking OMG! that could be Henry’s sister or brother or at the very least, a distant relative. I can’t even walk through the meat department without giving a sermon to anyone and everyone within ear-shot about battery hens. One of these days they’re gonna arrest me. One last thing, and no-one believes me, except my Mom who smelled Henry too, that Henry smelled, and I swear, like perfume. Not the tacky, cheap kind, but just the barest hint of a rare perfume from Paris. I swear! Oh, and he loved snuggling under the covers. How can you EAT something that wants to snuggle!?!

  3. Is anything being done legally to help these poor animals? I had no idea they were being treated so badly. I am seriously considering becomign a vegetarian.

    I already give as much money as I can to Humane Society, In Defense of Animals, etc.

  4. Really enjoyed reading your blog Alyssa and have to say that I agree with your insights to these fascinating animals. We live in Devonshire, England and breed Cornish Game (we English call them Indian Game, as they came from India/Asia to here first, then onto you from our next county, Cornwall. Your birds look great and the paragraph on general chicken instincts is an excellent guide to good chicken wellbeing and mental health!

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