United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the promotion of compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl, notes that shelters and sanctuaries around the country are witnessing a dramatic increase in their intake of chickens, particularly roosters.
United Poultry Concerns Founder and President Karen Davis, PhD, says, "Keeping chickens is linked to organic farming and a desire to have direct access to eggs, as well as to the sheer pleasure of keeping a few chickens as pets."
But, Davis sees significant risks to the birds and communities involved if zoning ordinances do not permit people in the community to keep chickens. What looks like an idyllic pastime could become an unwelcome burden if care is not taken initially to ensure responsible husbandry practices and municipal regulations.
Chickens need predator-proof housing and yards with nest areas, roosts and natural sunlight. Their living quarters require daily cleaning and maintenance, yet even the cleanest coop attracts rodents who enjoy the free food and straw bedding.
Davis says, "Many suburban chicken-keepers purchase their chickens by mail order from industrial hatcheries. People ordering chickens this way are often surprised at how sickly the birds are, not realizing that the hatchery experience plus the shipping ordeal weakens the birds' immunity, predisposing them to illness and early death.
She says that hatcheries that mass-produce chicks for feed stores and backyard flocks treat the birds and their offspring the way puppy mills treat breeding dogs and their puppies.
"Since there are no welfare laws regulating these operations, suppliers provide website images of green grass, sunny skies and happy chickens, but this is more likely fiction than truth," Davis says.
Airmail shipping takes a toll on the birds. They are often deprived of food and water for up to 72 hours or more, while being exposed to extreme temperatures and rough handling in their shipping crates.
Even birds who survive these traumas may be permanently debilitated, particularly if they become dehydrated during long flights and airport layovers. This can lead to the abandonment of hens that don't thrive or are not laying enough eggs to please their new owners.
"Many people are shocked to discover that their order of female chicks includes unwanted roosters in the shipping box. Hatcheries frequently use rooster chicks as packing material calling them 'packers,' regardless of whether male birds were ordered, and chicken sexing is often done incorrectly," says Davis.
"Ordinances that permit chicken keeping put purchasers in the position of having to find homes for their unwanted roosters. Because good homes for roosters are very hard to find (most good homes already have as many roosters as they can handle), roosters end up being turned loose or dumped at shelters, where they are typically killed, having nowhere to go," she says.
The rooster problem is compounded by the fact that most incorporated or urban regions that do allow chickens to be kept allow only hens. Municipalities that have passed, or are considering passing, ordinances to allow chicken-keeping are restricting the flocks to hens only, even though half of all chicks born are male.
"Chickens can be wonderful companions. Roosters are cheerful and hens are heartwarming creatures. If responsible people want to keep a few chickens, and the zoning allows it, the best way is to start is to adopt birds from a shelter or sanctuary and be ready to provide the quality care, including veterinary care, that chickens need and deserve," Davis says.
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