For the birds

Left to right: Heisenberg, Shelly and Richard

We are so fortunate to have so many wonderful feathered friends at HEEFS, and we deeply appreciate all of the questions you send us about them. The questions that we are asked most often are about what we do when our friends lay eggs, why some of our friends are in a coop while others are in the barn, and why we keep such a close eye on the eggs that are laid.

In order to answer all of these great questions, we thought it would make sense to take a little step back in time.

A brief history

The red jungle fowl are the presumed ancestor of the commercial chickens we know today. However, after thousands of years of hybridization and domestication, they look nothing like they once did.

And, when we talk about hybridization and domestication, it is similar to what has happened to dogs over the years. They too have been genetically selected for certain traits. Some have been bred to be large, some to be very fast, others to be great swimmers, and yet others to shed less.

So too with chickens. Some chickens have been bred for their flesh (meat), and some for their eggs.

Nancy

We currently only have one friend who was bred for meat – Nancy. And, like all birds who have been bred for this purpose, they are bred to have very large breasts. In order to make that happen, these chickens are bred to be constantly hungry and to constantly eat. Nancy was bred to be at full market weight by the age of 16 weeks, and because of that, when he came to us, he was very top heavy and his little legs could not support the weight of his body. After arriving at HEEFS, Nancy went through extensive physiotherapy, lost a significant amount of weight, and, yes, he needed to be kept out of the coop so we could closely monitor his food intake. If given the chance, Nancy will eat and eat and eat – and that would not be good for him!

Hens today

Hens, or female chickens, that are used for their eggs, have been bred to lay approximately 340 eggs per year.  Had these beautiful birds not been genetically altered they would lay 10 to 15 eggs naturally per year, usually in the spring. Sadly, this constant laying takes a toll on their little bodies, rendering them susceptible to many reproductive diseases such as painful prolapses, egg-yolk peritonitis, and osteoporosis due to calcium depletion from constant egg laying. These birds have also been awarded the dubious honour of experiencing the highest rate of ovarian cancer of any animal in the world.

These countless reproductive issues have resulted in the deaths of some of HEEFS’ resident hens including, very recently, Lucy.

Lucy

When the laying begins

As soon as spring begins at HEEFS, the longer daylight hours trigger hormones in our laying birds and that means that our girls, Donna, Farley, Hope, Ashley, and Heidi (on occasion) will start to lay eggs. So our animal caregivers and volunteers are on high alert when visiting the coop, checking for eggs and reporting any misshapen or soft eggs. The eggs these ladies lay can tell us a lot about their reproductive health so we are very watchful. When they do lay eggs, we are careful to remove them right away, and after they have been checked, they are hardboiled and mashed – shells and all – and fed back to the flock. The shells are particularly important as they are rich in calcium.

Helping our hens live longer and healthier

Lady Heisenberg and Shelly do not lay because they have hormonal implants, re-administered every three months, to stop them from laying indefinitely. Implants also help these ladies maintain optimal health as producing and laying is very taxing on their bodies. We should note that this implant is used only for residents who were bred to be laying chickens. Our silky hens – Farley, Hope and Ashley, for example, do not require the suppression implant as they will only lay a few eggs per year.

Top left to bottom right: Farley, Heisenberg and Hope

We have an incredible team of animal care experts and volunteers who work daily to keep all our feathered friends healthy and happy, and, most importantly, we couldn’t do any of this without the ongoing support of our monthly donors! We would be ever so grateful if you were able to become a monthly donor – every dollar helps!

You can find more information on chickens used for meat, and for egg production by visiting www.egg-truth.com and https://www.upc-online.org/.