Bird Brains: Personal Experience, Behaviour Research, and the Welfare of Laying Hens

Reader Contribution by Jacob Maxwell
article image

A younger Jacob with one of his hens
Photo by Roger Yip

“Here chick chick chick,” a 13-year-old me called out as I slipped on rubber boots and headed towards the run where I kept my hens. Hearing the call I’d taught them, my dozen birds scurried towards me and congregated at the fence as I stepped into the run and tossed them some cracked corn. Several of the hens, senior members in their social hierarchy, let out their usual “tick tick tick,” as they ate, communicating to the others that good stuff had been found. I checked the nest boxes in their coop – just three eggs. I dove into the lilac hedge where I’d seen a few hens exit a minute ago. After being poked and scratched by the shrubbery, I found a small depression lined with eight eggs, hidden quite expertly.

Eggs are arguably the most ubiquitous animal-based product, but they’re produced by a species that is poorly understood and often underestimated by most consumers. This month, I was lucky enough to connect with my former colleague Dr. Misha Ross, who is a published poultry behaviour researcher in the University of Guelph’s Animal Biosciences Department. You can watch the full length interview here.

The Avian Telos

I often refer to telos, a term for purpose, adapted by Bernard Rollin to mean the hard-wired nature of an animal. The telos of egg laying chickens is highly complex – their unique personalities, intelligence, and social structure are both entertaining and worthy of investigation. As Misha put it, “[the idea that birds are unintelligent] is a prevalent misconception that people have, and I think they use it to justify not caring about the animals.”

Much like humans, chickens live in social groups with a dynamic hierarchy; this is where we derive the phrase ‘pecking order.’ From a scientific perspective, the pecking order tells us a lot about bird brains. I learned from Misha that, “chickens have the capacity to perform simple logic: something called transitive inference, which can be seen through the pecking order.” 

Back in the day, my hens’ habit to lay their eggs in the lilacs instead of their nest boxes was certainly inconvenient, but it was a great example of one of the strongest instinctual motivations of hens. As Misha told me, “a hen has a really high motivation to find a secluded spot to lay her eggs away from other hens.” The nest boxes I had created simply weren’t as quiet and secluded as thick shrubbery. Other things a younger me observed in my backyard chickens – foraging, perching, and dust bathing – were also echoed by Misha as “highly motivated urges that chickens have.”

The North American Egg Industry

The majority of the 350 million laying hens in Canada and the USA are not afforded the opportunity to express any of their highly motivated natural behaviours. Since the post-war revolution of animal production, hens have been housed in battery cages, which are traditionally small, with no nest boxes, perches, or substrate for foraging and dust bathing. The result is that hens on traditional farms experience varying levels of chronic stress and exhibit a range of abnormal and destructive behaviours.

Producers Aren’t to Blame

It’s easy to place all the blame and onus to change on egg producers, but doing so ignores the complexity of the situation. Once consumers were separated from food production, price became the main motivation in the grocery store. Egg farmers, most of whom authentically enjoy their animals and way of life, had to either intensify their production methods or else lose their profits to others who would. 

The Present ‘Solution’: A Mess of Terms

Growing awareness of animal welfare has begun to drive out battery cages in North America, and ‘cage free’ eggs are widely available (albeit pricey). A multitude of branded terms are hurled at shoppers in an attempt to fetch top dollar for a dozen eggs. Go to your local health food or natural grocery store, and you’ll see egg cartons using terms like ‘free run,’ ‘free range,’ ‘enriched,’ ‘organic,’ and more. In general, ‘free range’ means the hens have outdoor access along with some form of enrichment inside – things like perches, nest boxes, and substrate to forage or dust bathe in. The other terms generally mean that enrichment has been provided, but without any outdoor access. According to Misha, “a free range system has the potential to provide the best welfare for the chickens, but so much depends on management. Even a free range label is no guarantee of good welfare.”

Consumer Behaviour: The Key to Rapid Change

In Canada, although battery cages are still the norm, they are being slowly phased out, and will be banned altogether within the next 15 years. Similar bans have greatly improved the welfare of laying hens in Europe. While legislation has an obvious role in protecting animals, it’s a slow moving ship, and perhaps not as effective as grassroots change in animal industries, as I learned from leading Ontario beef producers. Consumer behaviour is the one thing that has the potential to improve animal lives right now. Besides reducing your consumption of eggs, there are a number of things you can do to help egg-laying chickens.

Look for the Right Labels

If it’s within your means to buy added welfare eggs at the grocery store, third party labelling programs are the best way to make sense of the mess of brands and terms. Animal Welfare Certified, Certified Humane, and Certified Organic are exemplary third-party labels: according to Misha, “they are scientifically informed, and there’s no conflict of interest between the certifier and the producer.” Do some of your own research, or read about other labelling programs in my introductory article

Connect with a Producer

The best way to ensure your eggs were produced by happy (or happier) hens is to connect with progressive producers and assess their system with a critical eye. Look for farms which give hens the opportunity to nest, perch, dust bathe, and experience the outdoors. An ideal facility provides an outdoor environment that the birds will actually want to use (i.e. not an open unsheltered field). If you’re a keener, get a producer on the phone and ask them about their strategy and how it impacts the health and welfare of their birds. 

Bring Chickens into your Community

I’ve always been quick to promote backyard poultry as an avenue for ethically produced eggs. As Misha reminded me, backyard hens are a significant investment, and not to be taken lightly. Disclaimers aside, I know from personal experience that managing poultry is an incredibly entertaining and gratifying experience. Misha believes that backyard chicken keeping is a really great endeavour for the people willing to invest in giving the animals everything they need. He added that if people have the opportunity to interact with chickens housed properly with their needs met, this could bring out the charisma of the birds that is often overlooked, catalyzing more thought and better consumer decisions. 

If you’re ready to take on a time and financial commitment, investigate your local bylaws and consider taking on a few hens. If you go through with it, make it a community event. While keeping birds may not be for everyone, the opportunity to observe and interact with chickens is a wholesome outdoor activity that could bring you closer to your neighbours while encouraging them to reconsider their own role in the improvement of animal lives.

Jacob Maxwell is a biology student and veterinary hopeful in Ontario who divides his time between animal biology coursework and hands-on experience with veterinarians and animal researchers. Connect with Jacob on his blogA Try-Hard’s Guide to Having Fun, and on FacebookInstagramTwitter, and LinkedIn. Read all of Jacob’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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