My six-week-old Americana chick crowed yesterday, in the way of young cockerels everywhere: an amputated, creaky rasp. It would be a comic sound were it not also confirmation that I need to find little Taz a good home.
It’s a familiar challenge, one I’ve had to undertake with every group of chicks I’ve raised. All were allegedly female — hatcheries claim 90 to 95 percent accuracy in sexing newborns — yet in each batch of four or five chicks, one girl has gone boy.
Taz progressed from a fuzzy little tennis ball to a handsome young rooster in the space of six weeks:
Many backyard flock-keepers live in municipalities that forbid roosters. Most of us simply don’t want them. They are noisy, sometimes aggressive with humans, and often hell on hens: Many domestic roosters are little more than rapists, so sexually aggressive that they breed the most submissive hens until they’re bald, bruised and sometimes bloodied.
It’s the kind of behavior one never sees among wild birds, but these aren’t wild birds: They’re animals who have been genetically perverted by humanity. Rapist roosters are just one outcome of the intensive breeding and environmental stressors that characterize modern poultry production. And our voracious appetite for cheap commercial meat and eggs aren’t the only culprits; those of us who keep backyard flocks are complicit, too, in an evil we’d rather not look at.
I have avoided writing about this; it spoils the bucolic mood. But here’s the ugly truth: For every female chick I order from a hatchery, a male chick is suffocated or macerated — thrown alive into a grinder. Nobody wants them, and they aren’t profitable to raise for meat.
The young hens who produce them live artificial lives, little more than breeding machines who are killed once they quit producing; they never get to incubate their eggs or raise their babies.
Even the female chicks I rear — the luckiest of the group — are denied the experience of knowing their own mothers. When they should be nestling in the warmth of her downy bustle after the arduous work of hatching, they are instead packed tightly into shipping boxes with other peeping chicks and sent to feed stores, or directly to people like me.
Here’s a better and more complete explanation of the problem with backyard flocks.
This is ugly stuff, and I don’t like to think about my part in it. I love having hens, as much for their companionship as for the eggs they’ve been bred to produce in astounding amounts. (The feral forebears of today’s modern laying hen laid one to two clutches a year, like other wild birds.) They will have as happy and natural a life as I can provide, even after they become too old to lay regularly. They will scratch and peck, have dust baths and range about the yard; they will have shelter and food and water. Relatively speaking, my backyard hens will have a good life
And they will do some good, too. Yes, it would be best if we all stopped eating domestically produced eggs; that’s the most morally responsible choice. But it’s even less realistic than abstinence as a contraceptive strategy.
Most of us are going to keep eating eggs, and those my hens produce — for me and a few enthusiastic friends — ease in a small way the demand for cheap eggs produced by caged layers, the most horrific of humanity’s agricultural “commodities.” (The lives of commercial cage-free layers aren’t much better, and far worse than those of most backyard hens.)
Still, I cannot rationalize into existence a universe in which it is OK for us to do what we are doing to these animals. The pastoral charm of backyard flocks is made possible by a great deal of what humans euphemistically call collateral damage. Those of us who keep these animals — often, with the best intentions — must acknowledge that we are in fact complicit in an immense amount of animal suffering: the invisible, largely miserable lives of hatchery breeding stock; the day-long lives and brutal end of millions of male chicks.
I can handle the challenge of finding my little Americana rooster a new home, and will welcome the peace of mind that comes with knowing I’ve done right by him.
But this other? That’s much harder.