Nobody knows exactly how many Austinites keep backyard chickens. We do know, however, that this movement is more than a passing fad in a city with a strong locavore community. Asked about the upsurge in local demand for chicks, the manager of Callahan’s General Store responded, “It’s phenomenal.” Phenomenal it may be, but a critical assessment of this popular trend is sorely lacking.
“Most food,” writes Dartmouth geographer Susanne Freidberg, “is sold with a story.” This is certainly true for backyard chickens. Local media have responded to this do-it-yourself renaissance with a celebratory narrative of hometown empowerment against an overly consolidated chicken-and-egg industry. Writing in 2006, just as urban homesteading was taking root in the city, Austin American-Statesman writer Molly Bloom noted: “H-E-Bs and Super Walmarts have made it easier to pick up a dozen eggs at the store than grab them from the backyard coop, but in recent years, Austinites … have rediscovered the joys of backyard chicken husbandry.”
I have no doubt that ample joys have been discovered through backyard chicken husbandry. Some homesteaders even refer to the chickens as “their girls.” But if ample joy is evident in the task of keeping backyard chickens, considerable abuse is quietly obscured. Several disturbing aspects of this practice deserve due consideration before you drink the Kool-Aid, run out to Callahan’s and begin moonlighting as a farmer.
One major problem is hatcheries. Most backyard chicken owners get their birds from hatcheries. But hatcheries—which are essentially puppy mills for chickens—don’t give a cluck about that half of the bird population incapable of laying eggs: males. These chicks are killed—often in a mechanized grinder—as a matter of course. (At big factory farms, chickens are typically stunned, scalded and bled.) Other males are shipped to retailers or consumers, either as “packing material” (to keep the hens from knocking around in the shipping container) or due to “sexing errors”—mistaking males for females.
Then there’s the issue of a chicken’s life cycle. Backyard chicken enthusiasts primarily purchase their birds to produce fresh eggs. Urban homesteaders are frequently surprised to learn, however, that a chicken’s rate of egg production diminishes rapidly after a couple of years, often to the point of non-productivity. Chickens can live well over 10 years. What to do with the birds when they stop producing those impossibly yellow-yolked eggs?
Many rock-ribbed urban pioneers have no problem slaughtering their hens. This act is legal in Austin as long as the meat isn’t sold. But as pragmatic as this solution sounds, it’s actually rife with the very welfare problems that backyard chicken advocates sought to avoid by going local. Just because earnest homesteaders love their “girls” doesn’t mean they have the first clue about how to properly kill them. I’ve been following the personal accounts of backyard bird-keepers for years (urban homesteaders tend to be prolific bloggers). Here’s a typical case, from a San Francisco “farmer” describing her first slaughter. The victim was “Pearl”:
I drew a deep breath, counted to 3 and twisted. I heard the disturbing crackle of breaking bones and began to relax thinking that my job was done. […] Pearl was still breathing. How could that be possible? So I quickly twisted again in a panicked effort to put an end to this […] I settled on covering her nostrils with my fingers whilst holding her beak closed. She continued to make efforts to breathe, flapped her wings, then released a foul smelling fluid from her vent and went limp.
Many (if not most) consumers, even if they are aware of these drawbacks, will continue to support backyard chicken-keeping on the grounds that their eggs are safer. Even on this point, though, ground is shaky. There is no study (to my knowledge) comparing industrial and small-scale egg farming on a disease-per-egg basis. But Food Safety News recently reported that the Centers for Disease Control had identified 71 cases of salmonella linked to backyard chickens.
The foodie media generally tend to glorify the practice of backyard chicken-keeping without paying particular attention to its downsides. At the very least, future chicken-keepers should be cognizant of the less-publicized challenges they face. As I see it, the drawbacks of eating backyard eggs far outweigh the benefits. This is not support for factory-farmed eggs, rather yet another reminder that when it comes to the ethics of raising and killing animals, sometimes the best answer is to just say no.
James McWilliams is a professor of history at Texas State University in San Marcos, and author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.