– Always think “SAFETY FIRST!” Chickens are susceptible prey to a range of predators, including: foxes, coyotes, dogs, raccoons, opossums, weasels, hawks, eagles, owls, and other humans. As such, there is nothing more important than insuring the safety of your chickens. They will need to have a predator-proof coop and enclosure or yard.
– A truly safe coop will have locks on all doors and windows. Keep in mind that a raccoon can easily open latches, including sliding bolt locks, so be sure anything that opens also closes and locks. Setting a coop off the ground can help prevent rodents, but be sure that the bottom is tight and intact at all times.
– Good fencing is extremely important. First off, make sure that the fencing is high enough that your chickens will not hop or fly over. Smaller breeds especially can easily fly over a 6- or even 8-foot fence, particularly if startled. Privacy fencing can help by not allowing the chickens to see all the fun stuff on the other side; be aware that some chickens can climb up garden-style wire fencing. More important is keeping predators out! Small predators can squeeze through tiny spaces, so be wary of deer or horse fencing with large square mesh. Also be aware of any gaps along the ground or places where a predator could dig under the fence (lining the fence with rocks or a roll of metal garden fencing can help prevent digging in).
– We urge you to cover your chickens area to prevent aerial predators. If they are in a run or other small enclosure, it is pretty easy to install wire fencing or aviary netting to close the top. For larger spaces, aviary netting is a good solution (we use 2-inch mesh netting so that songbirds can get through without getting caught). If you are not comfortable installing the netting yourself, talk with a local building contractor who may be able to help you.
– Beyond housing, you should find an avian veterinarian in your area who has some experience with chickens. If you do not have a designated “avian” vet near you, check with a local exotics vet; they frequently treat birds. Unfortunately, there is still a lot to be learned about chicken vet care from a companionship perspective (rather than a production/agricultural one), so do as much research as you can on your own to learn about common chicken health problems, conditions, and home treatments.
– There is a lot of debate about whether or not “layer” breeds (i.e., not chickens raised for meat) need to be eating layer feed. Because they require so many nutrients to produce an egg almost every day, they need to be well-nourished to avoid significant health problems. Feeding only scratch grains may not be adequate as a result.
– The persistent question for vegans with chickens is, “What do you do with the eggs?” To be truly ethical and to help replenish lost nutrients to the hens’ bodies, you should feed the hens’ eggs back to them. You can do this raw, cooked, mixed with other things, or a variety of ways. Chickens usually LOVE to eat eggs, including the shells (which are rich in much-needed calcium!), so make it a practice to collect eggs daily and feed them to your flock.
– There are already far too many chickens in this world being abused and exploited. If you have a rooster, never leave eggs to sit lest a hen decide to brood and hatch them (though most layer hens have been bred not to go broody these days).
– Stock up on basic medical supplies, like self-adhesive tape, gauze pads, antibiotic ointment, etc. You can also have on hand an emergency medication kit.
– It can be very helpful to network with other people who care for chickens. While most of the backyard chicken forums have useful information at times, they always include lots of exploitation, so connecting with other vegans with chickens can be very helpful–such as in the Vegans with Chickens Facebook group!
– Contrary to popular notions, chickens are not most comfortable in open fields. As descendants of wild jungle fowl, they actually prefer areas with lots of trees, bushes, and other vegetation that they can use for cover and roosting. Wide open spaces can cause them stress and leave them more susceptible to predators. To make them feel more at home and for enrichment, provide your chickens with lots of landscaping, including edibles.
By Ariana Huemer of Hen Harbor
“Ex-Battery” Hens are hens who have come from industrial (“factory”) farms in which the hens are stuffed into tiny cages, with each hen getting floor space equivalent to less than a sheet of copier paper (so-called “cage-free” and “free-range” hens typically have similarly awful lives, of course). They live in utter filth and suffer all sorts of physical trauma, and as such they often require particular care to address medical issues.
Particularly important is to be aware of what indicates distress in a hen:
– Not going to perch with others at night, or sitting alone.
– Poopy butt (when poop is stuck to rear feathers under/around the vent) could indicate something bad–can be a precursor to prolapse or worse. You should probably trim away all butt feathers so you can see their abdomens easily without having to pick them up and molest them constantly.
– At least weekly look carefully at their abdomens. This is easiest to do as they are perching at night. Big abdomen = bad = take her to a vet. If hard, start looking for a credit card because she will need surgery. If fluid-filled, it may not be a surgery case, but prepare yourself to start throwing in hormonal implants for the rest of her life.
– Have an emergency medical kit at the ready in case your vet is on vacation or it’s a three-day weekend: bag of lactated ringer’s solution; an injectible, broad spectrum antibiotic; KY jelly (for prolapse); syringes and needles; canned corn and pedialyte; and silver sulfadiazine wound cream.
Cornish (“Broiler”) Chickens
By Farm Sanctuary
The lifespan of a Cornish breed chicken, called “broilers” by the meat industry, is anywhere from six months to three years, but many can live longer happy lives with proper care. Contributing to shortened lifespan are the leg issues that affect most Cornish chickens. These include blown or torn ligaments, joint degeneration, and chronic pressure sores on the hocks and feet, and they are a result of the breed’s predisposition to rapid and excessive weight gain.
These birds have been selectively bred and genetically altered to reach slaughter weight just 42 days after hatching. Industry scientists are striving to shorten this time even further, which will increase the severity and prevalence of health problems among those who live past the typical slaughter age. By the time they reach 42 days, more than 25% of birds from this industry already have leg and joint problems because of overfeeding and their already heavy builds. Fast growth also contributes to heart failure in these birds.
Mature Cornish hens weigh eight to 12 pound, and males weigh 10 to 18 pounds. This applies to birds on a restricted diet who are allowed to live more than the 42-day period they would live normally. If left to eat whatever they choose, these birds would grow to even greater weights or would die from heart failure or need to be euthanized because their legs would break down. The normal body temperature for mature chickens is 106.7 °F, with young chickens ranging from 102 °F to 106 °F.
Nutritional Needs of Large-Breed Chickens
Because this breed requires a very restricted diet and because they will eat any food put in front of them, they should not be housed with other breeds of chickens. If they are, they should not have access to any free feed or extra feed that smaller breeds require.
Water. Clean, fresh water must be available at all times. The use of a poultry fountain is recommended to prevent spillage and to keep water as clean as possible. In warmer weather, check water often throughout the day. During periods of freezing temperatures, the use of a water heater is recommended.
Feed. Chicken feed can be purchased at most farm supply stores. Currently there are feeds on the market that provide complete nutrition for chickens and are free of antibiotics, hormones, and animal bi-products. Because of their rapid growth, we recommend feeding Cornish chickens a layer pellet, such as Layena, in restricted amounts. This food is not ideal, but little is known about their nutritional needs in a sanctuary or companion animal setting, and the foods created for them are designed for rapid weight gain.
Providing one-third to one-half cup of pellets per bird twice a day will ensure adequate nutrition while keeping their weight manageable. Providing less than that, or using feed that does not contain the proper levels of calcium and other nutrients, can cause health problems, such as rickets or softening bones, and can contribute to earlier death. Providing pasture (i.e., a yard) is also a good way to supplement the diet and keep them active. Weighing these birds monthly will allow you to modify their food intake as needed, cutting back on pelleted feed if they are gaining weight during spring and summer while foraging on plants and bugs.
Feeders. The use of standard poultry feeders is fine for flocks of birds. Feeders can be ordered online from companies such as www.enasco.com or from your local feed store. You must have enough feeders to accommodate all the birds at one time to prevent stronger birds from monopolizing access to the feed and ensure that weaker birds are able to eat enough. This will take a bit of trial and error. There should be enough space along the sides of the feeder(s) to accommodate every bird. If some chickens attempt to push others away from the feed, add another feeder. As the chickens grow larger, increase the number of feeders, but not the total amount of feed for the flock. If you have only a few birds, you can instead use individual bowls to feed them.
Handling Cornish Chickens
Do not attempt to handle Cornish birds unassisted until you are familiar and comfortable with the practice. Herd chickens into a small pen or area to minimize the need to chase them, which in this breed can cause cardiac arrest. Corner birds in as small an area as possible. To pick up a young chicken, place one hand gently but firmly on the chicken’s back while putting the other hand in front of the bird’s chest to prevent forward movement. Next, move both hands firmly over the wings to limit wing movement and lift the bird. Their wings are very short and stubby and harder to control than those of other chicken breeds, so really be sure you hold their wings against the body so they cannot flap when you lift them.
As Cornish breed chickens grow, they become more uncomfortable with handling and can actually die when they are picked up or restrained. If you must handle a full-grown Cornish chicken, fold your arms and upper body over the wings and back of the chicken, hug firmly, and lift. Stay low to the ground when handling or performing treatments on the bird. Never flip a large-breed chicken on his back. Although this maneuver can be performed safely on layer hens and other smaller-breed chickens, it can cause cardiac arrest or injury in the giant Cornish breeds. Gently lay him on your lap so that he is partially on his side, but do not rest him completely on his side. Always keep a firm grip on the chicken. Pin one wing against your lap and hold the other with your hand to prevent flapping until the bird is calm. If the chicken panics, you must put him down and start over again. Some birds have no trouble being handled and will sit in your lap when you work on them. Others will become so stressed that they cannot breathe properly. The key is to monitor the chickens while you are working with them and to stop treatment on any birds who show signs of stress. If they breathe with open mouths or their color becomes dark purple or even darker red, put them down and allow them to calm down
Our cultural assumptions and notions about roosters are sadly shallow reflections of their true personalities. Living with them as we do, as vegans, we cannot but appreciate their beauty … and feel dismay over the fact that so many see them as merely unwanted “byproducts” of the eggs they eat. Roosters are easily the most in need of rescue. Wherever there are backyard chicken-keepers, there will be roosters in shelters who have been surrendered, let loose to roam, or neglected/abused. Craigslist is also a terrible testament to the dire situation that roosters face.
Most roosters are killed when just a few days old at hatcheries, but even if they do make it out alive their fate is perilous at best. They need your help.
Unfortunately, many municipalities that allow backyard chickens prohibit roosters. If you can find a creative way to skirt the ordinances (which are mostly complaint driven), do so. House roosters are a good way to do that!
Probably the most common reason people give for not rescuing roosters is fear that they are dangerous, aggressive, mean, or in some other way intimidating. While some roosters can be particularly feisty (as is true for animals of any species and sex), much of this is based on 1) how they have been treated by humans (who usually do not like them very much), and 2) a misunderstanding of the natural instincts of roosters.
Roosters’ primary roles in a flock are to defend the hens, find food for the hens, watch out for predators, and monitor flock dynamics (as well as mating with the hens, of course). Their instincts to defend makes it very likely that, if they feel threatened by you or unsure of your motives with the flock, they may try to protect their hens. With proper socialization, they usually feel safe with you and understand that you are in charge of things, which in turn makes them feel more secure and relaxed. They also can be integrated together, rather than kept entirely separate from each other–usually without hens in the same group with multiple roosters, though this is not an absolute impossibility, and depending on individual temperaments and other factors.
If you put in the time and give them the affection they so frequently enjoy, your bond with them will often be extremely strong. They have wonderful personalities and are worthy of our efforts and our care. Please make a space for one or more if you can.