Each year, the first signs of spring in Quebec stir people’s interest in urban agriculture. The pandemic has only accentuated this trend, which has been growing over the last decade. Many municipalities have recently yielded to citizen pressure and modified their bylaws to allow backyard chicken keeping.
At first glace, it might seem like a fine idea to swap out grocery store eggs for those laid by chickens who are well cared for right in the backyard. However, we often forget that, for every laying hen, a male chick is killed some time after hatching. Any surviving male chicks are the exception to this rule, and their fate remains most uncertain.
Unlike their female counterparts, male chicks will never lay eggs and are thus considered useless by-products of the egg industry. For profitability and efficiency, five million male chicks are therefore killed each year in Quebec, shortly after hatching. This fate awaits the little brothers of all laying hens, whether in the egg industry or the charming DIY henhouse in your backyard.
It entails the brutal elimination of millions of newly hatched chicks. If puppies or kittens were subjected to this same process, we would undoubtedly do everything in our power to stop the carnage. Yet, with chickens, the practice is merely seen as a necessary evil. However, alternatives do exist. It is now possible to determine the sex of an unhatched bird during the incubation period, and thus keep male chicks from hatching altogether. In fact, legislative and corporate discussions are currently underway in several European countries, including France, Germany and Italy, to introduce in-ovo sexing.
In Quebec, chick sexing is not such an exact science. Mistaken for females, many male chicks accidentally escape the grisly fate of their brothers. In fact, year after year, dozens of city dwellers contact the Montreal SPCA when they realize that their hen is actually a rooster! Typically, they want to get rid of the bird who is waking up their neighbours at the crack of dawn. Even if someone wanted to, most municipal bylaws prohibit keeping a rooster.
The Montreal SPCA does its best to find sanctuaries to take in these birds, but rehoming a rooster is a real challenge. In the United States, where urban chickens are even more widespread, many shelters have been forced to refuse roosters.
To avoid placing this additional burden on shelters and to stop contributing to the slaughter of male chicks, municipalities that allow backyard chickens should do their part by also permitting roosters in their bylaws.
In addition to male chick carnage and the burden roosters place on shelters looms a public health issue: the threat of zoonoses, such as salmonellosis and campylobacteriosis, and the higher incidence of contagious disease caused by deficient vaccination in urban production.
In light of these issues, adopting hens is clearly much less bucolic than it first appears. Furthermore, what will happen to these laying hens once their productivity decreases or when they become ill? Are families who adopt backyard chickens also prepared to care for them through old age or sickness?
Municipalities that choose to allow their citizens to keep chickens should address these many public health and animal welfare issues.
In the meantime, current developments in food innovation, such as alternative plant and cell-based proteins, take animals out of the equation, yet produce the same foods we know and love. With a little luck, a more sustainable, safe and just trend will emerge in the next few years, perhaps even ruling out the need for chickens in egg production altogether?
Executive Director of the Montreal SPCA