NAWAC’s proposed new minimum standard, for ‘enriched’ cages for battery hens, still denies the hens the daily things that bring most joy to their clucking hearts: freedom, and humanity

Joan Chooken the matriarch, Peggy and Ruth, Poppy and Rose Buff-Orpington have stepped through the ‘meadow’ in my back yard; under the plum trees, some of them are dust-bathing now, eternally.

Lined up in the wings, as it were, the names of next year’s pullets are hatching in my mind: Betsy, Vera, and Charlotte.

They are all the same — and all just a little bit different. They are smart, in a chickeny way — good at the things that matter to chooks. They ask little of life. Every day in which they get to do those things is a good one, and they like to do them, every day.

> A stroll along the roadside, in the early morning.
> Catching insects, at dusk and dawn, perching on a stump.
> The odd moment of hilarity: all of the chooks, which are fat, attempting insect-catching on the same stump, which is small.

Bathing-holes dug, with love, for chooks will be politely inspected, then ignored. These are not the right chook-shape; they make their own, and melt into it, and each other, a puddle of feathers. They need sunshine, to calcify their eggs — they hang out their wings to catch it, like Icarus. Have you ever seen a chook, eyes closed, in what really ought to be a private moment, turning herself inside out, in the dust, in the sun?

> A fossick through a pile of fresh weeds — chickweed, of course, with a worm or two still attached.
> Dainty grass-seed snipping.
> Standing on tippy-toe, picking redcurrants off the bushes.

They are social birds. Someone broods, someone dies, someone makes a new best friend; they establish and re-establish the pecking order. Once that protocol is observed, they are a happy harmonious little band. Part of being social, for them, as for us all, is a bit of space.

They are sustainable gardeners. I give them a bag of sunflower chaff. They eat some, and ‘plant’ the rest. Sunflowers grow, which I like, and go to seed, which pleases them.

They have the grace to look guilty, and the smarts to run, as fast as their short legs will carry them, when discovered on accidental recce in the garden.

They can tell friends from strangers, especially strange men, whom they do not like, and cats.

Rose Orpington spends her summers brooding, certain that if she thinks hard enough about babies, babies there will be. I buy her some fertile eggs: she is stubborn, I am tired of fighting, and it feels like the right thing to do. Babies duly hatch — five pairs of bright brown eyes, snuggled under Mummie’s chest — and I watch a feather-brained bad-tempered little bird transform into the best wee mother in the world. She has found her purpose in life: it is the only thing she wants to do, and it is such a small life, in the scheme of things, a half-dozen years at the most. Why should she not?

Little mother Rose knows on which side her bread is buttered. We have some trouble with a stoat. She learns to bring what is left of her family inside at night — right inside, down the hall, every evening as the sun goes down. “This way, babies. Come on, babies.” It is just like the advertisement.

For their keep, for a few years, they lay eggs that no money can buy.

For the record, there is nothing economically rational about it: these are expensive eggs. But there is some sort of bucolic sense, that defies a dollar analysis.

Comments (14)

by Judy Martin on March 22, 2011
Judy Martin

Amelia (the boss), because she would flap up to grab pellets from my hand as I took them from the container; Rosalind (the quiet busy one), because my daughter wanted one named after a scientist; Gretel (the nosy one), because my husband used to hold imaginary conversations in chicken with a hen named Gretel; Pearl (the mean girl) because she was the palest of them all; and Hil(l)ary, who always wanted to be as high as possible (relevant for either gender) and who we finally realised was trying to escape from the perpetual bossiness of Amelia, and one rank up Pearl. Gretel died last week, alas, the others are doing the chooky things you describe in the pumpkin patch. Most of the time they live in a bamboo pentagon.

For eighteen months they have paid for their keep many times over, not just in entertainment and companionship, but in eggs and vege garden soil management. But, like nuclear power, I suppose one should consider the whole of life perspective. I still think the chooks will come out on top.

I was going to say how nice it is to not always have to discuss serious topics, but our relationship with our animals and the way we treat them is one of the most important, after all.

by Claire Browning on March 23, 2011
Claire Browning

I should have said that the draft code of welfare is still open for public submission, until April 29.

Judy -- thank you.

by Quentin Duthie on March 23, 2011
Quentin Duthie

As a new famer of two brown shavers - Mo and Flo - I enjoyed your personal, yet political, post. They're good layers so we get two eggs a day. Not quite enough to offset the time and cost in providing for them, but as you say it defies a dollar analysis. However, the economics of my family includes social wellbeing and pleasure. While not quantifiable, these are economic values too. Segway to Geoff Bertram's similar argument re mining and conservation land in the latest IPS Policy Quarterly. [PDF]

by Joe Wylie on March 23, 2011
Joe Wylie

A little story I came across years ago that's kind of haunted me was about a bunch of battery hens that were liberated to join a free-range colony. They immediately set to scratching away and doing all of those chicken things that the cage egg industry once assured us had been selectively bred out of them. At nightfall they flew up to roost on a low branch with their free-range companions. Sadly their leg muscles had become atrophied, and they fell and broke their necks during the night.

One little downside I've discovered from minding someone's backyard layers is their occasional tendency to lay in secret places. Still, once you eventually find the eggs they're a lot easier to retrieve than errant guinea pigs.

by Jordan Wyatt on March 23, 2011
Jordan Wyatt

As a friend to several Chickens, I applaud anyone who will care for another animal, there are certainly many Chickens out there who need a good home.

I upload videos of my Chicken Friends to promote Veganism, respect for all

Through sharing gentle videos, of my little friends in the Southland sun, nobody is upset, nobody is offended, and everyone can enjoy.

Welfare reforms are meaningless, and encourage killing 56 Billion* other land animals each year.  ( UN FAO 2007 PDF, will start downloading automatically if you click this link )

Its as easy to be Vegan as not, and its the least others deserve, not to be seen as a "thing", an "it", as our property, but as our friends :-)

If you're interested in learning more, please try these shows, many from New Zealand

and Professor Gary Franciones Abolitionist Approach website


Jordan Wyatt
Invercargill Vegan Society

by Claire Browning on March 24, 2011
Claire Browning

As a friend to several Chickens, I applaud anyone who will care for another animal, there are certainly many Chickens out there who need a good home.

Love those capital 'C's.

I enjoyed your personal, yet political, post ...

Astute of you, Quentin. Yes. Also, I am glad at least someone is on-message, and bringing the hard-headed analysis ...

Still, once you eventually find the eggs they're a lot easier to retrieve than errant guinea pigs.

?? Where's the rest of the story?

by Joe Wylie on March 25, 2011
Joe Wylie

?? Where's the rest of the story?

No story, no threadjack, just an attempt to end a possibly ill-advised recollection on a lighter note.

Having been faced with the task of retrieving a pair of bantam eggs and a stray guinea pig* from beneath a very large wisteria, I can report that Miss Piggy took vastly longer to fetch out. If eggs had that uncanny ability to casually move just beyond one's grasp the cause of veganism would be greatly advantaged.

*I've heard it claimed that they really love to be caught, they just play hard to get.


by Claire Browning on March 25, 2011
Claire Browning
Yes, well, I thought you sounded like a man who had come off worst from the encounter, and might like to share with the group. As for the footnote: I could not possibly comment.
by Tom Bennion on March 28, 2011
Tom Bennion

Some years back SAFE and others successfully argued before the Regulations Review Committee that the Animal Welfare Act, which allows you to restrict natural movement of animals only in 'extraordinary circumstances' did not allow promulgation of a code that includes cages and no phase out date for them, when the same code includes a perfectly good alternative that meets the requirements of the Act - namely, barn laid. This Code may be open to the same argument. The last government simply side-stepped the report of the committee. This proposed Code may be open to similar challenge - although High Court action may be the only way to ensure compliance with the Act. For the report and response google "regulations review committee hens"


by Nicola Vallance on March 30, 2011
Nicola Vallance

As someone who  names all of her cars, i have yet to name my chickens... they are 'the chooks', and i am at once fascinated by them and exasperated by them.

Once we got around fencing off various bits of the garden to keep them out (we have re-engineered the classic 'taranaki gate', to a series of 'taranaki fences' in our suburban backyard), I find the chooks to be a daily source of interest and amusement.

The bloke reckons they are like the chickens in a Gary Larson cartoon, somewhat sinister, and always appearing to be planning something. The dog takes this suspicion one step further and simply refuses to set foot in the backyard if they are out of the chookhouse.  Somewhat embarrassed by Nemo's sookiness over chookiness (perhaps not helped by his wussy name!), i once left him out there as an experiment. To my astonishment, I watched all three chooks work in formation, to appear one from each side of him, and one (the smallest and gutsiest) in th front, fluffing up her feathers and stomping towards his face while kicking her claws up in front of him. Needless to say, I don't subject Nemo to this kind of trauma anymore!

Despite their vegetable snatching, dog-terrorising tactics, I do love our chooks. I love the simple pleasure of watching them scratch and peck their way around the garden, and I too am amazed by the sight of a hen turning herself almost inside out in a dust bowl she has spent the morning meticulously creating. 

I have only purchased freerange eggs for some years now (even as a broke student), and moving to having your own home-grown eggs is something that you can't put a price on. The taste is incredible, the deep orange yolks are divine just to look at.  That said, I reckon they've saved us quite a bit of dosh.

To my chookies, you drive me crazy, and the bloke too, but we love the energy you bring to our place.

by Claire Browning on March 30, 2011
Claire Browning

The taste is incredible, the deep orange yolks are divine just to look at ...

Someone a lot more articulate than me once said of my eggs - well, not mine personally, you understand - that "they were like eating sunshine". I went home and told the chookies. They were very pleased.

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