The woman who brought three Silkie roosters to our New York Shelter this winter never meant to have any roosters in the first place. She had purchased the chickens as babies to raise in a backyard hobby flock. The seller told her that the chicks were all female but also assured her that if any turned out to be male, he would take them back — just don’t ask what will happen to them afterwards.
Around the same time the Silkies arrived, someone left a box containing four leghorn roosters at the shelter. Leghorns are a popular breed for egg laying, both among factory farm operators and hobbyists. These birds were apparently from a backyard flock as well.
Meanwhile, a local resident near the shelter discovered four abandoned bantam-cross roosters in her yard. At the time, temperatures were in the teens, and wind-chills were below zero. Fearing the chickens would die from the cold, the woman called us. We rushed out to pick up the roosters and bring them to the sanctuary. Two had already contracted severe frostbite on their combs. Like the other new arrivals, these roosters were likely rejects from a small hobby flock.
These newcomers are just the latest in a stream of roosters we’ve welcomed to our shelters over the years, along with many others we have helped placed through our network. In recent years, Farm Sanctuary and other rescue groups have been inundated with requests to place unwanted or abandoned roosters. Even municipal shelters have experienced a huge influx of dumped chickens. The numbers are overwhelming; there is simply not enough space at shelters and adoptive homes for all the roosters in need.
The driving force behind this crisis is the swelling popularity of small hobby flocks. An offshoot of locavore and DIY trends, backyard chicken raising appeals to many as an alternative to buying eggs (and in some cases chicken meat) produced by large, industrial farms. What many backyard raisers don’t realize is that their small operations are inextricably tangled up in the industrial animal agriculture system. The questions well-meaning hobbyists don’t ask are killing millions of chickens.
Where do the chicks come from?
Chicks purchased from feed stores or catalogues come from the same sort of industrial hatcheries as those that supply factory farms. These huge facilities hatch millions of chicks each year and ship them to consumers and vendors in cardboard boxes when they are just one day old — a harrowing journey that can last up to 72 hours and can prove fatal.
The vast majority of buyers, both large egg farms and backyard operations, want only hens. Roosters don’t produce eggs, and keeping them is prohibited by most city ordinances. Invariably, about half of all chicks born at hatcheries are male.
So, what happens to these male chicks?
Facilities employ various methods to dispose of these unwanted chicks. Sometimes they grind live, conscious chicks into fertilizer or dump them into plastic bags to die slowly of suffocation or exposure.
Then how do customers end up with un-ordered males?
Producers may use some male chicks as packing material, stuffing them into boxes of female chicks to fill empty space. Due to the inexactitude of chick sexing, hatcheries also sometimes include baby roosters in hen orders by mistake. In this way, countless backyard flock enthusiasts have found themselves with illegal roosters on their hands.
What happens to the roosters these people don’t want or aren’t allowed to keep?
Many roosters are dumped at municipals shelters, where they may be euthanized. Others are simply abandoned, everywhere from parks to wooded areas to vacant lots. Their erstwhile caregivers may think they are setting these birds free, but they are actually delivering them into a life of hardship and peril that is likely to be cut short violently — by starvation, exposure, predator attacks, or traffic accidents. These abandoned chickens are domestic birds, unequipped to fend for themselves. Tiny bantam varieties like Silkies, bred essentially for ornamental purposes, are especially vulnerable .
Billions of male chickens are killed at hatcheries before they see the light of day. Like their sisters who live in torturous confinement on egg farms and perish young at slaughterhouses, these birds live and die invisibly. The preponderance of abandoned roosters who turn up in yards, at shelters, and even on city streets is a rare visible symptom of this insidious system — and it should be a wake-up call for everyone who buys into that system, whether at the grocery store or in their own back yard.
Into the Light
The roosters we welcomed to our New York Shelter this winter are no longer invisible. We see them, and not as byproducts or mistakes but as fellow beings. Each possesses and loves a life of his very own.
So allow us to introduce Weechee, Widdle, and Wicket (the silkies); Johnny, Sid, Paul, and Glen (the bantam-cross boys who came in from the cold); and Marvin, Smokey, Stevie, and Ray (the leghorn guys who were left at the shelter). The sweetest of the bunch are young Stevie and Ray, who will gladly sit on your lap and may even drift off to sleep there .
They and the other roosters are thriving here. Of the two who had severe frostbite, Johnny lost part of his comb, and Sid lost all of his, but both have nonetheless recovered and are happy, healthy roos. All these feathered friends perform two important duties at Farm Sanctuary: 1) to be ambassadors for the invisible roosters who so desperately need change; and 2) to enjoy their lives. They are very good at both.