We recently received an e-mail from a reader asking for more information about laying hens, as explored in our article A Hen’s Relationship With Her Eggs. For an expert opinion on the subject, we turned to friends who have lived and worked alongside many hens who rescued from situations where they were being used as egg layers.
Here was the response, from the always articulate Joanna Lucas:
It’s important to note that the problem with consuming “local, free-range, organic” eggs is not the hens’ potential attachment to their eggs, because most commercial “layer” breeds (Leghorns, Minorcas, Rhode Island Reds and Barred Rock) have had the “broodiness” bred out of them in order to ensure uninterrupted laying. So, in the absence of a desire to “brood” (become mothers), these hens do not get attached to their eggs, nor do they stop laying if their eggs are left in place.
They will continue to lay the 250-300 eggs/year that they have been genetically forced to produce, whether their eggs are removed or not. As the birds age, they will lay fewer and fewer eggs, with more and more health complications, but neither removing their eggs nor leaving them in place will affect their laying rate. At Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary we collect the eggs on a daily basis and feed them back to the birds, which they love, as you can see here.
Regarding the hen in the article, it’s theoretically possible that she was one of the rare “broody” layer breeds. If so, the presence of several eggs in her clutch would indicate that she had laid them in an already prepared nest over at least as many days, and she may have been getting ready to set. In that case, she would have been invested in the future of the embryos potentially contained in her eggs, and taking them would have distressed her but, as I said, “broody” hens are not welcome in egg production precisely because they stop laying when they go “broody”.
So, regarding your reader’s question, I’d suggest that, if she wants to understand why consuming “local, free-range and organic” eggs is unethical, she should consider these questions.
1. Where do the hens come from?
2. Where are their brothers?
3. Where are their parents?
4. What happens to the hens’ bodies as a result of being genetically manipulated to produce an unnaturally large number of unnaturally large eggs?
5. What happens to the hens when they stop laying eggs at a profitable rate?
6. Why are the hens here in the first place, severed from their natural world and denied a natural life?
7. Why do we think of chickens, and other animals, as food or sources of food?
And, if she wants to add the question of a hen’s attachment to her eggs to the list, perhaps a more accurate way to look at it is not its presence, but its forced absence. Given that a “natural” mother hen’s attachment to her babies at all stages of their development, from embryo to chick, is very deep and very real, the fact that we deprive trillions of females of even the possibility of ever experiencing one of the most powerful and natural drives in their lives — that of becoming mothers — adds yet another layer of cruelty and depravity of our plunder for a handful of eggs.
I’d like to add that “broilers”, too, have been selectively bred against broodiness because, in an era when chicks are mass produced in incubators, broodiness is considered not only a nuisance, but an economic disaster. The parents of “broiler” chickens are expected to lay 150-180 eggs/year, eggs which will be hatched in incubators. Allowing these mother birds to stop laying once or twice a year in order to raise “only” a handful of chicks would be extremely unprofitable for the producer. But genetically forcing these “breeding” females to keep laying without interruption will yield a constant supply of fertilized eggs for the producers to incubate and hatch into a constant supply of “broilers”.
Once in a great while, a “commercial broiler” hen like Louise will remember her mothering instincts and go broody, but she is the rare exception. The overwhelming majority of commercial “layers” and “broilers” will never feel the call to become mothers. Even hens of most heritage chicken breeds cannot be “relied on” to go broody, which is why backyard chicken enthusiasts who want to raise their own flocks, either mail order the chicks from hatcheries, or hatch the fertilized eggs in homemade incubators.
All in all, it’s a deeply depressing picture: entire nations of mother birds who have forgotten that their eggs have any relation to raising families and perpetuating the species, and entire nations of baby birds whose only experience of motherhood is one of maternal deprivation.