The chi chickens

EARTHFUTURE by Guy Dauncey

We keep chickens – five mature females and two youngsters – who we think are roosters. That spells possible trouble ahead, since the roosters may fight once they mature, but right now they are total buddies, scouting the garden for bugs, seeds, worms and anything else that pleases a young chicken’s palate.

These are some happy chickens. They have a custom-made home I made using a plan from a 1948 British gardening book, with cozy roosting boxes and a shaded space where they can shelter from the rain. For much of the year, however, we open the gate, giving them an acre of rural land to wander.

I never thought much about chickens before we had them. To see them in their free state has been a revelation. Every day they explore the garden, clean up fallen birdseed and scratch for bugs everywhere. In summer they jump for the lowest-hanging raspberries. These are wild birds that humans have domesticated; they are the closest living relatives of the dinosaur.

After a morning of hunting and gathering, they look for a quiet place with whatever sun they can find to lie in; our dog and cats don’t bother them.

Their chi – their life energy – is healthy and alive. It is so satisfying to see how they enjoy their daily explorations, how they bond together and how they play their little pecking order games, just as humans do. How they rush to hide a tasty morsel of food, trying their best to eat it in private. How they clearly enjoy their lives. And how they chatter – chickens make up to 200 different sounds, using 30 different phrases.

When dusk falls, they slowly make their way back to the henhouse; there’s always one who lingers for the last bug. One of our young cockerels has decided he prefers to roost in a tree so he makes an effortful jump-fly into the branches of the maple that overhangs the coop.

We’re vegetarian so we keep our chickens for their eggs, which they announce with a squawk. When they stop laying, we keep them till they die – or are killed, alas. We live in the country where mink, eagles, hawks and raccoons all fancy a tasty chicken, if they can catch one.

Contrast this with the life of a captive chicken, forced, if it’s laying, to spend its whole short life in a cage the size of a piece of paper, stacked on high with 30,000 other birds. If it’s a broiler, raised for its meat, it is crammed in a space so crowded that each fellow chicken has an average of just 550 square centimetres (9 inches by 9 inches) in which to live out its entire life. Being crammed so tightly, they peck each other. To prohibit them, the ends of their upper and lower beaks are forcibly cut off, using an electrically heated blade.

In Britain, during the run of celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s TV series, Hugh’s Chicken Run, residents of the Devon town of Axminster were invited to see free-range and intensive systems alongside each other in a shed. Many people left in tears and half of the four million viewers who saw the shows said they would only buy free-range chicken.

This is our doing, driven by profit and the desire for a cheap chicken wing, regardless of the pain it causes. We cause the birds’ suffering and we can end it, if we choose.

Sweden banned battery cages in 1995, Austria in 2004, Germany in 2007 and all of Europe will do so in 2012. In California, voters in November’s elections approved a motion to end the use of battery cages, as well as cramming veal calves and breeding pigs into cages and crates so small that the animals cannot turn around or fully extend their limbs.

What about Canada? Which of our politicians will speak up for the chickens? They are awaiting our choice to set them free.

Guy Dauncey is president of the BC Sustainable Energy Association, editor of EcoNews and author of Stormy Weather: 101 Solutions to Global Climate Change and other titles. He lives in Victoria.

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