2/8/13

The ugly truth about vegetarian hens

If you're like lots of egg eaters who don't own their own laying hens, you buy the fancy, vegetarian, cage-free, organic eggs at the supermarket.


Maybe you buy them because you care about the humane treatment of animals. Cage-free eggs mean the chickens actually walk around, doing what nature intended chickens to do, which is far better than the alternative. Those cheap eggs come from hens that spend their lives in a tiny, dusty, brightly lit prison cell, eating, pooping, and laying eggs, ultimately culminating in their sad, untimely deaths in a matter of mere months. Yes, cage-free is DEFINITELY better.

Maybe you buy the fancy eggs because you're making a conscious decision to eat healthier. Organic is good, vegetarian diet is really good. The chickens that lay your eggs need to be meat-free in order to produce healthy eggs, right? Surely the soy or other organic vegetarian protein source in their vegetarian feed offers the hens enough protein to produce tasty, high-quality eggs. Well, friends, that's the theory.

Here's the reality. Chickens are omnivores. That means, they're NOT vegetarians, and an "all vegetarian diet" is not what nature intended. It's also impossible to completely control what a chicken eats, without confining it to a cage 24 hours a day. As a result, healthy, cage-free birds find other ways to obtain their necessary protein from their environment. Outdoors, that means they have access to bugs, worms, snails, slugs--normal chicken fare. In a mostly indoor, cage-free environment, it means they will most likely be eating their own eggs, sometimes other chickens, and, lots of times, rodents.

Case in point: A couple mornings ago, I went in to feed our hens and immediately realized my kids had left the lid ajar on the grain bin. This is what I saw when I opened it.


Yep, no fewer than 19 mice trapped in the bottom of the feed bin. Hmm. Now what? Since Boy was party to the violation that led to the rodent entrapment, I enlisted him to help me dispatch them, but not before our hen Pecky caught sight of the little buggers frantically scurrying and jumping up and down in the grain bin.


Pecky wasted no time. She reached down and plucked a mouse out of the bin before I could do anything to stop her, and then the game was afoot. Off she hustled, carrying the twitching rodent in her beak, being chased by the other hungry, jealous hens, hoping to secure a place to enjoy her prize without competition.


To extract the rest of the mice, Boy and I took turns tipping the grain bin and stomping the mice as they ran out. Boy wasn't really on his "A" game and let more escape alive than I would have liked, but never fear, the hens took care of the runaways, whacking the rodents in the head then carting them off to devour in private.


Each of our hens consumed at least one mouse, several mice got away, and we tossed a few dead ones into the pasture for some other hungry scavenger.

This was not the first time I've witnessed our hens in their omnivorous duties. In fact, once, I found myself giving the Heimlich maneuver to a hen who became distressed after running around for 15 minutes with a rodent body hanging out of her mouth. By trapping her and gently pressing her keel bone against the lower rail of the paddock fence, she inevitably expelled the over-sized mouse in her struggles, which freed her to peck around at the vegetarian delicacies once again. Odd, I know, but farm life just has its oddities.

Just so we're clear, our backyard hens live pampered, cage free, indoor-outdoor lives. They are fed a normal chicken feed ration, plus vegetarian kitchen scraps, and are allowed to forage outside for greens and bugs when weather permits. Our eggs are top quality and delicious, and it is completely impossible to tell what exactly each hen ate before laying her latest egg. So, while it may be a selling point to the Organic Cage Free Egg industry that their "organic hens are fed a 100% organic vegetarian diet," you now know the ugly truth about the sinister nature of chickens.

So, let's review what we've just learned:
  1. Not even organically raised chickens are vegetarians
  2. No matter what you feed a cage free hen, in the end, she will eat what she wants, including mice
  3. If you want to catch a bunch of mice all at once, leave the lid off the grain bin and come back in the morning


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