The Rapunzels: A Fairy Tale About Birds

  Four Rapunzels bask under a sunny September sky.

Four Rapunzels bask under a sunny September sky.

A year and two months after taking 20 "spent hens" under our proverbial wing, we're taking a look back at the lives of our rescue chickens.

It was February of 2012, right around Valentine's Day, when we decided to pursue a rescue of 20 "spent" laying hens from a local egg farm. Since it was a bit of a love story that involved some damsels in distress, we thought we'd name all the rescue birds Rapunzel. The egg farm in question was all too happy to part with the "spent" birds. You see in the commercial egg business, it doesn't make sense to house chickens that are past their peek production. Here are the facts on that:

  • There are more than 280 million egg-laying hens in the United States confined to battery cages — small wire cages stacked in tiers and lined up in rows inside warehouses. In accordance with the USDA's recommendation to give each hen four inches of 'feeder space,' hens are commonly packed four to a cage measuring 16 inches wide.
  • Because egg-laying chicken breeds have been genetically selected exclusively for maximum egg production, they don't grow fast or large enough to be raised profitably for meat. Therefore, male chicks of egg-laying breeds are of no economic value, and they are discarded on the day they hatch. 
  • Female birds' confined space doesn't allow the ladies to stretch their wings or legs, and they can't fulfill normal behavioral patterns or social needs like scratching in the dirt, chasing bugs, or taking dust baths. Rubbing against wire cages means these birds lose a lot of feathers; and it's not uncommon for the ladies to have lots of bruises and abrasions. 
  • To reduce injuries from excessive pecking—a behavior that occurs when confined hens are bored, stressed, or frustrated—most laying hens' beaks are cut off. 
  • Laying hens' bodies suffer from massive egg production (250 eggs/year on average): They suffer from "fatty liver syndrome" and "cage layer fatigue"; and, percentage-wise, after about a year most hens in the egg industry are considered "spent" and sent to slaughter. The hens who did nothing but lay eggs usually end up in soups, pot pies, dog food, or similar low-grade chicken meat products.

I know, yuck.

So we readied some coops, researched proper care of spent hens and how to rehab them, and set about getting the grounds ready for our tired-out newcomers. By last August, we were ready to go on our rescue mission. On Aug. 23, 2012, three of us drove out to a small, family farm that by all accounts is considered a hygienic, high-quality operation of about 20,000 birds—small by factory standards! Even so, the birds were kept indoors in very cramped conditions. They had never been outside, never walked on the ground, never known a breeze, or a floor that wasn't a mesh cage.

We picked the Rapunzels up and brought them back to the farm. Their beaks had all been clipped, rendering their mouths into a puckered shape uncharacteristic of any bird. Their toenails were so long they had trouble getting around (a few couldn't walk at all). Many had open wounds, all were filthy. They were all missing feathers on their bellies and butts and backs from rubbing up against the cage and each other, and their undercarriages were horribly swollen.

  Sally Jane and Matt pick up one of the Rapunzels.

Sally Jane and Matt pick up one of the Rapunzels.

We sponged the girls up, clipped their toenails, and introduced them to fresh water and soft grass:

It took them a few weeks to get the hang of running around, scratching in the dirt, and—most challenging—figuring out that sunset meant going into the coops. But learn they did. And though some of the girls, as expected, didn't survive (we lost 6 of the 20), we now have 14 of the toughest survivors you've ever seen. Here's the crew after one week:

...and two months:

...and now, a year later. These ladies outlay all our other chickens, by the way—hardly what you'd expect from "spent" hens:

You can sponsor one of our rescue hens for just $5 a month, which provides the bird with nutritious food, round-the-clock care, coop updates, and all the love in the world. Sponsors receive monthly email updates and photos. Email info@betterfarm.org to find out more.

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Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.