Hatching a Bad Idea

By Alistair Cornell — March 18, 2013

What happens when chicks in school hatching projects grow into roosters?

“It’s a boy!” is often greeted with delight. Yet if the boy happens to be part of a clutch of newly hatched eggs, what happens when the cute little chicken grows into a rooster? Being a boy isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be, especially if you are a chicken (and I promise that’s the only egg joke I’m going to make.)

Every year in schools around the world, lessons in the “miracle of life” are being illustrated through the hatching of chicks. Carefully incubated for 21 days, fertilised eggs eventually reveal adorable yellow balls of fluff with pink beaks and inquisitive natures.

Amazing yes, but that’s often where the lesson ends and the problems start. Sometimes the hatchlings are returned to the supplier, where they are killed, or they are distributed amongst the class and community as backyard hens – something very popular in Australia.

Incubating eggs is a delicate process where the mother hen carefully rolls the eggs to ensure proper development of the embryo. Temperature, humidity, and rotation must be carefully managed. Otherwise chicks can hatch with often fatal or debilitating problems and deformities.

Around half of the eggs are destined to be boys – a point often overlooked by people hoping to have a hen so they can eat her eggs. In factory farming of egg-laying birds, the chicks are sexed when only days old, and hundreds of thousands of males are discarded and killed in the cheapest ways possible. The females are sent on to live their shortened lives mostly in huge sheds full of crowded little wire cages. A lucky few will find themselves at “barn” or “free range” operations where they lay eggs for 18 months before going to slaughter.

Being born to a hatching project sounds like a good thing. Although the school projects are intended to showcase the miracle of life, those who run the projects often fail to take the long term view. Sadly, few people like roosters. Most urban councils restrict their ownership in order to prevent conflict between neighbours. This means that when the delightful balls of yellow fuzz grow into handsome gentlemen, even if there are people willing to provide them with good care, they are simply not allowed to. As they gain their voices, the affection can drop sharply.

They are unpopular, with nowhere to go, handed from one home to another or abandoned to the wild. Temporarily part of someone’s family, they are then discarded as a nuisance. Roosters often get passed around until they are killed or dumped at animal shelters. A small number are fortunate enough to find their way to animal shelters.

One of these shelters is A Poultry Place, founded by Bede Carmody in 2001 just outside of Australia’s Capital Territory. Bede has cared for over 400 roosters during this time, many of them the result of school hatching projects in the region. Bede tells the stories of residents fortunate enough to find their way to A Poultry Place.

There are a lot of roosters, and the shelter is punctuated with their calls. The boys are largely separated from the girls, and they form groups with natural hierarchies after a period of observed acclimatisation. There is the occasional kerfuffle as the pecking order is literally recalibrated, but for the most part they spend their days foraging and calling happily.

Only the fortunate few find their way to compassionate people like Bede. He’s careful about rehoming anyone that settles into A Poultry Place, but wryly says that “no one wants roosters,” so usually they live out their lives with him.

It’s not surprising that many sanctuaries have information on hatching programs and alternatives. Edgar’s Mission, a farmed animal sanctuary north of Melbourne in Victoria, has a page on their website dedicated to the issues involved in using live animals as teaching tools. They have suggestions for alternatives that are more effective than bringing new lives into a world that doesn’t want the responsibility for them as adult animals.

A quick web search of companies that provide fertilised eggs and incubators for hatching projects shows that most of them neglect to mention the 50:50 ratio of boys to girls. The Happy Chick Company attempts to ensure that all of the hatchlings will be taken care of, but even they admit that it’s very difficult to rehome roosters.

The U.S. advocacy group United Poultry Concerns provides an excellent resource, Hatching a Good Idea, that explains the problem and has alternatives with higher learning outcomes that don’t involve treating animals as disposable educational tools.

If you have kids in school or even day care, have a chat with the teachers and management about alternatives that teach kids in a kinder way. If there is an animal sanctuary near you that allows visitors, consider a day trip to meet and learn about the residents that have been fortunate enough to escape the fate of many in school hatching projects.

* Photos courtesy of A Poultry Place

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