“Under the Henfluence” Urges Us to See Hens as Complex Beings

by Leo Kirts

Published: 5/10/23, Last updated: 1/22/24

The chirping begins hours before dawn. On a given morning, tens of thousands of chicks hatch from their warm ivory shells under the glow of artificial incubators at Murray McMurray Hatchery in Webster City, Iowa. These chicks will eventually become egg layers on small farms, homesteads, or in backyard coops across the country. The facility’s floor is covered in eggshells and reeks of sulfur from the slow-cooking of infertile eggs alongside still-incubating fertile ones.

Read our report The FoodPrint of Eggs

For every baby bird that is hatched and sold, an equal number of fluffy newborns are disposed of, swept by the trayful into plastic-lined garbage bins and wheeled into rooms where they will be gassed, hours after pecking their way into a fluorescent-lit world. While some of the deceased will be frozen as food for rehabilitated raptors nearby, most will be dumped into landfills. The reasons for an untimely death at the hatchery could be the misfortune of being hatched a “roo” instead of a pullet, having a visible illness or developmental irregularity, or simply being born in a cohort of too many chicks. This is an unavoidable part of hatcheries like Murray McMurray, as the unpredictability of hatching new life coupled with fluctuating demand for certain breeds incentivizes them to incubate more eggs than they can feasibly sell as chicks.

In her debut book, “Under the Henfluence: Inside the World of Backyard Chickens and the People Who Love Them,” journalist and author Tove Danovich describes these first scenes of a chicken’s life in vivid yet measured detail — an origin story that includes both hens who will enter the industrial egg production system as well as Danovich’s own backyard layers. The grim reality of hatcheries is just one of the pressing issues she explores in her debut book, which uses Danovich’s own journey of backyard hen keeping to undertake an engaging investigation into the lives of backyard chickens in the United States — and how they are linked to the short but disruptive history of industrial poultry farming.

Each hurdle Danovich encounters as she grows her flock is framed as an opportunity to examine the industrial poultry machine and the quality of life it determines for all chickens, from egg layers at home and show birds on display for poultry breeders to feral flocks that have returned to the wild as nature’s clucking foragers. Readers will feel like they are learning alongside her as she delves into the subjects of behavioral biology, agricultural policy, and animal rescue, traveling to an Ohio fairground; a therapeutic animal program in Minnesota; Washington state’s chicken training camp; an urban junglefowl sanctuary in Florida; and back home to her backyard in Portland, Oregon.

With comical and heartbreaking anecdotes, Danovich points to how hen keeping has shifted her perspective and altered her behavior. “Chickens were domesticated over three thousand years ago and have been living in our yards — more or less — ever since,” she writes. Despite this, many people lack basic knowledge about chicken biology and fail to view these widely misunderstood birds as fellow sentient creatures. Danovich, however, sees this firsthand. After the first death among her hens, she is surprised to feel the pangs of grief and to learn that her chickens mourn their lost companions, too. As a result, she hasn’t eaten chicken meat since. Danovich invites readers to consider chickens as gentle domesticated birds living in a human-centered world, and contends that getting to know chickens, through second hand knowledge or by raising one’s own flock, can expand human empathy and change our behavior to make their lives better.

It’s a Hard Knock Life for Hens

“Today, there’s never been a worse time to be a chicken,” Danovich declares. “More chickens are killed for food every year than there are people on the planet.” The majority of birds on Earth, by weight, are farmed for food. The poultry industry has bred birds to lay more eggs, grow faster for slaughter and grow bigger than their bodies can sustain. Chickens suffer during their lives up until the moment of their death, whether they are breeders, broilers (used for meat) or layers (used for eggs). “The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, passed in 1958, requires all animals be ‘rendered insensible to pain’ before being shackled or killed — all animals except for poultry,” she notes.

Danovich uncovers uncomfortable truths about the treatment of chickens in the U.S., illustrating how human relations with chickens can be mutually beneficial or mutually devastating — more often the latter. The current spread of H5N1 avian influenza has led to the deaths of over 60 million birds from infection or culling and has contributed to soaring egg prices, garnering increased concern about industrial farming practices, animal welfare, and public health. Raising one’s own hens is a tempting solution to save money and divest from the poultry industry, but therein lie other ethical quandaries: how to get backyard chickens without hatchery eggs, and what to do when hens stop laying, get sick or die?

Initially, Danovich started raising hens for the same reasons that many other people do, to source eggs outside of the poultry industry and enjoy the companionship of feathered backyard pets. Since the early 2000s, backyard coops have expanded as an urban and suburban trend. Keeping backyard chickens is now a growing industry with more than 10 million American households raising chickens as quasi-pets who produce food.

Best Little Henhouse is the name of Danovich’s own curious colorful flock, as well as the title of their popular Instagram account. The coop has gained and lost residents (the current cohort is 14 and counting) since its inception five years ago. Some, like Peggy, a tall steely gray Olive Egger with a slate cap — arrived as chicks in a hatchery box shipped through the United States Postal Service. But Danovich hoped to avoid supporting hatcheries and breeding barns, with their bright lights, noxious stenches, and short lifespans for residents.

Thelma and Louise, two shiny reddish brown Red Sex links, were adopted from Heartwood Haven, a sanctuary in Washington state that rescued the birds from slaughter after they spent the first years of their lives as egg-layers on an industrial farm. They are nearly identical except for their clipped beaks. Thelma’s top beak was crudely clipped just below her nostrils, causing the bottom beak to jut out partially exposed, resembling an underbite. (Debeaking, a standard form of mutilation practiced by the poultry industry, keeps chickens from pecking each other in overcrowded pens or cages.) Before roaming in an open backyard with their flockmates, Thelma and Louise lived in cramped cages stacked beneath a sunless metal ceiling.

Chickens Have Their Own Culture

By nature, chickens love to nest, dust bathe and forage for food. Roosters look out for the flock, communicating where the best foraging spots are, when dangerous birds of prey lurk overhead and when one of their own goes missing. Each hen has her own egg song that she belts out with gusto when a fresh egg is laid. Beyond vocal language, the birds communicate with subtle gestures and movement of their feathers, Danovich observes. In moments of pure contentment, chickens even purr. “These behaviors are deeply ingrained and instinctive; all of them are prevented from being expressed in a battery cage,” she explains, referring to the restrictive cages ubiquitous in the poultry industry. “Until people rescue or have chickens of their own, they don’t think much of them,” writes Danovich.

As birds of a feather, they enjoy foraging at a social distance as well as cuddling together under the sun. Not every chicken wants to be held, but many enjoy perching on a human shoulder or plopping down in an open lap to be caressed. The independent nature of chickens makes them easy to share space with because they don’t require as much attention as dogs, and for many people, their non-mammalian features are fascinating to watch. Chicken watching is a favorite pastime of Danovich and has deepened her insight into the species.

When she brought Thelma and Louise home, she noticed how their behavior differed from the rest of the flock. After years confined in cages, it seemed like the pair had forgotten how to be chickens. They couldn’t fly or roost, they laid eggs without making so much as a peep, and they fearfully pecked at their food during mealtime. “Watching them was like watching an animatron of a chicken, as though they were just going through the motions,” Danovich observes. It took months for them to find their birdsong and to bond with the other hens. Slowly, the hens regained their innate chicken-ness the egg industry deprived them of.

Egg-Laying Takes a Toll

Eggs were once a seasonal food. Up until the 1930s, when farmyard coops started moving into battery farm sheds, people were accustomed to limited egg supplies, and chickens were seen as more than just egg-laying machines. Hens require fourteen consecutive hours of daylight for prime egg-laying conditions, and under natural conditions they stop laying altogether during cold months with short days. Recipe books from that time contained tips on how to preserve eggs through the wintertime like “storing shelled eggs in pickling lime or covering them with salt,” Danovich details. “Fresh eggs in the winter were a rare delicacy that could cost four or five times as much as during the plentiful summer. Around the holidays, newspapers printed recipes for eggless cakes for the frugal housewife.”

277.5

The number of eggs the average American consumed in 2022

The demand for cheap year-round eggs partly stems from decades of lobbying by the American Egg Board since its inception in 1975. Advertising campaigns pushed eggs onto consumers with misleading health claims and catchy commercial jingles like “The Incredible Edible Egg” and “If it ain’t eggs, it ain’t breakfast, I love eggs.” Last year, the average American consumed 277.5 eggs. But it might be time for Americans to shift away from their dependency on eggs as an easy everyday source of protein.

Aside from public health concerns and an increasingly unpredictable cost, consider the purpose of eggs for the animals who lay them. Wild junglefowl only lay 10 to 14 eggs in a single clutch each year, following suit with other bird species, whereas their domesticated descendants have been bred to produce an average of 300 eggs per year. Each extra egg leeches vital nutrients from a hen’s body that are not easily replaced, and contribute to her unnaturally shortened life replete with reproductive health issues, avian cancer, and broken bones from osteoporosis. For chickens who are bred to compulsively lay, eggs literally hold nutrients they need to reclaim.

In the last chapter of “Under the Henfluence,” Danovich documents the effect of breeding on Thelma, whose eggs turn paper thin and off-color, as she struggles to regrow the bare patches she developed during her time on a factory farm. Danovich puts Thelma on bird birth control, a topic usually discussed only by vegan animal rescuers. The implant halts ovulation and gives hens’ reproductive system a break. After it was injected under Thelma’s skin, she abruptly stopped laying eggs, and within a few weeks, Danovich saw new purple pin feathers sprouting from her bald spots.

Not everyone who rescues hens can procure birth control. According to pattrice jones of VINE Sanctuary, a queer-run vegan sanctuary that developed the first program to rehabilitate roosters rescued from cockfighting, one of the best ways to return lost nutrients to chickens is to cook their eggs and feed them back to eagerly awaiting hens. However, few people bring hens into their households solely as companion animals. Even Danovich admits that early on in her planning, she doubted that she would keep her hens once their egg laying decreased. “If they weren’t supplying fresh eggs, what were chickens good for?” she recalls thinking.

In jones’s decades of experience rescuing unwanted and abandoned chickens, the impulse to raise hens often begins as a sincere desire to be closer to animals and to the earth, but the chicken enthusiast’s desire for eggs is often in conflict with providing the best care for their hens. “Oftentimes, people turn to backyard hen keeping because they’ve heard about the cruelties of egg production and they don’t want to be part of that,” she says. “These are wholesome desires the poultry industry perverts into something that ends up harming animals.”

To rescue an industrial laying hen (through sanctuaries like Heartwood) is perhaps the best way to indulge in an egg that causes the least amount of harm. “Want free eggs? Don’t buy chicks — rescue hens,” Danovich advocates. At the least, sparing someone a life of indoor confinement is a fair exchange for a ration of their fluffy egg whites and jammy yolks.

Being in Better Relationship with Birds

To hatch new chicks into the world exclusively for egg production comes at a steep cost. What if eggs were viewed as a seasonal luxury, not a cheap commodity? Would chickens garner more respect and better treatment?

Beyond chicken rescue, there are other ways to connect with birds without exploiting them, like turning one’s backyard into a wild bird refuge, volunteering at local wild bird rehabilitation centers, and getting into birding, jones advises. Rehabilitation of formerly-captive birds can provide a therapeutic outlet for veterans with PTSD and people with disabilities.

In “Under the Henfluence,” Danovich is careful to avoid prescriptive challenges to her readers. There is no call to become vegetarian or to give up eggs. However, it was only when she stopped eating chickens that they became more visible to her than ever before. “I notice it everywhere: chicken stock in soups, chicken meatballs at the deli, multiple restaurants that specialize in only selling products made from chicken,” she notes. By far, chickens are the most slaughtered animal on land. Their bodies are made prevalent in food by their cheapness and disposability, and concern for beef’s environmental footprint has only led to increased consumption of chicken, “but there’s no cruelty footprint that’s higher.”

When animals are perceived as commodities, it is easy to ignore them. Some might feel that the book teeters on a romanticized view of the relationship between humans and backyard hens, but in conversation, Danovich is pragmatic about the role of her work. “I’m not going to change the whole world in my lifetime, but if I can meet people wherever they are, and push them a step or two further towards seeing these birds as being worthy of our curiosity and better treatment, then I’ll feel that I’ve done a good job.”

Author photo by Jamie Bosworth
Hen photos courtesy of Tove Danovich

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