The life of a parent bird

Photo of a rooster in a shed, on top of a hen mating with her. A red feed tray is in the foreground. Another rooster is leaning over the birds mating and another hen is moving away from them. A red water tray is in front of them.
Photo of a rooster in a shed, on top of a hen mating with her. A red water tray is in the foreground, and other chickens are visible next to them.
Image credit – Farmwatch

This is Willow. Her life is miserable, trapped in a barren shed with many other chickens. The almost constant crowing of roosters fills the air. She is fearful that yet another rooster will jump on top of her to mate, pushing her into the dirty litter on the floor, over and over again. He may be very rough because he’s aggressive. As he mates, Willow may be pecked and scratched, and have feathers ripped out. She can’t get away or escape from this constant stress. She is surrounded by other birds, all confined there to mate and lay as many eggs as possible. They are all hungry, they all want more food, but only a small amount is given. Sometimes she doesn’t get enough water either.

She is one of hundreds of thousands of birds trapped in sheds as forced breeding machines for the chicken meat industry. The eggs she lays are taken to chicken hatcheries where the chicks are born to be reared for meat.

In Aotearoa, we care about animals and want all animals to have a good life. But chickens kept alive to breed, live a life full of terrible suffering. Birds like Willow are called ‘parent birds’ or ‘breeder birds’ and they are trapped in factory farms that exist to supply fertile eggs that are then hatched and sold to factory farms. Her suffering is mostly hidden.

We reveal the reality of what life is like for parent birds, like Willow. We explain, why she grows so unnaturally fast, why she is given very little food and how she is, excluded from the most important standards for animal welfare.

Why do chickens grow so unnaturally fast?

Chickens reared for meat suffer because of the chicken industry’s ruthless pursuit of profit. The chickens used by Tegel and Ingham’s, double in size each week, to be killed at about six weeks old. They grow so big and so fast that many suffer chronic pain and lameness. Some can’t lift their bodies up off the floor to reach food or water. Others struggle to breathe or suffer organ failure within weeks of being hatched. All because they’ve been bred to grow faster than nature intended.

And that’s just in their short lifespan. The parent birds, by comparison, are kept alive for well over a year.

Photo of a group of hens in a shed with a red food tray and boxes to lay eggs, behind them. Their feathers are covered in dirt and the ones facing away from the camera have many bald patches of red skin showing. The combs on top of their heads are drooping over.
Image credit – Farmwatch

Chickens kept chronically hungry

The fast-growing chickens’ unnatural growth leads to insatiable hunger. These chickens are kept alive to mate. If they were allowed to eat enough to satisfy their hunger, they’d get too big to be able to mate. The females would also have poorer fertility, so they’d produce fewer eggs.

To try to prevent them from growing too big and maintain fertility, chicken producers heavily restrict the chickens’ feed, meaning these parent chickens suffer chronic hunger, which in turn causes stress and abnormal behaviour, including aggression.

While their growth is slowed a little, their unnatural genetics predisposes these birds to painful lameness and organ failure. Because they spend a lot of time sitting on excrement-filled litter, they can also end up with footpad and hock (ankle) burns and breast blisters.

Due to being chronically hungry the parent birds also want to drink more. Drinking frequently leads to the litter on the floor being damp from water spilt. To reduce this, water may also be restricted, only be available for a couple of hours around feeding time, and maybe again at the end of the day.

A blurry photo of a rooster in a shed mating with a hen. Another rooster and hens stand next to them. Dirty wooden stats are visible next to them and wire mesh behind them, where other chickens are visible.
Image credit – Farmwatch

Injuries and mutilations

Roosters demonstrate aggression to females in both a sexual and non-sexual context. Sexual aggression is a direct threat to the welfare of the females’ welfare, so can lead many females to be very stressed, especially if they can’t hide where the males can’t reach them. Rough mating behaviour and repeated forced copulation can leave females wounded, with severe scratches and ripped skin because the roosters are heavy and have sharp beaks and claws.

To try to prevent these injuries, painful mutilations are often carried out on the roosters, such as having the sensitive tips of their beaks cut off, or their inside claws and/or spurs removed.

Calls for change to breeding chickens

Calls to change the status quo in the chicken meat industry have been heard for many years. Both the SPCA and the government’s advisors have raised concerns about the unnatural breeds used.

In 2017, the government’s animal welfare advisors, the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (NAWAC) issued this statement in relation to chicken breeds,

“NAWAC has concerns that the meat chicken has been selectively bred beyond a point that is compatible with survivability… NAWAC is concerned that the rapid growth of these animals has a negative effect on the birds that are kept in adulthood – for example affecting their fertility, mortality, locomotion, and aggressiveness.”

They published this opinion, and yet the Government has failed to take any action to stop these breeds being used. SPCA also opposes the use of commercial breeds where food restriction throughout production is necessary for parent birds.

A photo of a shed of parent birds. The shed is divided into sections with dozens of birds in each section. Red water trays are visible and a gutter nearer the floor provides food. Boxes where the hens can lay eggs are visible, elevated, next to wooden slats allowing the birds to access the boxes.
Image credit – Farmwatch

What regulations are there for chickens used for breeding?

There are codes of Welfare for various species of animals and animal activities, including the Code of Welfare for Meat Chickens and for Slaughter. The Code for Meat Chickens outlines the minimum standards for how chickens should be farmed. This code specifically excludes chickens used for breeding, meaning there are no minimum standards for these birds.

The New Zealand Animal Welfare Act states that animals must be able to carry out natural behaviours and be provided with sufficient food and water. Therefore, the unnatural life forced on these birds, who are kept chronically hungry and even thirsty, who suffer from forced matings, severe lameness and other health problems, is clearly violating the law.

Way back in 2011, NAWAC said, “A new Animal Welfare (Meat Chicken Breeders) Code of Welfare is currently under development and will directly address welfare in relation to breeding and genetic selection. “

We’ve heard that a code has been drafted but it is not even due to go out for public consultation for at least a year or maybe longer. We will push to make this code as strong as possible.

Meanwhile, these birds continue to suffer appallingly.

Photo of a rooster standing in a shed behind a hen with dirty and missing feathers, including a large area of red bare skin. Other hens are in front of her. In the foreground are wooden slats that allow the hens to get into the boxes where they lay eggs.
Image credit – Farmwatch

What does the science say?

In February 2023, the European Food Safety Authority ( EFSA) published an in-depth scientific opinion on chickens bred for meat, including parent birds. They strongly recommended using more natural slower-growing commercial breeds and selecting breeds that do not require to be kept on restricted diets to allow them to survive to reproduce. They also say that all forms of mutilation of the roosters needs to end.

EFSA and SPCA’s calls for a change of breed align perfectly with our work. We focus on pushing food businesses to demand that their suppliers end the use of abnormally fast-growing breeds of chickens. Already eight companies have committed to ending the use of these unhealthy breeds and that is creating pressure on the chicken corporates to change.

When the breeds change, both the birds reared for meat and their parents will have better lives.

How you can help

Your voice is a force for change. Sign up for our mailing list to stay informed about how you can join the campaign. Together, we can create a brighter future for not only the chickens raised for meat but their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. Let us be the change they urgently need.

White chickens crowded at the wall of a shed. Barely any ground is visible, and where it is it is brown. There is a small open part of the wall that gives chickens access to the outdoors. Chickens line the whole wall.

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