Grapes are chicken crack, and other lessons from a hen rescuer
On a sunny afternoon in August, Isabelle Cnudde, founder of Clorofil, the chicken rescue and educational nonprofit, is chatting amiably in her charming French accent with her feathered girls, breaking only to toss jewel-green grapes their way. “Hellooo, Luna!” she says to one who approaches, plucks a grape straight from her hand, and then hops up on the bench. “She’s one of my friendliest chickens,” Cnudde says smiling with visible pride.
Who knew that for a chicken, grapes are like crack? I didn’t, and I thought I knew almost everything about chickens given I’ve had six in my own backyard for several years. For the hens Cnudde fosters, 30 in all since she first started her rescue organization, this is hen heaven. Unlike her neighbors’ backyards in well-heeled Los Altos, which boast sprawling lawns, most of Cnudde’s outdoor space is devoted to an expansive chicken run, which has virtually no grass. Here’s something I do know: Chickens can mow down a lawn within days. (To my former lawn, I say good riddance.)
Perverse combs, and other oddities
Then Cnudde points out her six factory farmed chickens, which are easy to spot. Wandering alongside her original heritage birds, who have brown, black, red, and yellow feathers, the White Leghorns are the farm industry standard, valued for their productivity. They can lay up to 300 eggs a year, significantly more than the 120 to 160 eggs produced by traditional egg-laying breeds. Along with their color, I notice something else different about them. Their red combs are almost perversely large, flopping over their faces like a rock star’s shaggy mane.
What’s with the weird combs, I ask?
White Leghorns already have big combs, Cnudde explains, but indoor factory chickens become bigger without any natural light. Sadly, the discovery of Vitamin D as a supplement in the first two decades of the 20th century was one of the biggest breakthroughs for the industrial farm industry, since it could suddenly improve production by housing thousands of birds inside one enormous warehouse without ever letting them outside.
An off-kilter comb is the least of their ailments, Cnudde points out. All factory farmed hens are debeaked as chicks, a painful procedure. And most suffer from reproductive issues since they are bred to lay an unnaturally high number of eggs. A majority also suffer from bumblefoot since they’re forced to live on wires that damage their feet. About one in three lose an eye, mostly from infections.
Cnudde’s birds are alive today because of an agreement the owners of one of the more benevolent factory farms has with Animal Place farm sanctuary. Once the farm owners are ready to “depopulate” the egg-laying hens, the industry’s euphemistic word for gassing and sending chickens to landfill, they hand over between 1,000 to 2,000 hens, which is as many as Animal Place can take at any one time.
Cnudde, a gentle woman who smiles easily, especially when talking about chickens, explains that farms kill the hens relatively young, at about one-and-a-half years old, because it’s not economically prudent to keep them after their egg-laying productivity decline. Once culled, they aren’t even used for products such as dog food since they're so thin.
A startling discovery
Already, I’ve learned so much from Cnudde. But here is what made the biggest impression: As Cnudde’s rescue dog, Laille, and my dog, Monster, also a rescue dog (and not a monster, but a placid Maltipoo), greet each other, she explains how unhappy she used to be with friends who ordered breed dogs instead of adopting homeless dogs. She’d never do that, Cnudde explains. “But then I realized I was doing the same thing by ordering my chickens from a chicken breeder.” Also sobering, says Cnudde, is male baby chicks are killed right away, just as they are on factory farms, since roosters are not in demand on urban farms.
For Cnudde, making that connection meant welcoming rescue chickens into her home. They may not be as beautiful as her original heritage chickens, which sport jaunty variegated feathers and lay spectacularly hued eggs. The factory farm birds are more spindly and goofy-looking. Two are missing an eye and one is entirely blind. Another barely has feathers. These are not the heritage hens I picked out for my own backyard from an urban farm store in Fruitvale. But they are just as animated, curious, and active as her heritage chickens, and each has its own distinct personality, as any chicken guardian will tell you.
My next flock of chickens will be different
I left Cnudde's microsanctuary resolving to adopt factory farm chickens next time, but I don’t feel guilty. After all, my chickens are better off than all the factory farm chickens on the planet, and there are lots of them. Approximately 8.5 billion chickens are killed for their meat every year while another 300 million chickens are used in egg production. Bringing a few chickens into my family’s lives has also changed the way we regard any and all animals. Anyone who decides to let a few chickens live on their homestead is doing so much for the animal population by simply getting to know chickens in all their glory, by letting chickens be chickens.
But Cnudde is showing me what doing absolutely no harm at all means, and it’s inspirational. I've told Cnudde my next chickens will have really crazy combs, and I can't wait to meet them.
Leslie Crawford, author of Sprig the Rescue Pig and Gwen the Rescue Hen, will be greeting visitors at Isabelle Cnudde’s micro-sanctuary on September 15 as part of the Silicon Valley Tour De Coop, a “free, self-guided bicycle tour of chicken coops, inspiring gardens, bee hives, hoop houses, and cool Silicon Valley urban farm homesteads.”