If you have ever shopped for baby chicks at a store where you could actually see them, you probably noticed that one or two of the little puffballs had a sore spot. Maybe you even saw some blood. The occasion might have been a little disconcerting because it might have seemed like all the other birds were picking on the injured one. Well the sad fact of the matter is that they were, indeed, picking on the injured, or weaker, baby chick.
You see, chickens can be a brutal, get-right-to-the-point type of creature that will opportunistically take advantage of any food source that tickles their fancy, even if it involves cannibalism. If all you want are some nice, gentle laying hens so you can have fresh eggs every day, how can this savagery be controlled? The question is, do you debeak layer chickens, or let them do their thing? Is it ethical to debeak, or not? What are some alternatives?
What Is Debeaking?
Debeaking is the practice of severing some of a chickens beak so the chicken can not effectively pick at, or cannibalize other chickens. This procedure can be performed while the bird is a baby chick, which usually lasts for about 10 weeks, or at any other time during the chickens lifespan. Some say that the practice doesn’t affect the chicken’s ability to eat, drink, or otherwise lead a normal life.
The practice of debeaking began in the 1930s by a group of people at Ohio State University in response to cannibalism among flocks of chickens. At first, just the tip of the beak was cut off with a sharp knife. It was thought, at the time, that the tip of the beak had no feeling.
Now debeaking is usually done using electrically heated blades in a trimming machine. The benefit of using the heated blade method is that it provides a self-cauterizing wound, which decreases the possibility of infection and bleeding. It is important to hold the chicken firmly. Lay the beak into the groove of the cutter, and carefully sever the top beak about a third to two-thirds of the way up the top section.
There are a few reasons for debeaking. All are for the welfare of the flock as a whole.
- Cannibalism – Chickens are omnivores. They will eat bugs, worms, grain, table-scraps, and each other under the right circumstances. In close quarters, like in commercial settings, cannibalism can not be tolerated.
- Feather Pecking – This is a normal behavior that can get out of hand. Normally, feather pecking barely disturbs the feathers of another chicken, and is considered to be an act of nonviolent investigation. In severe cases, feathers can be pulled, blood spots can appear, and cannibalism can ensue.
- Less Stress/Decreased Mortality – Naturally, if a chicken is less inclined to peck others, the resulting calm that occurs will be a real stress reliever in the flock. Less pecking equals less mortality.
The benefits to the flock owner are many. Decreased mortality means more eggs to eat, or sell, depending on the reason for raising chickens in the first place. Carcass removal and disposal is lessened in a healthy flock. Less stress, or nervousness leads to more egg production per bird.
Originally it was thought that chickens didn’t feel any pain in the tips of their beaks because there is no blood flow at the very tip. However, in a 1985 study cited in the Journal of Anatomy, The bill tip organ of the chicken, it was discovered that the bill tips of chickens have sensory organs that are sensitive enough to allow for tactile discrimination of food choices. So, if this is true, then cutting off a chickens beak would be similar to severing a fingertip from its human owner.
The physical and mental stress that beak cutting imposes on an individual chicken can only be imagined. And what about the inconvenience and immediate health implications of having to relearn eating and drinking techniques?
In spite of the pain and trauma that debeaking might inflict, the social behavior of a flock can be improved by the practice. Although tactile function of the beak is impaired, the amount of pecking and cannibalism will be greatly diminished, thus increasing flock health and productivity, if only due to greater survival rates.
Is it ethical to debeak layer chickens? Ethics is defined by Oxford as “moral principles that govern a person’s behavior or the conducting of an activity.” A person’s behavior can be influenced by many factors. If the ends justifies the means, then debeaking could be considered ethical by an owner whose goal is to keep a large, healthy, well-feathered flock. For the owner who is more concerned about the feelings of an individual chicken, ethics would likely preclude debeaking.
Alternatives to Debeaking
There are many types of laying hens. Each breed of chickens has their own genetic traits. Some are inherently friendly while others are not, and the rest are between. Raising friendly birds will reduce feather pecking and cannibalism.
The environment that chickens are raised in has much to do with their individual behaviors. Too little space for birds in a coop will result in bickering. Likewise, too many birds in a commercial chicken house will result in problems within the flock. To flourish, chickens need to: have enough room to do their own thing, have enough roost space, find room at the feed trough, and to have enough nesting boxes so that they don’t lay in random spots. So avoid overcrowding.
Keep birds well watered and well-fed. Thirst or hunger is not conducive to any creatures’ happiness.
Enriching a chickens habitat can help keep chickens calm. Hanging objects, jungle gyms, cardboard boxes, or anything to capture a chickens interest can help keep a bird occupied and focused on something other than the other chickens.
What Do You Think?
Beak trimming is considered essential for large flock owners. Although there is possibly less trauma when applied to a chick as opposed to a pullet, trimming can be done at any age, and is always painful since it has been proven that chickens have nerve receptors in their beaks. There are alternatives to debeaking such as limiting flock size, controlling habitat, and choosing favorable genetics.
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