What concerns a chicken, and how do we know? Temple Grandin has a few thoughts, and she notes that what a human wants in life is not necessarily what tops the list for a chicken:
I think there are certain behavioral needs we should satisfy, and you can actually, scientifically, look at what things a hen wants the most. There are objective ways to measure [a hen's] motivation to get something she wants — like a private nest box. How long is she willing to not eat to get it, or how heavy a door will she push to get it? How many times will she push a switch to get it?
A private nest box is something she wants, because in the wild she has an instinct to hide in the bushes so that a fox doesn’t get [her eggs]. Give her some pieces of plastic to hang down that she can hide behind. Give her a little piece of astroturf to lay [her eggs] on. Give her a perch, and a piece of plastic to scratch on, and at least enough cage height so she can walk normally. I’m gonna call that apartment living for chickens. Do they need natural elements? Being outside? Science can’t answer that. I mean, there are people in New York that hardly go outside.
|Colony house egg operation with egg seclusion spot|
So is there a good set up for chickens? There is!
There’s a new kind of cage design — furnished cage, enriched housing, colony housing — they’re all the same thing. The birds can walk at full height. They have a very strong urge to lay their eggs in a secluded spot, so the cage has a little nest box, a perch, and a place for them to scratch. For a large-scale commercial operation that’s probably a good alternative. Now if you raise them in loose housing without cages, you do have problems with dust — it’s hard to keep the atmosphere good. There are tradeoffs on the different systems. I think the colony house is the way to go.
One of the trade-offs, Temple Grandin notes, is cost, and she doesn't think that's insignficant.
[W]e’ve got 25 percent of people in this country working minimum wage jobs and they gotta buy the cheapest eggs they can lay their hands on. I think eggs are a necessity — beef you could say is a luxury, but not eggs.
So, to put a bottom line on it: We can improve things for egg laying chickens so they have a life worth living, and that can be done and still keep eggs economical.