It sounds like my hens are being tortured. The shrill cries, cackles, and shrieks they make when laying an egg are enough to have the neighbors making noise complaints, or, on a particularly bad day, reporting a suspected murder.
The ruckus made by my backyard chickens certainly sounds like an expression of discomfort, but do chickens feel pain when laying eggs?
I wouldn’t want any of my animals to experience unnecessary pain and the thought that my hens might be going through contractions and labor pains every other day concerns me.
When I hear that ear-shattering shriek of one of my hens laying the first egg of the day, I can’t help wondering, “Does laying an egg feel like human labor and birth?”
Is My Laying Hen Singing or Screaming?
Way back in the 1st century, Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, firmly believed chickens were crying out in pain when laying their eggs. Although backyard chicken keepers prefer to think of these vocalizations as the “egg song,” Columella was convinced they sounded more like “shrill cries and sobbing.”
Others believed they were grieving while some evidently more imaginative theorists suggested: “it was crying in pain from the cold air rushing into where the egg had come out.”
It’s true that, in some circumstances, certain birds may experience pain.
Young pullets, for instance, can be heard wheezing while laying and may bleed from the vent. Similarly, older hens laying very large eggs may make some “gasping vocalizations” as it passes through.
For the most part, however, “chicken keepers today believe these vocalizations actually sound more celebratory than sad”.
Laying an egg is certainly very different from giving birth. My chickens only spend a couple of minutes in their nesting boxes for starters, whereas in human women, labor “takes an average of 9 hours.”
Some have done experiments of their own and established that a hen is happy to eat “until the last 30 seconds to one minute of laying… And as soon as the egg drops, they are ready to eat again.”
This suggests that your basic backyard hen isn’t experiencing any real pain during the laying process, otherwise, she would stop eating and show signs of distress instead.
Why Do Chickens Sing the Egg Song?
One would think that a newly laid egg is something your hen would like to keep quiet about, rather than announcing it to the world at the top of her voice, and yet the egg song – if you can call a total cacophony a song – is performed millions of times a day, all over the world.
Hundreds of years of study and multiple hypotheses have emerged as to why a chicken feels the need to scream blue murder every time they lay an egg.
The four leading theories are:
- A Song of Celebration – some people believe that chickens “will cluck up a raucous in a giant wave of pride and ego for accomplishing their miraculous task.”
- Perplexing Predators – many birds try to draw predators away from their nests and newly laid eggs, some putting on elaborate displays, and others seemingly attempting to deafen everyone in the vicinity. One theory about the egg song is that it is designed as a diversion, intended “to get a predator’s attention on them and not wherever they just laid their egg.”
- Come Home – this theory is based on the notion that chickens, being naturally private birds, prefer to lay eggs in secrecy. Once the job is completed, they shout, shriek, and cackle to let the rest of the flock know it’s over and they can now approach.
- Ready for the Rooster’s Return – similar to the Come Home theory, the hypothesis is based on the idea that a hen will move away from the flock to lay an egg. In a natural environment, a small flock of chickens will roam a large territory, rarely stopping in one place for long, “as the rooster keeps them moving, looking for food.” As a result, once the egg-laying hen has done the deed, so to speak, “she will call out to the rooster to come get her and bring her back to the rest of the flock“.
What Might Cause An Egg-Laying Chicken To Experience Pain?
There are some circumstances in which a female chicken may show signs of pain while laying an egg:
Pullets and young hens sometimes exhibit evidence of pain, such as making a wheezy noise or a squeak as the egg passes.
You may even find a smear of blood on the chicken eggs or in the hen’s chicken poop later on. As the weeks pass and more eggs are laid, however, her muscles will relax, and “her vent will stretch out, and laying will likely become much more comfortable“.
If your chicken is emitting distressed noises, it could be that it’s going through an arduous process, laying a particularly large egg.
In 2009, a story erupted in the UK about the ethics of eating large chicken eggs, especially those produced on poultry farms.
Although Christine Nicol, Professor of Animal Welfare at the Royal Veterinary College, admits, “There is no strong published evidence of pain in egg-laying hens,” she also believes that “it’s not unreasonable to think there may be a mismatch in the size of birds and the eggs they produce”.
Other experts support her perspective, saying that selective breeding “whether larger eggs or larger numbers of eggs, can cause a range of problems such as osteoporosis, bone breakage, and prolapse.”
How to Make a Laying Hen Comfortable
While conditions in egg farms can lead to pain during egg-laying, either as a result of environment or diet, a domestic bird shouldn’t exhibit any pain signals or stress during her daily lay.
If given enough calcium and protein, domestic chickens should be healthy and robust enough to lay an egg a day, or every few days depending on the species.
Similarly, well-designed chicken coops and nesting boxes lined with chopped straw or pine shavings create a comfortable and chicken-safe environment for egg-laying. (Here is a great bedding material at Tractor Supply)
Your Chicken Takeaways
It’s highly unlikely that your chickens will stop singing their egg songs at the top of their voices every morning, but it’s similarly unlikely that their squawking and shrieking have anything to do with discomfort – it’s simply the nature of chickens.
The best thing you can do for your laying hens is to create a safe, and comfortable environment in which they can lay eggs naturally.
A balanced diet will also help keep your layers at the peak of health so, even if they do experience a bit of discomfort, they will soon bounce back. (Purina makes a great feed, check it out at Tractor Supply)
Eating the eggs of chickens you raise yourself seems like a fair exchange to me, but I also steer away from layer pellets and other forms of food designed to boost egg production, sticking to natural ingredients like fermented and sprouted seeds.
Similarly, I don’t add lights to my coop in the winter, letting my hens have a natural rest from laying, rather than trying to increase hours of light to bolster production. The benefit is that my chickens will lay off the egg song for a few weeks, giving us all a chance to sleep in!