Armed with pamphlets, posters and poultry-less foo samples, they came from as far as New York to see what they could do to encourage fairness to fowls.
About 30 members of United Poultry Concerns (UPC), a national nonprofit group, conducted its third annual "Spring Mourning for Chickens" yesterday in front of County Fair Farms on Bachmans Valley Road north of Westminster.
The group assembled outside the plant, which members say is one of many that has intolerable, cramped conditions for birds used to "roaming and foraging" in the soil.
"The birds at County Fair Farms are a good example of the trend in egg-laying facilities," said UPC president and founder Karen Davis, who coordinated the demonstration. "It used to be the birds were kept in large sheds, confined, but they were on the floor. But increasingly in the industry, they are confined to cages."
County Fair Farms opened in July 1992. About 500,000 birds are kept in the plant's four buildings, 125,000 hens to each structure, said Donald Lippy, who owns part of the company with his brother, Ed.
The company was aware of yesterday's demonstration, but decided to leave well enough alone, Mr. Lippy said. "I guess everybody has their opinion," said Mr. Lippy, who was in one of the henhouses during the vigil. "They were quiet, and we were working, and there were no problems," he said.
Mr. Lippy said the view the group paints of life in the henhouse is distorted.
"We go down there [in the henhouses] and they are singing and carrying on," Mr. Lippy said. "They get all the food and water they want. They just don't get the room they may want."
Group members began the vigil at 10 a.m. on the practically deserted road next to the laying plant's sign.
A few drivers rubbernecked to see what the fuss was about and others honked and waved as they passed. Some motorists sped by without taking notice.
Members held signs and banners featuring photos of the conditions they deplore.
One poster showed a baby chick held by the anonymous hand of a machine operator as a hot blade seared off the end of its beak.
Another depicted a hen, devoid of feathers and red and swollen in places, trying to walk after being kept in a cage with nine other birds for more than a year.
"They literally have to climb over one another to get to the trough of food in the front of their cages or the little nipple they share for water," said Joan Dunayer, 41, a free-lance writer and editor from Rockville.
Ms. Dunayer and her husband, Eric, a veterinarian, said they took the pictures of birds inside Country Fair Farms when UPC members visited the plant in January.
"And so they live and die never seeing the sun, except when they are yanked out of their cages to go to slaughter," Ms. Dunayer said.
The demonstration continued on both sides of the sidewalks of Pennsylvania Avenue and down Main Street to Longwell Avenue, where group members handed out pamphlets and samples of sandwiches, salads and desserts made without eggs.
Some members sported shirts with "Never again will I eat an egg from the sad chicken of factory farming" on the front and the recipe for an egg substitute on the back.
People's reaction to the group ranged from hostility -- a biker rode down the street and yelled "Get a Job" -- to understanding.
"There are some people in the food industry that will abuse animals or put them in poor conditions just to make a buck," said Steve Briefs of Bethesda, who observed the demonstration. "I know that happens, but I wouldn't stop eating meat because of it."