by Randy Graham
Remember a year ago when the virus was starting to spread across the US and then was declared a pandemic? The whole experience was so new, confusing, and frightening that we weren’t sure how we should react. With a year of all-Covid-all-the-time, we’ve all become sadder and wiser pandemic experts, but in those early days, we did some crazy things. You will recall, for instance, the toilet paper hoarding.
There were news reports last spring of another type of hoarding—the same phenomenon that emptied grocery store shelves of toilet paper, only this one involved a living, peeping commodity that can’t just be stacked at the back of a storage closet. Hatcheries saw huge increases in baby chick sales, and customers experienced long calling queues when they tried to phone in their chick orders.
Everybody was hoarding chickens!
As a keeper of chickens, I do sort of understand what happened. There are people who’ve had a long-time secret desire for a few pretty hens pecking around their backyard—a lot of people, apparently. Maybe you’re one of them. The pandemic struck, and suddenly you were stuck at home. And eggs, for a while, became nearly impossible to get–and when you could find them, the price had increased crazily. Maybe Brian from work or your cousin Janet had chickens, and at some point during every Zoom call they would talk about how they had eggs for breakfast every morning. And it was about then that you found out that you could go online and order baby chicks with a few keystrokes. And those hatchery websites told you that they would ship chicks right to your locality courtesy of the US Postal Service. So, you took the plunge!
Or maybe you didn’t. Maybe at the last-minute you came face-to-face with common sense, practicality, and the realization that you didn’t know anything about taking care of chickens. But now a year has passed, and you find yourself wondering once again, “Is this the spring for baby chicks?”
There were some terrible stories circulating about ignorant first-time chicken buyers who got chicks on a whim and were clueless about their needs and care; like the news report of the woman who posted to an on-line chicken forum that she couldn’t understand why her baby chicks were dying one-by-one. It turns out that she was clueless that her babies needed to have a heat source! They were dying from the cold!
If you want chickens, go for it, but, before you get chicks, make sure you realize what you’re committing to. You’ll be getting small living creatures, and you’re going to be responsible for them the rest of their lives.
Here are a few basic questions for you to work through for starters. Spend a few minutes learning the answers to these questions, and you won’t necessarily be ready for chicks, but you will be ready to get ready.
Is This the Spring for Baby Chicks?
Maybe you’ve already answered this question affirmatively. Maybe you’ve done some reading and talked to your friends with chickens and already realize that becoming a chicken owner will put you at the forefront of the local/sustainable food movement. You’ll be producing food right in your own backyard.
If you already produce food in your backyard with a garden, chickens are a natural complement to that garden—the chickens will happily devour any leftover vegetable scraps and weeds you give them, and all that composted chicken manure will make for some very happy garden plants. Also, any chickens you keep will, without a doubt, be better treated and happier than the majority of the hens laying the eggs you find at the grocery store.
Does it make you happy to imagine a small flock of hens clucking contentedly in your backyard? If you immediately answer “yes” to that question, you’ve jumped the first hurdle! That was the easy one! Of course, if you already have chickens, and you’re merely reading this article for review, your question becomes, “Is the spring for more baby chicks?” The answer to that question is always “yes”–naturally.
Am I Allowed to Have Chickens?
A certain sad scenario plays out across the country over and over, perhaps every day: A family brings home a handful of baby chicks, bonds with them, gives them names, raises them to adulthood then finds out that they’ve run afoul (afowl?) of their local zoning rules and have to part with their birds, which have practically become family members. My heart goes out to these folks who just want to enjoy their chickens—but the lesson is to be sure to check your local rules before you get chickens. Also, be sure to check with your neighborhood association whose covenants are often more restrictive.
Deb Neyens, a self-described “wannabe farmer and recovering attorney” has tackled the legal issues surrounding chicken ownership on her blog, Counting My Chickens. She warns that “even if chickens are allowed where you live, there may be a long list of conditions that apply.” Her list of conditions you could run into includes chicken keeping permits and fees, specifications mandating confinement (no free-ranging), and regulations regarding the size, design construction, and setback of the coop. There could also be nuisance clauses addressing noise, odor, manure disposal, and public health concerns. Or perhaps your municipality flat out does not allow chickens.
Regardless of what the laws are where you live, it’s important that you know what they are before you bring your chicks home. You don’t want to be one of those folks who has to sadly send Thelma and Louise off to live at the farm because you didn’t do your homework ahead of time.
Do I Have Room/Time for Chickens?
Commercial egg companies that keep their laying hens in battery cages are legally required by federal standards to provide 67 square inches of space for each hen—less than a standard sheet of printer paper—for her entire life! This amount of space does not allow her to spread her wings, turn around, or engage in any normal chicken activity. Don’t try this at home. Treating any creature in this manner is extremely cruel and inhumane.
How much space should you give your chickens? Different sources give different numbers, but I think a good average is three square feet of coop space per adult chicken and ten square feet of outdoor space. I like to give my chickens more space than that. Since I’m raising chickens in a part of the country with a long, cold winter when the chickens are stuck indoors for days at a time, more indoor space keeps them happy during their winter confinement. A crowded flock is a flock subject to bullying, fighting, feather picking, and even cannibalism. Once you’ve determined how much room you have for chickens, it’s an easy thing, based on this information, to figure out how many chickens you can keep.
Aside from fitting chickens into your available physical space, you need to think about fitting chickens into your daily routine. How much time will chickens take? If you own a dog consider this: You don’t have to walk your chickens. And if you don’t spend a lot of time interacting with your chickens, they probably won’t feel attention-starved. So how much time will your chickens take? It’s hard to say. In the next paragraph, I’m going to use the phrase “bare minimum time.”
Here’s the deal about that: You will hardly ever spend the bare minimum time with your birds. At some point, shortly after you get them, you’ll begin to realize how cool they are. Each chicken has its own personality. Each flock has a fascinating social structure, and the birds within the flock communicate with each other with intricate movements and vocalizations—they essentially talk to each other. You’ll get caught up in the dynamics of the little world that exists right there in your coop and you’ll spend a lot of time just gawking. Some flock-keepers refer to this as “watching chicken TV.” It’s addicting. So, having explained that…
Here’s a list of my chicken chores and the bare minimum time it takes to complete them.
Daily – 15 minutes: Most chicken feeders and water founts hold several days’ supply, so while you’ll be checking them daily, you’ll only be filling them occasionally. You do have to let your chickens out of their coop every morning and shut them up every night. And you’ll probably want to do a little cleaning every day, especially under the roost. But other than that, the main daily task is collecting all those eggs! Oh, and when you’re collecting all that bounteous hen fruit, take a few minutes to look everybody over, make sure they look healthy, give them a few treats, and tell them that they really are the best chickens in the whole wide world.
Weekly – 1 hour: You’ll need to spend a dedicated amount of time each week cleaning the coop. You’ll need to clean up chicken poop and soiled litter, but you’ll also need to sweep cobwebs and do some dusting—chickens are probably the biggest dust-producing animals on the planet. You’ll also want to clean up the water founts and feeders, give the roost a once over, and spruce up the nest boxes.
Seasonally – 5 hours: Prior to winter, you’ll need to winterize your coop by closing the windows, sealing the gaps, and making sure that water heaters (if you use them) are operational. When spring comes, you’ll have to remove all the winterizing material and get the coop ready for summer. I deep clean the coop once each season. I scrub and disinfect the water founts and feeders, scrub the nest boxes, and thoroughly clean the whole coop. I also check each hen for lice and mites once each season and treat if necessary. Since I’ve had chickens living in the same location for quite a few years, I also treat the flock for internal parasites annually.
A Caveat: When a chicken becomes ill it will take a lot of your time above and beyond what I’ve just described. Your normal routine will go out the window, just as it would if your dog or any other animal in your care got sick. You can spend most of your day tending to and worrying about your sick bird. And no animal ever gets sick on schedule. I’m sure there’s a chicken corollary to Murphy’s Law that says that your chicken will get sick exactly the day of the big meeting at work or the night before your daughter’s wedding. You can’t predict when illness will happen, but you can be entirely certain that illness will happen.
Where Do Baby Chicks Come From?
When a mamma hen and a daddy rooster love each other very, very much…
Oh, actually, you’re wondering about the best places to buy baby chicks. That’s easy. Baby chicks are available locally every spring almost everywhere in the country. Many stores that sell chicken feed and supplies also carry baby chicks. Most stores only carry a few breeds, so if you’re looking for specific breeds, your best option is to check online to see if there are hatcheries or breeders within a reasonable traveling distance from where you live. If time and distance preclude driving to a hatchery, many hatcheries ship chicks through the mail. It’s a common and time-honored method for distributing baby chicks.
Shipping baby chicks through the mail works because they’re baby chicks. When baby mammals are born, they immediately need their mother’s milk for nutrition. That’s not an option for baby birds, nor is it necessary. While a baby bird is developing inside an egg, the egg yolk provides nutrition. The baby bird absorbs the last bit of yolk just before it hatches, and that yolk can sustain the baby for several days without any additional nutrition. Thus, baby chicks can survive on residual yolk nutrients for up to 72 hours while going through the mail. It’s pretty cool that chicks are naturally designed for long-distance shipping, right? Send in your order and before you know it, you’ll have a bunch of little fluffies peeping in your mailbox! What could go wrong?
A lot, unfortunately. In 2013, my shipment of chicks didn’t arrive at my post office until 96 hours after they were shipped. I was never able to figure out what caused the delay, but over half the chicks either died in shipment or shortly after arrival. The US Postal Service is legally required to ship certain live animals, including baby chicks. No other package delivery service will ship animals, and considering the potential problems with putting living animals into a box and shipping them across the country it’s not surprising.
The USPS has done an amazing job, considering the perils, but recently there have been a series of bungles, which have been blamed on the pandemic and internal restructuring and policy changes. In August 2020, for instance, news outlets reported that at least 4,800 chicks shipped to Maine farmers through the US Postal Service arrived dead. In February of this year, the postal service stopped shipping live animals for two weeks because of the extreme weather affecting a large part of the country and shipping delays due to snow storms and freezing conditions as far south as Texas.
So, should you order chicks through the mail? Use your own judgement, but my advice is that getting chicks in the mail may not be a good option in the world we’re currently living in. Since my 2013 disaster, I haven’t used the mail to receive baby chicks. Instead, I’ve relied on local breeders, or I’ve spent the day making the drive to the nearest hatchery with a wide selection of unusual breeds.
For further reading on raising and caring for chickens, check out the following resources:
Counting My Chickens, a blog by Deborah Neyens
Tilly’s Nest, a blog by Melissa Caughey
Randy’s Chicken Blog, my blog, where you’ll find my thoughts on hipster hens, wonder eggs, and the meaning of life