A pandemic raises the possibility of the unthinkable happening, at least of what would be considered unthinkable in the West: grocery stores not having some items in stock, including staples. So far, at least in my experience, this hasn’t come true, although there are higher prices here and there on some items. Depending on where you live, the situation may vary greatly.
But people were still prepared. Last month, some hatcheries in the US were reporting being “swamped with orders” and “booked out several weeks on most breeds” as people tried to insource their egg supply.
The lay of the land
My grandparents always kept a flock of hens around the house and, growing up, I would often be asked to feed and look after them during summers. So I can attest to the fact that if you have the room to spare, they’re easy to care for (despite being a bit smelly if you don’t do your job) and occasionally loud in large numbers.
They’re also a reliable source of eggs and, in a pinch, chicken nuggets. With most of us cooped up at home, they can also provide entertainment — or at least something to do.
Either for their economic benefit or just out of boredom, it seems that many Americans have turned to raising flocks of their own at home.
“People are at home so they’re looking for something for their families to do,” said Kendall Fox of the Freedom Ranger Hatchery in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, for NPR back in April. “The other reason is the security of having food in their backyard.”
“We’ve never seen anything like this and I’ve been here since 1964,” says Nancy Smith, owner of a hatchery in Lebanon, Missouri. “We can’t answer all the phone calls, and we are booked out several weeks on most breeds.”
Fox explains that customers all over the US are looking to buy hens or chicks. With large commercial farms canceling orders due to economic uncertainty and quarantined workers, public interest is bringing in much-needed business, both to keep the hatchery afloat and to find a new home for the birds, which are now stuck with nowhere to go.
There has been a growing interest in raising poultry in the US, particularly in rural areas, for the last ten years, but anxieties brought on by the pandemic are driving interest up across the entire country. Egg-laying, “broiler” (meat), and “dual-purpose” breeds are all sought-after, said John Monaco, president of the American Poultry Association.
Modern chicken breeds have been selected for thousands of years to improve their output of meat or eggs. Your average chicken can lay around one egg a day (they’ll cluck proudly to let you know), depending on the length of the day. With summer approaching, this is prime egg-laying time.
Around six birds should cover all your demand for eggs, depending, of course, on your family’s appetite for them, as well as the age of the birds (older hens lay fewer eggs).
How To Care For Chickens
Chickens are very unfussy animals. You’ll need a coop for them, either store-bought or built with your own blood, sweat, and tears. The latter option is quite a fun project to get the family involved in; they’ll complain about it, but, secretly, they’ll love it.
From experience, I can tell you that your two next options are either building a pen or just making your peace with the fact that the chickens will go everywhere. There’s no in-between. Keep in mind that while they’re flightless birds, their wings are still good enough to help them jump over impressive heights, so some amount of daily “returning the chickens to the pen” may be needed.
To help with the said “returning” (chickens are faster than you), slowly inch closer to them every day you feed them. After a couple of days, they’ll associate you with food and be comfortable enough to let you handle them. When I was a kid, I used to do this so I could hug the birds, much to my grandmother’s dismay. Alternatively, just lure them in with food, but beware as it may condition them to get out and expect a treat in return. If you’re lucky, however, and have had them since they hatched, they may imprint on you and save you the effort.
Do your best to keep their coop warm, comfortable, insulated from the elements, and easy to ventilate when needed. But, also keep in mind that, even if you do everything right, you can lose some of the animals to the whims of fate. Disease, dogs, and ferrets are some of their greatest enemies. For the most part, they can handle cats on their own, but it’s a good idea to keep an eye on any pet predators you have around the house.
If you’re buying chicks or unhatched eggs, you might get a rooster. You won’t really know until they’ve grown a bit, but they’ll be larger, fancier, and more aggressive than the hens. They’ll also start crowing in the morning at one point. If you live in a city, it might actually be illegal to own a rooster due to this, so check your local code of law. You may learn more about this topic by visiting Poultry Pages.
Not all veterinarian cabinets will take in chickens since most are specialized in caring for cats or dogs, hamsters, or other more city-like furry friends. Veterinarians with experience in caring for birds will probably be more used to seeing parrots or parakeets. Chickens, like every other species, require a certain degree of specialist knowledge so they can be properly cared for. Being primarily livestock animals, however, your typical urban vet shop is likely not to have a need to train people for this task, so care might be a bit tricky to come by.
One option is to seek help online. The Chicken Vet, an online initiative of the UK-based St. David’s Poultry Vets, is a reliable source of information meant to support small-scale, backyard farmers who tend to their flocks. They provide training courses to farmers and vets throughout the country, and they have a nice “Useful Links” section where you can educate yourself on the wants and needs of your birds.
If you need a more hands-on type of help or a consultation, the Directory of Poultry Veterinarians should be useful in finding a practice that will take in chickens near you. It’s wisest if you check before starting your flock.
What To Feed Chickens
As far as food goes, chickens will eat anything if you cut it into small-enough bits. Anything–they’re tiny omnivorous dinosaurs who know no shame. It’s best if you try to soften up the food beforehand, boiling any leftovers together to make it easier for them, although they can handle tough foods. Chickens are a very efficient way of using up food waste instead of throwing them out.
Keep in mind that they generally require low-salt diets (although they still need some salt), and there are a few other items that are not really safe for them to eat (although they will still eat them). Some more in-depth pointers can be found here and here (scroll down to reach the list on the last link).
Another point here is that you should try to raise them on Earth rather than on another surface. This will help provide them with some plants they can–and will–eat, and tiny pebbles (grit) that they gobble up to help “chew” their food. If you feed them with commercial-grade feed exclusively, however, they may not need grit.
Like all animals, chickens do leave a mess, and you’ll need to clean it or it will produce a mighty stink. Like all other animal messes, theirs tends to attract flies, so a few fly traps may be in order, depending on where you live.
If you’re thinking of starting a flock of your own, it pays to talk to vets, hatchers, or agricultural suppliers in your area beforehand to get some pointers on where to start. Get the lay of the land first, and see what’s available where and who you can turn to for help if needed before starting to save you a lot of time and stress as you go forward.
Chickens are some of the easiest animals to care for, but they still require work and time to keep them happy and healthy. And, as a prospective flock owner, you should really care about keeping your birds happy and healthy.
They’re also very enjoyable, fun, and satisfying animals to raise around the house. Having a stable and secure supply of tasty eggs on hand is also very, very nice, and you could potentially raise them for meat, too. Free-range chicken meat is quite a different product from what you can buy in stores, but in order to get that, you’ll have to sacrifice the animals. Check your local laws and regulations before doing so, and be warned as you will grow attached to the little things in time.
All in all, given our current situation, there likely was never a better time to start a small flock than right now. If nothing else, it’ll give the kids something to do other than bug you.