A couple of weeks ago The New York Times ran an article about how, in addition to guns, seeds, toilet paper and yeast, Americans have “stress-bought all the baby chickens.” For the record, N and I would like to point out that raising chicks was always in our 2020 plan, even before this pandemic wreaked havoc on the universe. And so it happens that ten chicks now reside in a makeshift fort in our sunroom, deftly constructed of cardboard, repurposed pallets, a vintage metal fireplace guard, free Harbor Freight tarps, and salvaged window screens. This chicken palace is a thing of architectural beauty, make no mistake.
What distressed me most about that NYT article – and to be fair, this happens every Easter – is how many people buy chicks (and puppies, and kittens…) without thinking beyond their cuteness stage. Do you know anything about keeping chickens? Where do you plan to house them? How will you keep them safe from predators? What if you end up with a rooster, which are illegal in most municipalities? This flock will be our fourth, and before we had chickens at our old house we did a ton of research on how to keep them safe, healthy and happy.
Barred Plymouth Rock
Our last stop before self-imposed quarantine in mid-March was our local feed store. A prominent specialty breeder here breeds chickens for the fly-tying industry, and as a side project sells chicks. Were this not an option, we would have likely ordered day-old chicks through a mail-order hatchery, a common practice in much of the country. The newly hatched chicks can survive for a short period of time without food and water, but need immediate care once they arrive. Without a mother hen, too, most chicks need to be shown how to eat and drink; picking each one up and gently dipping its beak into the water dish is common practice.
Rhode Island Red
Our chicks came home in a small box, and we immediately moved them into a livestock watering trough fitted with a powerful heat lamp and lined with pine shavings. Though our adult hens live outside comfortably year-round, chicks are born with just a downy fuzz until their true feathers come in. They’re susceptible to chills and die quickly without supplemental heat, a fairly easy-to-research fact. (One woman mentioned in the article asked for help in an online forum after her chicks started dying; she didn’t know they needed a heat source. This level of ignorance and animal cruelty is disheartening, but not at all surprising.) Our chicks stayed in the trough in the kitchen until they outgrew that space, when we relocated them to their current luxe digs in the sunroom. Since the sunroom is also housing hundreds of seedlings in various stages of growth, it’s lovely and warm and humid in there – like a tropical garden! – and the chicks are content.
Whiting True Blue
Our chicks are coming up on their five-week birthday and aren’t nearly as cute any longer; they’re squarely in an awkward teenage phase. Depending on the weather and their feather growth, they’ll probably remain inside for another two or three weeks before we gently integrate them with our existing six-hen flock outdoors – and it will be another two to three months before we’ll see any eggs. Once these chicks are fully grown, they’ll each lay anywhere from 200 to 300 eggs a year.
Laying hens mostly stop producing eggs after about three years, although they can live for eight to ten; if people choose to raise chickens, they need an exit strategy. Do you plan on keeping your hens until they die of natural causes? Do you want to invest the time and money in taking a bird to the vet? Are you willing to put down an injured or sick bird?
Whiting True Green
We’re very much in favor of people knowing where their food comes from, and building some degree of self-sufficiency, but it’s also important to know that chicks aren’t just designed for an adorable Instagram photo, or for a short-term quarantine. If you’re interested in raising chickens, please be responsible and make sure you do the necessary research first; these are living creatures who deserve respect and care. Figure out if this is something you’re willing to do for the long-term, and not just through an unexpected global crisis.