I have baby chickens in my living room and maybe you do, too.
To be clear, this isn't my first time raising a flock for our little farm in central New York, but the outbreak of COVID-19 in the U.S. certainly expedited my plans for a new one. And apparently, we're not the only ones adding the chirps of baby chicks to the cacophony of noises that comprise our quarantined lives.
According to the New York Times, sales of baby chickens across the U.S. have skyrocketed, with many chicken hatcheries struggling to fulfill demand. The farming chain Tractor Supply, where I scooped up my 10 new family members on March 16, are reportedly selling out of stock as fast as they receive them.
"People are panic-buying chickens like they did toilet paper," Tom Watkins, vice president of Murray McMurray Hatchery in Iowa, told the Times.
Food security in a time of uncertainty
For those of us who have owned chickens before, the benefits and joy they bring to those willing to put in the effort and care required are enormous. Having them in the "age of COVID-19" and all the uncertainty the rest of 2020 holds is a welcome piece of security. But for those with little knowledge of how to care or raise them, including these little lives on a list of pandemic supplies could end in disaster.
"If you're thinking of buying chicks, do your work ahead of time. Make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into. These animals are going to grow up and have very specific needs. They are reliant on us to provide for them and we have to be sure we can do that," Marisa Erasmus, an assistant professor of animal sciences at Purdue University, cautions in a university release.
For one thing, baby chicks need sustained warmth (between 80-90 degrees F for the first month), meaning you'll need to either have an outdoor brooder box prepared or set them up somewhere indoors. I was forced to do the latter, with my original plans of investing in a flock in April scrapped by COVID-19's emergence in March. Indoor baby chicks, as all new poultry owners will discover, shed a surprising amount of dander. It's so bad and rapid that it will appear as if your vacuum cleaner has exploded all over your living room. They're also ravenous creatures that require constant attention in terms of clean water, feed, grit and other necessities for good health.
That first joyous egg? It won't arrive for at least five or six months.
There's also the question of what happens after the pause of life is lifted and the post-coronavirus world resumes. Once old enough to roam outdoors, chickens require a secure coop, about 1.5 pounds of feed per head per week, room to peck and scratch, fresh water and clean bedding. They're also some of the messiest companions you'll ever have the pleasure of serving, so get used to cleaning up chicken poop for the next five to 10 years.
All of this is to say that this boom in sales of baby chicks could end in some very cruel conditions for a lot of post-COVID adult birds.
"I've kept and adored chickens for around 30 years and they are engaging, beautiful animals, but it's important for people to know what they're in for before making this commitment," wrote one Times' commenter. "Please -- do your research first."
Purdue's Erasmus also recommends consulting your local ordinances regarding poultry. In some places it's forbidden while other areas may allow it under certain conditions or require shelter specifications.
Guidance is available
Where should a first-time chicken owner turn to ensure a good life for their new flock? If you've yet to take the plunge (and your local source is still accepting orders), you can see our list of the best breeds to consider here. Other popular resources online include discussion groups such as the Chicken Forum and Backyard Chickens. And if you haven't read Benyamin Cohen's series about being a first-time chicken owner, it's worth a read. Leaning on your personal social network and asking if others out there are doing the same thing is also a great way to gain helpful tips, troubleshoot health concerns and learn more about these incredible birds.
Just please, for their sake, put in the effort to give them good lives.