Wondering what "Atlanta to Appalachia" is all about? It's part of an occasional series about life in the wilds of West Virginia through the eyes of a couple who never dreamed they'd love it there. Read previous installments here.
The call came from the post office at 6:30 a.m.
"Is this the Cohens?"
"There's a box here for you," said the voice over the phone. "And it's clucking."
Had you told me that my wife and I would be driving at the crack of dawn to our town's post office to pick up baby chicks, I'd have thought you were off your rocker. (What am I saying? I'd have thought I was off my rocker.) Yet here we were, at the crack of dawn, coffee tumblers in hand, driving through serpentine mountain roads to the post office sorting facility to pick up live chicks that had just spent 24 hours in a cardboard box.
We had ordered seven chicks of different varieties. As novice urban homesteaders, we needed the chickens to all look different so we could tell them apart. I have enough trouble deciphering the difference between our two pugs.
The eggs were hatched at the Meyer Hatchery in Polk, Ohio. Our chickens were — serendipitously — born on my birthday, our astrological signs forever aligned. A few hours after they emerged from their shells, we received an email with a tracking number so we could monitor their journey. We constantly refreshed the postal service website for the latest information, each time the page reloaded was like a dopamine hit to the brain. But for hours, the status simply read "Shipping label created."
Meyer is less than four hours from where we live, and Elizabeth, eager for them to arrive, considered driving there to pick them up. Frustrated, over-zealous, chicken crazy ... why wait an entire day when we could have them in our car before dinner? I talked her off the perch, and we waited. And refreshed the webpage some more.
The U.S. Postal Service has been mailing day-old chickens for the past 100 years. Prior to 1918, hatcheries put their chicks on trains. Baby chicks can safely survive for about two to three days without food or water because they are sustained by the yolk, according to My Pet Chicken. That being said, the hatcheries recommend caution when opening the box to make sure everyone made the journey safely.
Understandably, the postal service asks that you pick up your chicks as soon as they arrive in town — hence the 6:30 a.m. call to come to the sorting facility. The last thing a mail carrier wants is a clucking, chirping box in his truck all day.
We arrived at the post office eager with anticipation and rang the bell.
"You here for the chickens?" a nice woman asked as she opened the door to the warehouse.
"What gave it away?"
"Well, chicken people are the only ones that show up here this early in the morning. And, besides – " she said, as she pointed to Elizabeth's Tractor Supply Company T-shirt.
The woman from the post office looked at us a little strange, perhaps wondering how the two of us were going to carry all the boxes. Turns out, she thought we actually worked at the Tractor Supply store here in Morgantown and were picking up their weekly order. When we cleared things up, she found our box, had us sign some paperwork and, just like that, we were the proud owners of seven baby chickens. We've already dubbed them the Co-Hens.
We had done our research and knew what to do when we got home. The birds will be thirsty, YouTube told us. They've only been alive for a day or two, so you'll need to show them not only where the water is in their new coop, but how tapping the nipple on the container will release the liquid. They picked up all the information surprisingly quickly.
For the time being, they'll be living in a small coop in the garage until they're old enough to move outside into their bigger, more permanent coop. That's when they'll start to lay eggs, and omelettes will become our go-to meal. In the meantime, we keep the lights on in the garage during the day and turn them off at night to help mimic their circadian rhythm.
Chicken experts suggest getting day-old chicks like we did for a number of reasons. The main one being it's the safest time to move them, and they haven't yet formed any bad habits. For example, a 2-month-old bird is likely not going to want to be picked up by a human. But if you get them while they're still babies, you can teach them not to be afraid of you.
Knowing that birds are distantly related to dinosaurs, my wife had an idea. Elizabeth – a woman with a Ph.D. – put on her dino pajamas, just one of many animal onesies that line our closet. Once in the garage, the birds instantly imprinted on her.
The mother hen had arrived.