Think Twice Before 'Panic Buying' Chicks

©. Mail ordered baby Blue Cochin chick beside a packing box. (Photo: Stephanie Frey/Shutterstock)

Coronavirus-inspired chick hoarding is a real thing; here's why it may not be such a great idea.

Look, I get it. Nothing brings out our "Little House on the Prairie" instincts like a world on lockdown thanks to a pandemic. Food security and issues of self-sustainability are high on everyone's minds; and thus, we're cooking beans, the planet seems to have run out of yeast and flour, and now it appears that many of us are about to turn into backyard hen keepers.

Welcome to chickmania.

As the media has been noting, anxiety around the food supply looks to be causing an uptick of people ordering chicks to supply their egg needs. A story in the New York Times describes how Murray McMurray Hatchery, of Webster City, Iowa, which ships day-old poultry through the Postal Service, is almost completely sold out of chicks for the next four weeks. “People are panic-buying chickens like they did toilet paper,” Tom Watkins, the vice president of the company, told the Times. The story goes on to detail the run on chicks, with many suppliers completely sold out.

But Marisa Erasmus, an assistant professor of animal sciences at Purdue University, has this sage advice:

A global pandemic is not the optimal time to start raising chickens.

As it turns out, many people fail to consider all of the relevant factors before diving into life with chickens.

“If you’re thinking of buying chicks, do your work ahead of time,” Erasmus suggests. “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.”

Erasmus recommends considering the following before bringing home the babies.

  • Chicks take roughly 5-6 months to mature, at which time they will start producing eggs.
  • Chickens, while housed outside, need shelter from the elements, whether in the form of a hoop structure, a shed or a coop. The structure must be dry with good air circulation and adequate flooring to maintain the health of the flock. As chickens grow, they will need increasingly more space, roughly 2 square feet per bird.
  • Other amenities like perches, where the chickens rest, and fencing to keep out wild animals are all necessary to raise healthy birds.
  • At some point, birds will become injured or ill. Those rearing chickens need to have a plan in place to deal with this eventuality and need to be able to recognize signs of disease and deterioration.

In addition, if you are buying chicks for eggs because you are concerned about the food supply, remember that chickens need food too – so you will still be tasked with getting food. And chickens need specific feed based on their age and laying status. “They can eat some scraps but they do have specific nutritional requirements, which require supplemental feed to be met,” Erasmus says.

Another thing to keep in mind: Chickens can live for 10 years, even though they lay fewer eggs after two years and lay none at all after five or six years. So you will need to commit to keeping a non-laying hen around, or plan for a sadder fate.

If you have thought about all of these points and are still ready to get chickens, we hope that it is a wonderful and successful endeavor. But for anyone who may question the investment of time, energy and financial resources, there are other ways to embrace a more self-sufficient lifestyle – like gardening and composting. Rearing animals unprepared threatens their quality of life and ability to be productive, says Erasmus.

"Anyone who has experience raising chickens will tell you they are intelligent and complex creatures who have the capacity to experience suffering and contentment," she adds.

Lastly, from the "been there done that" file, our writer Katherine Martinko penned this thoughtful piece: Why I no longer have backyard chickens. If you're considering ordering up a box of chicks, read her essay first.