I wasn’t surprised when the grocery store shelves, for a time, were bereft of toilet paper, flour and canned tomatoes. It’s a pandemic, after all, and despite our better angels, the instinct to squirrel away food and supplies is difficult to overcome.
But when I tried to place an order for chick feed at the local Tractor Supply and found it was completely sold out of every brand, I discovered another coronavirus-inspired phenomenon: panic-buying chicks.
“America Stress-Bought All the Baby Chickens,” declared the New York Times late last month, in a headline more reminiscent of The Onion than the nation’s most prominent newspaper.
But it’s true. Hatcheries all over the country have been selling out of freshly born poultry.
Because apparently, in times of economic and political tumult, people buy chickens.
In some ways, there’s something quaint and pastoral about America’s sudden chick obsession.
Mandatory quarantines have unexpectedly slowed the pace of life, and many people now find themselves at home with time and the opportunity to participate more directly in domestic food production. Or have you not noticed that everyone is baking bread and planting vegetable gardens?
Many parents, too, have found themselves unexpectedly charged with homeschooling young children, and raising chicks is phenomenal for teaching kids about where and how food is produced. The added bonus, of course, is that cuddling baby chicks will keep stir-crazy kids occupied for hours on end.
More practically, though, chickens can provide long-term food security in otherwise uncertain times.
Eggs prices have spiked throughout the country, and some grocery stores have limited the amount shoppers can purchase.
While there’s a good chance the market will adapt, there’s a comfort in having some control over the source of your food.
That assumes, of course, if you’re a newfound chick owner, that you know how to keep them alive and healthy long enough to start providing you with eggs.
I’m no expert at chicken-rearing. We’re on our second round of baby chicks; we have four laying hens that we raised from chicks last year and four babies in a brooder in our living room. But here’s a little advice from my backyard experience.
First and foremost, make sure you know your local ordinances or homeowners association rules. Some cities have prohibitions on owning roosters or limits on the number of chickens you can keep. It’s probably best to let your neighbors know your chicken plans, as well, since certain breeds can be loud.
Next, be prepared for the mess.
Like any other baby animal, chicks are an adorable novelty until they’re not.
With chicks, that reality sets in as soon as you realize how much they poop and how much they smell. (And how often you have to clean their bottoms so they don’t develop a potentially fatal condition called “pasty butt.”)
Chicks also grow surprisingly fast. So be prepared to transition them from a heated brooder to a more permanent and predator-proof outside structure and run by about eight weeks.
You also have to manage your expectations about egg production. If you buy chicks now, you won’t see your first eggs until the end of summer, at the earliest. And once they’re laying, some chickens produce an egg every 24-30 hours or so; other breeds lay only two or three eggs a week. So be wise in selecting breeds.
Lastly, know your own limits. A small flock of chickens isn’t a lot of work or expense if you know how to keep them healthy and safe, but it may turn out that chick-hoarding really isn’t your thing.
That’s OK, as long as you have a plan for the future of your flock.
Maybe you can find a chick-hoarding neighbor who will trade you eggs for some freshly baked bread.