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Baby Chicks: The New Toilet Paper?

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Tidbits from an educator, writer, gardener and chefette—promoting less waste, more taste.

COVID-19 may have brought out the worst in some of us but it also got many of us excited about things we would never have thought about or experienced before the pandemic hit. Finding ourselves in lockdown with regular commodities in short supply, many of us took up new endeavors such as baking, gardening and even backyard chicken raising.

This time last year, my good friend and HERLIFE Magazine Central Valley founder, Kimberly Mullen, and I found ourselves smack dab in the middle of a chicken panic-buying epidemic. The two of us, having a range of chicken keeping experience, she a one-year novice and me a life-timer, were appalled and irritated at all the first-timers swooping up the baby chicks at our local feed stores.

Apparently, gone were the days when we could just wait until the weekend and nonchalantly waltz into Tractor Supply and leisurely pick out chicks of our choice. Now one had to call ahead to find out when the next shipment would arrive and be there when it arrived, and wait in line if we were to get any chicks at all. It was like Black Friday with everyone fighting over baby chicks instead of Nikes and Coach bags. We even heard rumors of some feed store personnel having to break up knock-down-drag-outs between irate chicken shoppers.

Dee Yates, my other good friend, fellow chicken-keeper and owner of HERLIFE Magazine Central Valley, and I did this very thing. Dee, having friends in high places at one particular feed store, was able to get the lowdown on a shipment of coveted Black Copper Marans, along with the exact time of arrival. We met early at the store only to find a dozen wannabes already there waiting. Luckily, the truck did not arrive on time and the crowd dwindled until only the most dedicated of us remained. I ended up with four lovely black pullets that would eventually complement my egg basket with gorgeous, dark, chocolate-colored eggs.

Meanwhile, Kimberly was online, searching, texting, calling and deal-making with chicken-breeders all over the valley for rare breeds to add to our flocks and multi-colored egg layers to enhance our Instagram egg vignettes. Yes, this egg-color obsession is a real thing, as I pointed out last April in my HERLIFE article, “Fresh Eggs Crazy.” We essentially ended up driving all over the countryside buying baby chicks to freshen up our flocks, since our local feed stores were not able to meet our demand.

And indeed, news headlines were screaming, “Coronavirus Anxiety Sparks Surge In Live Chicken Sales,” “Hatcheries Report Shortage as People Panic Buy Baby Chicks,” and “Baby Chicks Are the New Toilet Paper.” There were just as many articles warning first-time chick buyers about the cons of panic-buying baby chicks. Despite headlines such as “Many People Fail to Consider All of the Relevant Factors Before Diving Into Life With Chickens. And the next one to Make Sure You Know What You’re Getting Yourself Into Before Buying Baby Chicks,” people went crazy snapping up thousands upon thousands of baby chicks all across the country.

We seasoned chicken keepers just shook our heads at the ridiculousness. We scoffed at those who had no idea that chickens must mature to a ripe five to six months before laying their first egg, long after the store shelves would be back to normal. And there is the issue with city ordinances, which can be very picky depending upon where you live. Not to mention, chickens have special needs. They need dry, draft-free sleeping quarters and an outside run for scratching and dirt-bathing, where they are protected from predators such as the neighbor’s dog, coyotes, cats, raccoons, hawks and anything else that relishes chicken fricassee. As they grow, they will need increasingly more space, roughly four square feet per bird.

And then there is the problem with poop. Tons and tons of poop. And it smells, especially if it’s not cleaned up regularly. And the odors bring complaints from the neighbors, who will be complaisant if you share your eggs, of which you better hope your hens lay an abundance because that’s the reason you got them to begin with. And then there is also the possibility that you might end up with a rooster, which is a no-no in urban areas. However, as hatcheries try to meet the demand these days, ending up with a roo is more a probability.

At some point, your 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. And, one must understand that, although the normal lifespan of a chicken is generally eight to ten years, its laying longevity is only about two to three. So, there is naturally the question of what to do with them after they are no longer useful.

Now, if I have painted a grim picture of chicken-keeping, it’s only to weed out the wannabes, and for good reason. Naturally, there are reactions to every action and there are consequences to every decision. Sadly, many of those baby chicks that were welcomed into the backyards of the panic-stricken have now found themselves abandoned to animal shelters, homeless and hopeless. My friend who lives in Southern California tells me that the animal shelters have become so full of chickens that some municipalities are building new wings just to house discarded birds or are euthanizing them at an alarming rate.

If you are one of those first-timers, I sincerely hope that you are enjoying your chickens as much as Kimberly, Dee and I are. I can’t imagine my life without my feathered friends—their personalities, their humorous antics, their companionship and, of course, their colorful, delicious, abundant, fresh eggs. They may be a bit of work, but the payoff is much more than many bargain for.

This article is dedicated to Penny and Freckles, whom I had the joy of knowing and loving for 12 wonderful years. May they rest in peace in Chicken Heaven.
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