For chicken hatcheries, the weeks leading up to Easter are always the busiest. Spring is in the air for people shaking off long winters spent watching Netflix under a blanket who had hoped to emerge into a world of budding flowers, green grass and baby animals.
While spring might be calling people to congregate outside, health authorities are saying the opposite. Many schools and businesses are closed, and states and cities are implementing “shelter in place” orders to keep cases of the new coronavirus from skyrocketing.
The combination of an enormous rise in unemployment, anxious free time for those not struggling with illness, and financial instability has created a number of strange moments in economics. Here’s another: For the next few weeks, baby chickens are next to impossible to find.
Apparently when times are tough, people want chickens. Chick sales go up during stock market downturns and in presidential election years.
Murray McMurray Hatchery, of Webster City, Iowa, ships day-old poultry through the Postal Service, and is almost completely sold out of chicks for the next four weeks.
“People are panic-buying chickens like they did toilet paper,” said Tom Watkins, the vice president of the company.
Down at your Tractor Supply Company, a national chain of farm stores, long lines snake out the door into the parking lot before the store opens on the morning of a chick delivery. Many feed stores report they are selling out of chicks almost as fast as they can get new orders in.
Some of these buyers are simply replenishing their flocks, having put in orders weeks or months ago. But many people who have bought chicks in the last week are first-timers.
Amy Annelle, 48, is a musician in Austin, Texas, who hadn’t planned on getting chickens until the South by Southwest festival and an upcoming tour were canceled. Suddenly she found herself with plenty of time at home to raise birds, just as eggs and chicken began to run low at her local grocer.
According to the Agriculture Department, last week wholesale egg prices rose more than 50 percent in some parts of the country, because of demand; eggs have been running low if not sold out altogether in many stores in the United States. The egg supply is normal, of course; demand just grew significantly.
Ms. Annelle bought four hens and a rooster a week ago. “I thought I’d get some chicks before everyone panics at once and buys them,” she said. “We also wanted a fun project to keep us busy,” she added, referring to her and her partner.
Though Ms. Annelle cited food security as one of the reasons she wanted to have chickens, she realized that it would be at least five months before her hens are old enough to lay eggs.
She doesn’t know how long the quarantines and business closures will last, but said “it just seems like having a steady food source is a good idea right now.” The chicks have also been comforting in another way. “It’s just very hopeful watching them grow,” Ms. Annelle said.
Dominique Greenwell in Spokane, Wash., bought four chicks on March 23 from a nearby breeder (the feed stores were sold out) after a few days of internet research on how to care for the birds.
The hair salon she works at closed the week before, which has given her a lot of time to obsess over her new charges. “I go in there every 15 minutes to make sure the temperature is OK or to hold them,” Ms. Greenwell, 26, said.
She’s an animal lover with a miniature pig, a bearded dragon, two dogs and a cat already living in the household. “You can’t control the world around you but you can control the love you give to your animals,” she said.
Compared with usual chick sales in March, sales at Hackett Farm Supply in Clinton Corners, N.Y., have nearly doubled. “People are willing to take breeds that aren’t their first choice just to get a flock started now,” said Stephanie Spann, the store manager.
Because of concerns about spreading the new coronavirus, the store is open for only one person at a time. People have to wait in line to select their chicks or do curbside pickup, creating a drive-through where instead of getting a Happy Meal, customers take off with a cardboard box of living animals.
The people at Hackett Farm Supply said they had been inundated with calls from prospective chick raisers asking questions like “What do we do?” “Are the chicks really coming in on schedule?” “What do we need to be prepared?”
“It’s like anxious parents preparing for an infant,” Ms. Spann said.
New chicken owners aren’t always prepared to make great lives for chickens. What seems like a great idea when everyone’s at home with plenty of free time won’t be so appealing if or when life returns to normal.
People making last-minute decisions to raise chickens may not know what they’re getting into, which results in cruelty. In one online chicken forum, a woman asked for help after her new chicks started dying. She didn’t know they needed a heat source. (Chicks can’t regulate their temperature until their feathers grow in, which is why they have to be in a brooder with heat or a mother hen to snuggle up with.)
Even with the closing of physical locations of libraries, there are many e-books available on raising backyard chickens, as well as popular forums like BackYardChickens, so newbies can get answers to their questions.
“People should get a coop or outside area prepared for them because the eight weeks they’re inside goes real quick,” Ms. Spann said. “Just be ready. Have the supplies you need before bringing the chicks home.”
“I didn’t know I was jumping on a bandwagon,” said Erin Scheessele, 42, of Corvallis, Ore., of her decision to start a flock of chickens. Her two sons, Simon, 9, and Peter, 11, had been out of school since March 11. “They’ve been asking for chickens for a while,” Ms. Scheessele said.
She’d been reluctant to commit to chickens as a pet that she knew could live for 10 years. (Chickens lay fewer eggs after two years and go through “henopause” around 5 or 6 years of age, but can live much longer. Owners should be prepared to kill the birds or keep them as a long-term freeloading pet.)
But between school closures in Corvallis and it being the beginning of baby chick season, the timing was perfect. “That’s why it came together,” she said. “We needed something to do.”
She and her sons went to a local feed store to buy a coop intending to bring home a starter flock of chicks on the same day. “But there were no chickens,” Ms. Scheessele said. “It was empty bin after empty bin.”
After days of frantic searching, she found a woman over an hour’s drive away who had some chicks to sell. “They haven’t hatched yet so we’re on hatch watch, which might be one day or eight days from now,” Ms. Scheessele said.
In the meantime she’s been plotting how she can use the chickens as both a fun distraction for her sons and a home schooling aid. Her sons are engrossed in what her husband calls “chick lit”— reading how-to guides for raising backyard chickens.
“Chickens are a great way of tying in biology, animal behavior, math and other subjects,” Ms. Scheessele said. “I had my math-resistant 9-year-old help calculate the perimeter of the coop to figure out how much hardware cloth we had to buy.”
He did it but later that day accused his mother of sneaking in a math lesson, noting, accurately, that Ms. Scheessele could have done the calculations herself. She was unapologetic about her trickery. “I’m really going to try and milk this for every educational drop of value I can get,” she said.