It’s spring. Bulbs are blooming, birds are singing, and feed stores have fluffy yellow baby chicks!
When we were still living in Silicon Valley, finding a source for baby chicks was a challenge. These days, no matter where you live, buying chicks is easy. There are lots of hatcheries that sell by mail-order. It may seem odd that day-old baby chickens are shipped in a cardboard box via snail mail, but it actually works very well. Newly hatched chicks can survive without food or water for the day or two it takes to arrive at their destination. The post office will call you as soon as the box arrives, and you have to be ready to rush over and pick up your brood.
The most important consideration for chicken shippers (say that quickly five times!) is keeping the chicks warm during transit. For their shared body heat to be sufficient, a minimum of 25 chicks per order is required.
What? You don’t want 25 chickens? No, neither do I. Happily, most feed stores offer baby chicks in the spring. They either order a large batch to sell, or combine their customers’ orders to achieve the 25 chick minimum. Then the challenge is to figure out which chicks are which (they don’t usually look like their parents at this age)!
There are lots of different breeds to choose from, so it helps to know a bit about chickens. First, they come in two varieties—those bred for maximum egg production on minimal feed, and those heavy breeds intended to be eaten. Dual-purpose breeds are a compromise—you get meaty chickens who lay lots of eggs, but they also tend to consume more feed than the slimmer, egg-laying champions.
Chickens come in varying sizes. Bantams are petite one-to-two pound birds, while Jersey Giant roosters average 13 pounds! If space is a consideration, smaller breeds are a good choice.
Although chickens are remarkably hardy, if you live where winters get very cold, medium to large, dual-purpose birds are your best bet. Their added body mass helps them survive below-zero temperatures. Also look for small combs and feathered feet.
Although individual birds vary, some breeds tend to be feistier than others. The familiar white Leghorn chickens are the ones most commercial egg farms use, as they give you the most egg per pound of feed. They’re also usually pretty ornery. Barred Rocks and Brahmas are much more docile, an important consideration if you have children.
Then there’s egg color. You can pick from white, tan, brown, a pinkish brown, or even blue-green. It’s all determined by breed, and they all taste the same. I usually avoid white so I can easily tell “my” eggs from the ones I got at the store. Green eggs are fun to share if you can handle the inevitable comments about pairing them with ham!
When assembling my flock, I prefer to have an assortment of shapes, sizes and colors. It’s just more fun. Plus, by getting a different breed every year, I can easily tell how old each hen is. This comes in handy when it’s time to cull the no-longer-laying biddies. (Anyone remember Chicken Run?)
When making your order, you’ll find that chickens are sold either “straight run” (i.e., approximately half hens and half roosters) or sexed. Determining the sex of a day old chick is extremely difficult, and takes a highly skilled chicken-sexer. Even then, mistakes are made. (That’s how we ended up with each of our roosters.)
Naturally, if you want your hens to become mothers, you’ll need a rooster to fertilize the eggs. Just remember that half those eggs will produce even more roosters.
On the other hand, if you are interested in chickens as pets and for their eggs, you want all hens. For one thing, roosters aren’t allowed in many incorporated areas. Even if you live where they’re permitted, you need to remember that they crow, and not just at dawn. One rooster needs a good-sized harem or he will wear out his favorite hens, eventually killing them. And finally, if he considers you a threat to his flock, he will attack. I still have scars from one mean rooster (who ended up as a very flavorful soup).
Of course, you can eat the roosters, but by the time it’s obvious that they won’t be laying any eggs, they’re pretty tough and stringy. Then there’s the question of who will do the dirty deed. My husband flatly refuses to chop the head off of anything, and our farm-raised friend has moved away. That leaves me.
Since I really don’t want any more roosters, I will probably opt for a sex-linked breed. In this case, the gender of the chicks is indicated by their plumage, making it much easier to ensure I’m getting only the girls.
Picking out this year’s chicken breed is a lot like drooling over a seed catalog. Egg layers or dual purpose birds? What about size, temperament, egg color? And then there’s the aesthetics. Most of my current birds are black. Should I complement them with golden Buff Orpingtons, beautiful Silver Laced Wyandottes, or friendly Rhode Island Reds? Or should I go all out and order some Polish hens with their fancy feather headdresses? I just can’t decide!