All of a sudden, I’m seeing tiny buds on every branch. This sign of spring sends my vegetable-growing friends into expanding their garden beds. For chicken farmers like me, the itch is to add just a few more birds to the flock.
Now through the end of May is the best time to get chicks, says Lindsay Cook, co-owner with her husband, Casey Zawicki, of New Farm in Orleans, where the supplies for what they call “micro-farms” are mostly organic. Lindsay is a self-described “chicken lady” who offers advice along with the chicks she sells.
“The goal is to make sure that the chicks can ship safely by avoiding the cold weather of early spring, but also the hotter weather of summer,” says Cook. “If you get chicks in this window, they also have time to mature and will begin to lay by the fall.” Yes, she is talking about mail-order chicks.
The Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogue famously introduced mail-order chicks in 1930. And today they can be ordered directly from hatcheries. Newly hatched chicks are surprisingly hardy and routinely survive a journey by mail, as long as you order four to six birds — enough to ensure the day-old chicks stay warm in their shipping box.
Chicks’ ability to sustain themselves during those first 24 to 48 hours is built in by nature, because a nest of eggs will not necessarily hatch on the same day. In the nest, firstborns fend for themselves while mama hen is busy keeping the still unhatched siblings warm. Only when all the chicks are hatched can she safely leave the nest for long enough to forage for food for her entire brood.
Still, not all chicks are strong enough to survive shipping. If you order them, you have to be prepared to deal with that. While most hatcheries will send replacement chicks, the advantage to buying a chick from a local store — around here, that’s New Farm or Agway — is that you are more likely to bring home hardy survivors.
When Cook orders chicks, she keeps them for at least one overnight “to make sure they are all settled in and healthy,” she says. “They are normally four or five days old when they go home,” she adds. Cook takes care of birds that arrive needing extra care, nursing them back to health after splinting the occasional broken toe or spraddle leg.
If you are a novice at raising chicks, buying at a local store offers a chance to ask questions and to go home with all the right supplies, too.
“Because it can still be pretty cold in March and April,” Cook says, “I recommend that people who get their chicks during these months keep their birds inside for six weeks with a heat plate. At six weeks they are fully feathered and can handle a bit of cold.”
Part of the fun of adding to your flock is considering what breeds to bring home. Larger commercial hatcheries, such as the Meyer Hatchery in Ohio, have a wide selection of breeds, many of which run about $5 per bird, while smaller local farms in Massachusetts tend to specialize in rarer, more expensive breeds that cost up to $60 per chick.
Sheeran Farms Silkie Chicks in Brimfield and Heavenly Hydrangea Silkie Farm in Russell are go-to places for this bantam breed — Silkies have fluffy feathers, five toes instead of the usual four, and blue earlobes, and cost around $20 apiece. Überchic Ranch in Wilmington raises rare breeds with names like Dutch Barnevelder and Lemon Cuckoo Niederrheiner.
More common breeds, such as the Buff Orpington, Barred Rock, and Easter Egger, tend to be the friendliest and the best layers, Cook says, and are the best choice for beginners. But even a practical chicken lady can be tempted by the prospect of colorful eggs.
“We got Green Queens in for the first time last year,” Cook says of a new crossbreed, “and I am quickly falling in love with them.”
Victoria Pecoraro, owner of the Wellfleet Chick Koop, sells both chicks and pullets (hens under a year old) and chooses heritage breeds that are protected by the Livestock Conservancy. “Currently, there are 36 heritage chicken breeds in danger of extinction,” Pecoraro says. “Raising them supports conservation and genetic diversity.” For beginners, she likes Dominique, Buckeye, Black Australorps, and Speckled Sussex.
I know I’m not going to be able to resist a few of these, even though raising chicks does take a little more work than starting with pullets. For one thing, if you’ve already got chickens at home, you’ll have to house new baby chicks separately for a while before they join the older ladies. But “chicks that you hand raise from a very young age will bond with you,” Cook says, “and generally make friendlier adult birds.”
Stay tuned for instructions on how to make your own tiny-house coop.