McDermott, 55, of Pittsburgh, rented five juvenile chickens plus a coop from a Pennsylvania-based company called Rent The Chicken. She named each of the hens, including her pudgy Buff Orpington, after one of her five grandchildren and sends the kids daily videos of “their” chicken. Unexpectedly, the feathered fowl have provided a fun bonding opportunity with her grandchildren. The fresh eggs are a bonus.
"They are our …COVID entertainment,” McDermott says. “It keeps my grandkids busy watching the videos."
As social distancing continues, more people like McDermott are opting for backyard chicken ownership, even in cities and suburbs. They get healthier, tastier eggs with bright yellow yolks. According to a 2007 Mother Earth News study, free-range eggs contain a third less cholesterol and a quarter less saturated fat — as well as more vitamin A and E, beta-carotene and omega-3 fatty acids — than grocery store eggs.
The birds also provide companionship. Chickens are intelligent, sociable creatures who can form strong bonds with humans. Plus, a growing number of chicken rental businesses make it easier than ever to try out backyard chickens in order to see if the pastime works for you.
Do some prep work
Start by familiarizing yourself with poultry-keeping ordinances in your area. You can find these online or by calling your local government agency. Most areas allow at least three hens, but some don't permit the noisier roosters. Fortunately, hens don't need a rooster to lay eggs.
Second, share your backyard chicken plan with your neighbors. While you typically don't need their permission, it's always a good idea to have their blessing.
Third, do some research, which includes talking to more experienced chicken keepers. Fresh Eggs Daily's Beginner's Guide to Raising Backyard Chickens is a great place to start. Make sure to consider your overall budget and what your lifestyle looks like both pre- and post-pandemic.
Consider rental chickens
Renting chickens is a good way to get in on the backyard chicken-keeping trend without the stress of a long-term commitment.
Chicken rental businesses are booming. Jenn Tompkins, owner of Rent The Chicken, says many of her locations sold out this year, in part due to quarantining. “There was a big influx,” she said. “Because people were at home, they now had time for chickens."
Companies like RentACoop and Rent The Chicken, which deliver to locations across the country and in Canada, provide you with two to four egg-laying hens, a portable coop, feed, a feeder and waterer, and a handy guide for beginners. Rental periods vary from four weeks to six months and cost between $250 and $500. If you find yourself smitten with your new feathered friends, you can often purchase them, and your rental fee may go toward the total purchase price. You can even add more chickens or upgrade your coop for an extra fee.
Plan your ideal first flock
First, consider whether you'd prefer day-old chicks or started pullets (hens 15 to 22 weeks old). Chicks offer more variety, are less expensive per bird and let you begin bonding from day one. However, chicks will need special housing, feed and a heat source. Hens usually begin laying at 18 to 24 weeks, so if you want eggs right away, started pullets are a good option. But you'll need a coop that is ready to go and properly equipped.
A hen typically lays an egg every 25 hours, but production is dependent on factors including temperature, breed, diet and environment.
An all-female flock of three to six birds is an ideal way to start. Gentle, friendly breeds such as Buff Orpington, Golden Comet, Silkie and Barred Plymouth Rock make excellent companions.
"I love the Black Australorp,” says Lisa Steele, a fifth-generation chicken keeper and author of Fresh Eggs Daily: Raising Happy, Healthy, Chickens Naturally." They're calm and docile, cold-hardy, and [are] great layers of large brown eggs.”
Shopping for chickens
Hatcheries are some of the best places to get chickens. Many, such as the Meyer Hatchery and Cackle Hatchery, are family-owned by veteran chicken keepers. They have decades of experience and a wide variety of breeds, and are rooting for you to succeed. Keep in mind that most hatcheries are swamped right now and rapidly selling out of popular breeds, so you'll want to place your order soon.
Be sure to carefully read each hatchery's order policy. Some offer small orders, while others require a minimum of 15 birds. If you're local, you can pick up your birds. If not, birds are packaged with care and sent through the mail, typically arriving at your area post office within two days of hatching. A postal clerk will call you when they arrive. Some other good options are local farm supply stores and fellow chicken keepers.
Years ago, award-winning chef Rick Moonen, 63, of Las Vegas, admired a friend's chickens and recently decided to get his own. Named after the characters in the long-running Golden Girls TV series, Moonen's three Polish chickens — Rose, Sophia and Dorothy — have a lot of personality.
"We're about a week away from when they might just jump into our laps,” Moonen says. “That's when you fall in love with them — when they just want to cuddle up with you.”