En español | Michelle Gouin jokes that sometimes her chickens eat better than her family. Over the three years she’s had her backyard bunch, the birds’ meals have included scrambled eggs, Cheerios, broccoli, seeds, cucumber, basil, parsley and lettuce. At times, she’s enhanced their water with a special fortifying powder that reminds her of a sports drink.
The four fowl — Buttercup, Princess Leia, Chicken and Violet — have distinct personalities and have provided endless entertainment for Gouin and her family during the pandemic, not to mention about 30 eggs a week for egg salad, brownies and cakes.
“They’ll come up and take food out of our hands,” says Gouin, 49, of St. Stephen, South Carolina, whose fifth chicken, Dorothy, was recently snatched out of a field by a hawk, leaving her devastated. “They’re our pets, 100 percent.”
At-home chicken ownership spiked at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020 but has remained consistent since then, says Chris Lesley, the editor of Chickens & More Magazine and the author of Raising Chickens: The Common Sense Beginner’s Guide to Backyard Chickens. People have become increasingly interested in keeping chickens, even in cities and suburbs, due to enhanced interested in organic food, understanding where food comes from and concerns about the environment, Lesley explains.
“Quarantine was the flash point that motivated a lot of people to get chickens,” Lesley wrote in an email, “but the underlying reasons people wanted them are still there.”
Consider rental chickens
Rental-chicken options have made it easier than ever to set up a backyard flock. It’s a good way to get in on the chicken-keeping trend without the stress of a long-term commitment.
Companies such as RentACoop and Rent The Chicken, which deliver to locations across the country and in Canada, provide customers 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.
The chicken-rental business has continued its boom, says Jenn Tompkins, owner of Rent the Chicken. Tompkins notes that her business spiked at the start of the pandemic and has not dropped off, growing 48 percent from 2020 to 2021.
While everyone was home quarantining during the pandemic, “there was a big shift in mindset,” Tompkins says. People decided to do some of the things they’d always wanted to do, whether that was moving from a small city apartment to a home with a yard where they could keep chickens, or making the decision to try out backyard chicken keeping.
Fresh eggs and companions
Having backyard chickens is certainly, in part, about the quality of the eggs. Gouin says that even if she buys organic free-range chicken eggs at the store, they don’t compare with the ones she collects every day from her hens. Those eggs are tastier, with bright yellow yolks, she says.
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 vitamins A and E, beta-carotene and omega-3 fatty acids — than grocery store eggs.
The birds also provide companionship. Chickens are intelligent, sociable creatures that can form strong bonds with humans. During the height of the pandemic, Tompkins says, empty nesters were often her clients.
“When people were not seeing their families, they just wanted something to love,” she says. “Adopting a dog or a cat is a long-term commitment. We helped them fill that void.”
Nursing homes and long-term care facilities also rented chickens from Rent the Chicken, Tompkins says, to entertain and engage residents. And they used her other service, too, Hatch the Chicken, which delivers fertilized eggs plus an incubator and other gear for a five-week program. The eggs hatch after about three weeks, then after the clients have two more weeks with the fluffy chicks, Hatch the Chicken retrieves them. “Once they get a bit stinky, we pick them up,” Tompkins says.
Michelle Zombek, director of dynamic living at the Country Meadows South Hills Campus in Bridgeville, Pennsylvania, says her independent and assisted living facility received eggs from Hatch the Chicken just as the pandemic started and visitors were restricted. The residents loved watching the chicks break out of their shells, counted down the days on a calendar and learned about the process. They took pictures and videos and played with the chicks.
“We got them right when the pandemic started,” Zombek says of the eggs. “It brought a little bit of life into the building, when things were a little bit sad and depressing.”
So if you’re thinking of getting backyard chickens, whether the rental or more permanent variety, here are ways to start.
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.
Plan your ideal first flock
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. But chicks 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, though you’ll need a coop that is ready to go and properly equipped.
A hen typically lays an egg every 25 hours, but production depends 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.”
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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 accept small orders, but others require a minimum of 15 birds. If you’re local, you can pick up your birds. If not, they 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. Other good options are local farm-supply stores and fellow chicken keepers.
Michelle Davis is a features editor for AARP. Previously, she was the senior writer and social media strategist for EdWeek Market Brief and a senior correspondent at Education Week. Davis also served as a regional correspondent in Knight Ridder’s Washington bureau, covering the U.S. Congress and the White House.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on July 8, 2020. It's been updated to reflect new information.