Alibi V.24 No.12 • March 19-25, 2015 

The Mouthful

How to Pick Up Chicks

With the unpleasant realities of the poultry industry becoming increasingly well-known, it’s no surprise that more urbanites are choosing to ditch the factory farm system and invest in their own backyard flock of chickens. Chickens are a straightforward, relatively inexpensive way to become more self-sufficient and ensure that, at the very least, the eggs you use in your omelettes come from poultry that’s had as close to an ideal life as you can give them.

Early spring, after the danger of cold snaps is past, is the perfect time to take that all-important first step toward homegrown eggs: picking out some chickens. Some people choose to start their flock out with full-grown egg layers, but to my mind that approach offers too many disadvantages. It’s more expensive from the get-go, with layers in their prime typically costing about $25 or so; the hens you choose may not get along very well, leading to unhappy, bloody-headed chickens; and you’ll need to have your full coop up and running as soon as your new pals arrive. Getting a batch of baby chicks at $3 apiece, on the other hand, is cheaper and allows you to ease into your operation with little more than a cardboard box and $30 worth of supplies. Your chicks will also get a chance to bond with each other and you. The only downside to starting them young is that you will have to wait about six months before the girls reach laying age.

Unless you’re looking for more than 15 chickens (which might run you “afowl” of the law, depending on where you live), you’ll probably need to source your chicks locally rather than ordering direct from a hatchery. Unfortunately, that means you’ll be limited to whatever breeds the feed stores stock, so don’t get your heart set on a Belgian bearded bantam or anything. Unless you’re a real connoisseur, though, you should be able to find enough breed variety in town to make you happy.

Getting a batch of baby chicks at $3 apiece, on the other hand, is cheaper and allows you to ease into your operation with little more than a cardboard box and $30 worth of supplies. Your chicks will also get a chance to bond with each other and you.

Chances are, whatever’s in stock will be good egg layers, but just in case, here are my recommendations: Rhode Island Reds are the classic fluffy red hens, and they’re perfectly suited for the Rio Grande Valley’s climate swings. They stand up to freezing temperatures and summer swelters with the same easygoing, good-natured pluck. They lay big, brown eggs like crazy too. Barred Plymouth Rocks are similar but bear a black and white striped pattern. Orpingtons tend to be happy around people and also good layers, even in the winter months when other breeds stop laying altogether. And Ameraucanas, though more delicate than the aforementioned breeds, are still relatively hardy and offer an interesting splash of color in your fridge; their eggs are often blue or green. Leghorns and Wyandottes are also safe choices.

You may run across other breeds, but make sure you do your research before picking them up. Polish hens, for instance, are becoming more popular due to the striking tufts on their heads that look like fright wigs. However, they’re poorly suited for the cold snaps our area is prone to and are inconsistent layers. They also tend to get picked on by other chickens. Just make sure you know what you’re getting into, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.

As I said above, once you’ve got the chicks, all you really need is a cardboard box, a reflective clamping lamp to warm the chicks, a feeder and a waterer, and you’re all set. Keep the chicks happy and fed. Take them out and handle them every chance you get, and start working on your hen-house and coop setup. After six weeks of baby chick time, you’ll be ready to get the girls out into their own place. And within six months, they’ll reward your effort with the best eggs you’ve ever eaten.