Pet chicken owners say the birds are more than just egg producers: 'They're my babies and are spoiled rotten'
When the COVID-19 pandemic caused the world shut down in March 2020, we all shifted focus. Instead of eating in restaurants, we started sourdough breads and made pasta from scratch. Instead of extra-curricular activities after school, we planted gardens and took up knitting. Instead of travel and vacation, we planted roots where we live.
While we spent this time at home, we found we had more time for pets. More than 23 million U.S. households — that's 1 in 5 nationwide — adopted a pet during the pandemic, according to a May 2021 survey by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).
The majority of these adopters opted for traditionally cute and cuddly animals like dogs and cats, but some animal lovers flew the coop and flocked to feathered friends: namely, chickens. Poultry became the new "it" pandemic pet.
Kelly Gray is a writer who lives in Asheville, N.C. and has kept chickens as pets for seven years. "I think the pandemic gave rise to more chicken pets because word got around about their affectionate and playful nature," says Gray. "Also because of egg production."
Remembering the way supply chain issues happened almost immediately when shoppers rushed stores for supplies at the pandemic's outset, Gray says, "I think all of us realized we need to be more sustainable and more conscious of our food sources."
Phil and Jenn Tompkins started their business, Rent The Chicken, in Freeport, Penn., in 2013. The company helps people establish "yard to table" eating habits, providing two to four egg-laying hens, a coop, food and water dishes and food for a five to six month rental period — so families can enjoy chicken ownership and its rewards without the years of commitment. At any point, chicken renters can choose to adopt their flock permanently, or return them to the homestead. What started as a small operation now reaches about 50 locations in the U.S. and Canada.
"We thought we would have to close down our business at the start of the pandemic," Jenn Tompkins tells Yahoo Life. "But we couldn't have been more wrong. Rent The Chicken continued to grow even after [stay-at-home] mandates, due to people deciding to move out of congested areas to more scenic areas with more space."
For chicken owners, daily fresh eggs are just a bonus
Tompkins says while the initial reason people rent chickens is for eggs, they're often surprised at the birds' big personalities and how fun they are to have as pets. Their silly antics and funny sounds make them a joy to have around the home.
Another bonus: Chickens are intelligent and trainable. Radio DJ Bonnie Miller, who lives in Fredericksburg, Va. and has owned chickens for six years, says if she has peanuts in her hands, she can get her five birds to do almost anything. Tompkins says her renters sometimes set up obstacle courses for their chickens with treats as prizes. The chickens will also come walking up to the door of their house and peck at it.
Miller says her chickens know her. When she comes home, they immediately run to the back deck looking in the door for her. "My listeners [on the radio] love hearing stories about my chickens on the air," she says. "During the holidays, I decorate my coop with Christmas lights. I make them a birthday cake every year. They're my babies and are spoiled rotten."
Gray had been involved in animal rehab for a long time before she started keeping chickens — including her leading man, Willie Pep a rooster named for the 1920s boxer — but a friend needed to rehome her poultry pets and Gray stepped up.
"The funny thing about pet chickens is how friendly they can be and that they will cluck and snuggle their way into your heart if you let them," says Gray. "These were my first chickens and before I adopted them, I had no idea how affectionate and intelligent they are — from being excited to see their human friends to the sophisticated language they share with one another."
Gray says many of her chickens, including her beloved hen, Betty Grable, are more like house pets than livestock. They ride in the car with her, snuggle with other animals on her farm and are a part of her family.
"I had no idea how much chickens love their humans until they started following me around everywhere and even if I didn't have food, they loved to sit with me," she says. "That's when I purchased [a] lawnchair and I would sit in the coop with them for hours, reading, bringing my work or a glass of wine to enjoy, just interacting with them."
Before committing, do your research
Before Miller committed to her chickens, she checked out every book she could find on raising and caring for them from her local library. "My husband laughed at me but I wanted to learn everything," she says. "Chickens are a lifetime commitment."
Miller also researched online and checked with the city and county on their laws regarding chicken ownership before buying a coop and supplies.
"Every single municipality has different ordinances and regulations," says Tompkins. "It can be very tricky."
Sometimes hens are allowed, but not roosters — in Miller's case, this was true. "Restrictions can also be based on property size, the coop's distance from the property line or square footage of the chicken coop based on number of chickens," she explains, "and some ordinances default to a nuisance code based on noise or odor at the property line."
Tompkins advises anyone thinking about chickens to call their local municipality and ask for their ordinance code information regarding chickens.
Gray agrees, saying chickens require as much care as a dog or other agricultural animal. "You have to be ready to be chicken parents," she says. "Cleaning out the chicken coop is quite a process, plus having fresh bedding and a never endingly-fresh supply of water is critical to prevent illness and costly treatment," she says.
It's also important for chickens to have room to roam, but free-ranging chickens are susceptible to many more dangers than chickens that are confined. "Predators take advantage of the chickens being without protection," says Tompkins. "Everything wants chicken for dinner when all we want is breakfast from our backyard flock."
When customers receive a chicken ownership package from Rent The Chicken, they're provided a portable chicken coop. Tompkins recommends it be moved frequently to keep the chickens in a fresh supply of grass and insects for foraging. "Moving the coop also allows for there not to be a dead spot or build-up of droppings, keeping odor to a minimum," she adds.
Gray says the thing chicken parents should be prepared most for is to love them. "Chickens are such a joy," she says. "I take tremendous delight observing them living their best little lives."
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