When considering adding poultry to the flock or starting your first backyard bird-keeping experience, many people assume they’ll get some day old chicks at the feed store. This is an excellent option for the new poultry owner, but it is not the only one and it’s good to consider every possibility to make sure you get the birds best suited for your needs.
Hatcheries are a good place to get a large quantity of chicks, or find a unusual breed that isn’t kept by anyone in your area. There are several large production hatcheries in the US, but the smaller companies often can provide healthier chicks that come from better stock. The large hatcheries tend to practice less than humane treatment of their poultry and I’ve been surprised to find how few include basics like heat packs and scratch feed in their shipping containers. However, some of the smaller hatcheries take very good care of their chickens and many even specialize in rare and unusual breeds. If you are getting backyard chickens, it’s also helpful that the smaller companies usually have lower minimum order numbers. Hatcheries to consider for baby chicks include: My Pet Chicken, Mt. Healthy Hatchery, Cackle Hatchery, and Sand Hill Perservation.
Any chicks sent through the mail will be at risk to various traumas associated with traveling. Chicks will have to be checked for pasty butt and spraddle leg. These issues are usually treatable, but sometimes chicks arrive too late to be saved. It’s a good idea to plan for a couple of fatalities just in case.
Most hatcheries allow you to get sexed chicks. Some do not offer this on bantam varieties. It’s very helpful for a small or urban farmer to be able to know they are getting only pullets, as having more than one rooster leads to an unhappy flock.
A note to waterfowl buyers: while most chick hatcheries also offer waterfowl, with these birds heritage and strong stock become more important. Several goose varieties will pass on low fertility rates unless selected from good stock. Therefore, if considering waterfowl from a hatchery, I would suggest purchasing either from Holderread Waterfowl & Perservation Center, or Metzer Farms. Both have very high standards for healthy waterfowl and also have excellent resources for those interested in learning more about waterfowl care.
If you’ve got an incubator or already have a broody hen, hatching your own eggs is truly the most rewarding way to get new poultry. If you have a rooster capable of fertilizing your hens you can let them hatch their own eggs, but it is more common to find a supplier of purebred, hatching eggs. Often you can do this through local bird fancier’s groups or an enthusiast of a certain breed. Most hatcheries also offer hatching egg options.
The downside of hatching your own eggs is that you’ll have no idea if you are getting hens or roosters. In nature, chicks are usually a 50 x 50 mix of males and females. This means it is likely you will get at least a rooster or two from a batch of hatched eggs.
The other problem with hatching eggs is that even the best bred won’t offer a 100% success rate. Fertility in chickens is usually between 80-90%, depending on the breed. Between this issue and the possibility of several males, it is a good idea to incubate several extra eggs and attempt to give away or harvest any extra birds.
Ducks and geese also go broody and can be hatched from eggs. Several goose breeds are known to have low fertility levels, so it’s best to ensure you are breeding strong stock before starting your eggs. You can hatch goose or duck eggs under a broody chicken hen and she will rear the resulting chicks as her own. However, to increase the odds of the birds imprinting on you, it may be best to hatch waterfowl in an incubator.
The feed store is the source of a lot of spur of the moment chicken purchases. If you love chickens, it’s pretty hard to leave your local store without some peeping balls of fluff when they are in stock. It’s a good place to pick up your chicks because you can get all of the supplies for them at the same time, and pick out your favorites from their stock. Feed stores usually don’t order the more exotic breeds because the market for them is limited, but they will get a nice mix of traditional layers and meat birds.
Chicks purchased at the feed store will still be at risk for travel related illnesses and need to be checked for pasty butt and spraddle leg.
It is less common for your local store to get other varieties of poultry such as geese, ducks, and turkeys, but sometimes they do. Check in with the store in February or March, before their orders have been finalized, to see if you can get these fowl.
Local Bird Fanciers
If your area has a bird fancier’s group or poultry club, you can usually make a connection with someone who raises chickens and would be willing to part with a few. This is probably the best way to get rare or exotic breeds, because you can find an enthusiast in that breed who carefully selects for certain traits. Getting involved in your local poultry community is also a great way to meet fellow bird lovers and people who can help you with tips should you run into trouble. You can do a Facebook search for bird fancier’s groups, or see if you can connect with someone on Craigslist. Additionally, there are national organizations and online forums where you can meet other poultry people listed at the end of this post.
There are many reasons to get chickens as chicks, not least of all how cute they are. But practically speaking, sometimes it’s smart to get an adult bird or feathered pullets. Older birds will not suffer in transportation in the same way as day-old chicks, and they are often less expensive. You do not have to worry about the sex of your chickens as it will be obvious when you purchase them. You can also be sure of other characteristics such as their final size and feather patterns right away.
If your main object is eggs, getting feathered pullets means you’ll have the chickens at their prime laying time the following spring. If you are looking for backyard friends, you can get older birds inexpensively and you will not have to worry about setting up a brooder and maintaining certain temperatures, providing chick feed, etc. Adult birds are also much easier to integrate into an existing flock: after quarantining the bird to make sure it has no health issues, you can usually introduce them over just a few days. Adult chickens will more quickly sort out their pecking order and you don’t have to worry as much about them being hurt by larger birds.
A note to waterfowl buyers: water birds, like geese and ducks, imprint on humans when raised by hand. An adult bird who was carefully raised will probably come to accept you as its human – although it will always miss the person who raised it. However, adult birds that were raised with other fowl and no human attention will always be more skittish than imprinted goslings or ducklings. If you are not too concerned about the friendliness of your flock, you don’t need to worry about getting imprinted birds. If you want to keep them more as pets I would recommend getting waterfowl as chicks to help them bond with you.
When buying adult birds, you can integrate them into your flock at any time of year. If you are getting chicks, you need to make sure you get them late enough in the spring that it is warm, but early enough that they will have finished feathering out before winter. Usually the month of May is ideal for new chicks.
You can always check Craigslist or online poultry forums to try to find the birds you are looking for, whether they be chicks or pullets. Local agricultural fairs also often have adult birds for sale. Resources to help you find the right birds include: the American Poultry Association, American Bantam Association, and the online forum Backyard Chickens.
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