The age old question persists. What is the best way to start a small flock of chickens? There are certainly many possibilities, each with undeniable benefits.
The tried-and-true method would be to obtain birds from neighbors or local farmers. A common modern twist on this method is locating birds through Craigslist. Often, day old chicks, older laying hens, and a variety of roosters are available locally. Chicken owners advertise for free and generally offer their birds for small fees. The transportation and stress on the bird is minimized, but the variety of breeds is limited and the quality highly variable.
Similarly, you can find birds locally at poultry swaps. Feed shops and poultry clubs sponsor or host these gatherings, often in Tractor Supply Company parking lots, and local breeders, poultry fanciers, and chicken owners bring chicks, pullets (hens <1 year), hens, cockerels (roos <1 year), and roosters to trade and sell. There is usually someone on site to test birds for the National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP) to make sure that they are generally disease free, and sellers must pay a fee to show birds, much like a craft fair. These swaps are likely to turn up a greater variety of birds than you might find through Craigslist or by calling your neighbors. You can see and inspect the birds yourself and bring them home that day. This is a very good option, but if you show up with a specific goal in mind, like buying three Speckled Sussex hens and three Easter Eggers, you are unlikely to find exactly that, and you are quite likely to come home with something completely different purchased on impulse. (At least, that is my fear.)
It seems that many novices beginning a small, hobby flock order day old chicks from hatcheries. Some, like McMurray Hatchery, have a minimum order of 25 birds. Because the birds come through the mail, they need to be shipped in larger numbers to maintain an acceptable temperature. Other hatcheries, such as Meyer and My Pet Chicken, will sell day old chicks in smaller quantities, as few as three, depending on your location, adding heating packs of some kind. They ship the chicks in special box, and you pick them up at the post office. Before you bring them home, you need to open the box in front of the post office clerk and call in the number of dead chicks. Some people report receiving boxes of chicks that are all alive, some report a few losses, and others report receiving entire boxes of dead chicks. These losses can be a result of the weather or shipping conditions, but generally hatcheries will replace these losses or give a refund. The benefit of the hatcheries is sexing; you can order pullets or cockerels, usually guaranteed to 95% accuracy. Hatcheries often sell a variety of rare breeds at very reasonable prices. The main complaint is that these birds are of lesser quality than breeders’ birds, “pet quality” as opposed to “show quality” (SQ) which is closer to the SOP. (That’s right – Standard of Perfection.)
Local feed stores often sell chicks from hatcheries, having paid for shipping and dealt with the dead chicks themselves. Some feed stores have sexed chicks, but many are straight run, or a natural ratio of mixed males and females. They usually have just a few popular breeds in stock.
In addition to started birds and day old chicks, you can order hatching eggs and either incubate them yourself or stick them under a broody hen (a hen that is determined to sit on a clutch of eggs to hatch and raise). If you are like me and do not have a chicken, let alone a broody hen, hatching eggs must be set in an incubator. Hatching eggs can be obtained from hatcheries, chicken owners, and breeders. (Chicken owners and breeders sometimes also offer day old chicks, sometimes to ship and sometimes just for local pick-up.) Thus, you can obtain purebred or mixed birds of nearly any breed and of nearly any quality. Hatching eggs can be found on personal websites, farm websites, chicken forums (such as Backyard Chickens), or on auction sites such as Ebay. They are usually more expensive than day old hatchery chicks, and they are, for obvious reasons, only available in straight run. You have no way of knowing whether the chicks you will hatch will be male or female, and further, you have no way of knowing how many eggs will hatch. On average, 40-50% of hatching eggs will hatch, although the average is higher if they were laid on site. Eggs that have been through the mail may experience extremes of temperature and vibration and possibly even X-rays. Once they are in your hands, your hatch rate will have to do with the temperature, humidity, sanitation, and movement that occurs from the moment you open the box until the minute that the chicks emerge from their shell.
Sounds tricky. Sounds challenging. Sounds exciting and authentic. Hmm. I like it.
The process of incubation is intriguing. I am excited to candle (view growth inside with a bright light) my first egg and monitor growth. The actual emergence of those chicks which have braved the odds and, Darwinian, proved fit enough to labor their way out of their shells will be nigh on miraculous. Of course, the level of monitoring, adjustment, and responsibility will be nerve-wracking, most likely driving me to the point of near obsession, but I welcome the intensity of the experience.
Truth be told, this is probably not the most practical way for a novice to begin, but I do believe I will learn a great deal in a short amount of time raising my flock from egg to egg.
“We can see a thousand miracles around us every day. What is more supernatural than an egg yolk turning into a chicken?” – S. Parkes Cadman