For the first two weeks of their lives, chicks must be kept at 90 degrees Fahrenheit, making heat lamps essential. / Photo by Sunny Montgomery

In early April, my boyfriend brought home a box of 10 two-day-old chicks. And just like that, we were part of the great American poultry boom, spurred on by uncertain times.

According to the New York Times article "America Stress-Bought All the Baby Chickens," published in late March, interest in chicken-keeping always increases during economic downturns. But this spring, as the coronavirus caused states to shut down and unemployment to skyrocket, feed stores and breeders saw record sales.

My boyfriend Alex and I purchased our chicks from Homestead Poultry and Hatchery in Delano, Tennessee, after being wait-listed for two weeks.

"I sell out [of chicks] every day," owner Delinda Crawford told me. "Sometimes 60-70 birds; sometimes 100. In my 16 years, that's never happened."

Similarly, the Tractor Supply Store in Cleveland, Tennessee, where my next-door neighbors got their brood of 10, reported an estimated 400% increase in chick sales compared to 2019. Typically, the store stops selling chicks after Easter, said manager Mikala Smith, but this year, due to demand, it extended sales through May.

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What to know before panic-buying chickens

In many places — Chattanooga included — the trend of backyard birds may run afoul of the law.

In Chattanooga, chickens are restricted to property of five acres or more. (For context, the median lot size of a U.S. home is under one-fifth of an acre.) And roosters are prohibited within city limits.

But in Ocoee, where I live, there are no restrictions on either — which is good news, considering our flock could consist of any number of roosters.

Chickens have no external sex organs, so determining their sex is nearly impossible until around 6 weeks of age. Feed stores and many breeders sell both with no guarantee which are pullets and which are cockerels. These are known as "straight run" chicks, which I learned only after my boyfriend brought home our brood.

Hens begin laying eggs around 6 months of age, and they do not need roosters to produce. Eggs were all I wanted from chickens, and the idea of roosters, which I perceived as aggressive and territorial, made me nervous.

I expressed my concerns to Elizabeth Boggan, Red Bank Animal Hospital veterinarian and local chicken-keeper.

"Roosters are like cats," Boggan told me. "Some are awesome, and some would like to kill us all."

At her Hixson home, Boggan has four hens and one rescue rooster. Her relationship with the rooster is mostly civil, she says, though she admits, "He's much nicer to the chickens than he is to me."

A rooster's instinct is to protect its hens, alerting the flock to predators and even preventing hens from pecking each other. Though roosters can be beneficial, more than one within a flock can lead to brutal competition, potentially injuring both roosters and hens.

Hens are easy to re-home, says Boggan. "But if you wind up with a bunch of roosters, you'll have a hell of a time finding a place for those."

Demand for roosters is limited, especially in communities that prohibit them. A person can list them on sites such as Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist or try to sell them at a farm auction. Or, they can surrender them to an animal shelter.

The best solution, Boggan says, is to avoid the problem altogether by purchasing chicks from online hatcheries that use a specialized technique called "venting" to guarantee their sex.

"Back in the day, you would have eaten [unwanted roosters] and that would be that, but we don't treat chickens like farm animals anymore. I don't, anyway," she says.

Nor do I. My chicks, 1 month old as I write this, receive more attention than my cat. Every day, I spend time in their run, talking to them, offering them food, scrutinizing their personalities and trying to guess which will become roosters.

I am most suspicious of my favorite one, an inquisitive all-black chick with a fondness for perching on my shoulder.

"Get on their level, squat or kneel down. Get them comfortable with coming to you for food," suggested D.B. Reisen when I called for advice. She runs a 17-acre farm near Hamilton Place mall complete with sheep, cattle and, of course, chickens.

Socialized roosters will be friendlier, she told me. "Mine still eats out of my hand."

In the past six months, Reisen says she has received more messages than normal from folks looking to re-home their birds, often due to legal issues.

"People get in trouble [for illegal chickens], start Googling farms and find me. Once, somebody just dropped off a pair on my doorstep," says Reisen, who is an advocate of loosening Chattanooga's chicken laws. Rather than the five-plus-acre rule, she believes the city should issue permits, along with a new set of rules: fence requirements or coops kept a certain distance from neighbors, for instance.

Backyard farming, Reisen believes, is vital for both the environment and the security of the country. America, she reminded me, has long embraced urban agriculture during uncertain times. During World War I and World War II, for example, people kept home "victory gardens" to help offset worldwide food shortages.

Earlier this year, as the coronavirus pandemic disrupted food production and supply routes, the United Nations World Food Programme warned that a global food crisis may be imminent. Around that same time, eggs prices in the U.S. tripled due to panic-buying.

For multitudes of Americans struggling to feel secure, chicken-keeping felt like insurance, and if nothing else, a productive way to fill a sudden abundance of free time. For my boyfriend and me, our chicks, which are becoming larger and more fully feathered by the day, are a cheerful reminder that change brings opportunity — though, we still haven't decided what we'll do in the event of multiple roosters.

"Learn the basics before getting chickens," Boggan warns. "But all in all, I think this is a great trend."


A Chicky Checklist

In addition to record chick sales this spring, Tractor Supply manager Mikala Smith says she also noticed a record number of first-timers, who tend to ask a lot of questions. To ensure the chicks would be properly cared for, she and her team devised a checklist to run through with each customer. Here, she shares the essential items you'll need to raise healthy chicks.

* Heat lamp. Chicks cannot regulate their own temperature until fully feathered and will require a supplemental heat source until around 6 weeks old.

* Large tub. A 30-gallon plastic tub is sufficient for hatchlings. The heat lamp will need to be mounted to its side.

* Starter feed. This will be the birds' diet for the first six weeks. Then, they graduate to grower feed.

* Food and water dispensers. Smith advises against using small bowls for water, as chicks may fall asleep in them and drown.

* Pine shavings. Used for bedding, Smith recommends large flake shavings over fine shavings, which can be a choking hazard.


Adopt Don't Shop

Each year, McKamey Animal Shelter receives dozens of lost, found or surrendered chickens and roosters, which become available for adoption.

"I personally have two chickens I adopted from McKamey," says Executive Director Jamie McAloon.

For those interested in adult chickens — which require far less care than chicks — contact McKamey at 423-305-6500 to learn more.