Imagine rolling out of bed, taking a sip of morning espresso, and stepping outside to an Instagram-worthy chicken coop for freshly laid eggs and the soothing cluck of a half dozen pet hens. Thousands set this charming aspiration into motion when California settled into a long haul of COVID-19 restrictions. Backyard chickens became as much of a 2020 pandemic trend as sharing sourdough starters and Zoom cocktail hours.
Now, as Californians scramble to return to work, school, and a life that doesn’t involve hoarding toilet paper, what’s to become of these once-popular pet chickens? Are people returning live poultry to shelters and sanctuaries across the state in droves? The answer is yes, but not for the reason you might think.
In many cases, it all comes down to sex.
“So many people were buying chickens at the beginning of the pandemic—in particular, they were purchasing chicks in the mail,” explains Kelcie Leach, program and outreach director at Animal Place, which has locations in Grass Valley and Petaluma. “When you purchase chicks, there’s a high probability that you’re going to get a rooster.”
This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.
Turns out, it’s incredibly difficult to identify the sex of a newly hatched chick. Companies that sell chicks in the mail may unwittingly send males along with females or, worse, knowingly use the males as, to use Leach’s cringeworthy term, “packing peanuts.” So despite would-be chicken owners wanting egg-laying female chicks, they may find themselves in possession of a male. Roosters, famous for waking everyone up and not laying eggs, are a lot less fun to own than hens.
“The pandemic has been a disaster for backyard chickens,” says Ariana Huemer, director of Hen Harbor, a nonprofit animal sanctuary near Santa Cruz. “The number of requests we get to take in unwanted roosters has nearly doubled, with some people trying to rehome four or five roosters, not just the standard single ‘oops’ rooster of previous years.”
Huemer sent us a week’s worth of Hen Harbor’s email requests. They read like a cacophony of regret. “Due to a complaint from a neighbor, I’ve been cited by my city to get rid of my rooster,” reads one. Another confesses, “We made the mistake, against better judgement, to purchase chicks from our local feed store…”
“The number of requests to take in unwanted chickens is out of control,” says Huemer.
And the recent enthusiasm for backyard chickens is not likely to disappear anytime soon. Madeline Bernstein, president of SpcaLA, suggests that a back-to-basics mentality and economic forces are to blame. “There is a big movement towards milk, eggs, and honey. So people want chickens, they want goats, and they want their own bees,” explains Bernstein. “When prices go up or there’s a recession or there’s high unemployment or whatever, people feel like it’s time to have their own.”
Bernstein and her colleagues aren’t seeing a sudden influx in post-pandemic chickens at their shelter. As far as she’s concerned, the problem of pet owners rethinking or reversing their chicken ownership is a constant.
“A lot of the times people just don’t realize how much work it is and how it’s often not that much less expensive [than buying eggs at a store],” says Bernstein. “People go, ‘This is a mess. It’s smelly. It’s loud, and it’s dirty…’ This is not new, this is over and over again.”
Of course, it’s the chickens that suffer from our temporary poultry pandemonium. Bernstein cites “speciesism” for the dim odds unwanted chickens face. “People will sometimes be quicker to give up the chickens or neglect them to death, as opposed to a dog,” she explains.
Sanctuaries like Hen Harbor are seeing more and more calls to come rescue chickens left by the side of the road. “Normally, when someone reports an abandoned chicken, there is a 99.99 percent certainty it will be a rooster,” says Huemer. “This year, there have been multiple young hens abandoned with a pile of food next to the creek. I think the neophyte chicken owners truly think that chickens can survive in the wild, and they don’t realize they’re sentencing them to death.”
But for those who are ready for a serious commitment and willing to research, invest, and learn how to care for chickens, there are rewards to be had.
“They make wonderful companion animals,” says Leach, whose Petaluma location has about 240 hens looking for a home. “They’re incredibly intelligent, and they have big personalities.”
Unlike dogs, chickens can also help with breakfast. Do you own backyard chickens? Ruffle our feathers with an email to email@example.com and let us know what it’s like.•