Why backyard chickens Are thriving during COVID-19
Editor-in-chief of Chickens and More, a backyard chickens magazine
As COVID-19 has dramatically altered almost every aspect of life as we’d known it, many people who suddenly have a great deal of time on their hands have found themselves turning to new projects and hobbies, like knitting, painting, and, for many people, backyard chicken rearing.
The practice of keeping a few chickens in the backyard for eggs, meat and company has been growing steadily more popular over the past 10 years, but COVID lockdowns have led to a massive boom in people starting new coops and expanding old ones.
Some of the boom comes from the same impulse that led to all of the shelter dogs in New York City being adopted when the crisis in that city was at its most severe: a need for companionship. In a world where almost all face-to-face human contact has been forbidden, seemingly overnight, and those forced to risk that face-to-face contact have become heroes, many people desperate for a sense of connection and comfort have turned to the safety of non-virus-transmitting animals. A new pet also creates work to do to fill what may feel like an unending stretch of empty hours — especially as what was a weeks-long lockdown begins to stretch out indefinitely. This last is especially true of chickens, who, while not always as companionable as a more traditional pet, certainly require plenty of work to keep owners busy.
The backyard chicken boom can also be attributed to the way the COVID crisis has revealed weaknesses in the food supply chain that have driven people to create their own food source in their backyards. While backyard chickens have long been the purview of survivalists and those involved in the local and organic or chemical-free food movements, COVID-19 has brought stories about grocery store shortages and shuttered meat plants into the headlines repeatedly, leading to more people feeling that their everyday access to staple food items like eggs, meat and vegetables could be cut off without warning. Starting a chicken coop can feel like a protective measure, a way to ensure that, no matter what happens, the household will have eggs and meat and, if the chickens accompany a garden, vegetables. Especially in a time where nothing feels certain, that security can feel particularly important and comforting.
CARING for CHICKENS
Any sudden boom in animal keeping raises concerns about the quality of that animal keeping, perhaps especially for chickens, whose basic needs are not common cultural knowledge in the way that, say, a dog’s needs are. People eager to start chicken keeping immediately, either because of boredom or a perceived need for food security, might easily cut corners on things like coop-building, predator prevention measures, or research into which breeds will best meet their needs and how to take care of them.
With that potential lack of preparation in mind, it’s difficult to know what the current COVID boom means for the world of backyard chicken keeping in the long term. This boom may simply be an anomalous spike in the otherwise steady growth of backyard chickens in recent years, and many of the people currently seeking out chicks may realize that keeping chickens is too difficult, noisy or messy for them. The next few years might see a spike in people trying to get rid of chickens and equipment purchased in the desperate search for a lockdown hobby that didn’t turn out as planned, after which chicken keeping will continue at a more sedate growth in popularity. Alternatively, it’s possible that the vast majority of COVID-inspired chicken owners will stick around, and the boom will be reflected in chicken keeping statistics for years.
There’s a third possibility, which is that the pandemic, in combination with the trends that led to the pre-pandemic growth of backyard chicken keeping, is just the beginning of massive, sustained growth in people looking to keep chickens for themselves. After all, if anything, the pandemic has only increased the sense of uncertainty around where people’s meat comes from and whether or not it’s safe, what with the news stories about the virus jumping to humans from meat markets and of meat processing facilities spreading COVID to so many of their employees that they were forced to close. Rightly or wrongly, people who are worried about food safety feel that the chickens they raise in their own backyard are safer to consume, as either meat or eggs, than those produced by large-scale agricultural enterprises, and COVID is unlikely to have eased those fears.
The question of what happens from here is a thorny, tricky, almost unanswerable one, for chicken keepers as well as for everyone and everything else. For now, though, it seems like a pretty safe bet to say that the COVID-based boom in backyard chicken keeping will continue at least as long as the lockdowns do.