The chicks and ducklings are moving fast at Toledo’s Tractor Supply Store.
“Sales are going very well,” said cashier Kayla Wagner. “We get them in the store every spring for a month or a month and half.”
In years past, many of the fuzzy young hatchlings sold each spring would be destined for a child’s Easter basket, a living gift likely to be abandoned as their yellow fluff changed to patchy feathers and the chicks insisted on daily feeding.
But sellers say today’s chick buyers are interested in a longer-term relationship with their purchases. They are customers who come from the city and the suburbs thinking of investing $2 or $3 each in the minimum of 6 chicks the Tractor Supply Store requires of its buyers.
“They want to know how hard it is to raise chickens,” reported Ms. Wagner.
Laura Sanchez says it’s pretty simple.
In August of 2009, two Jersey Black Giant hens were installed in what was once a child’s play cottage in her back yard in Bowling Green, about four blocks from where she works at Bowling Green State University. She named them Thelma and Louise.
In addition to their improvised coop, she built a fenced-in run and makes sure they have food and water every day. In return, the hens supply her with one or two brown eggs every day that she said are better than those she could get in a store.
“The shells are thicker. The whites are stiffer, and the yolk is a brighter yellow,” she said.
Many city people who are starting to raise chickens do so because they want to know where their food comes from, according to Tim Johnson.
The Wood County resident is the president of the Ohio Poultry Breeders Association and he gave Thelma and Louise to Ms. Sanchez. Mr. Johnson raises and shows Jersey Black Giants and Buckeyes, a variety of chicken he said is the same dark brown color as a buckeye nut.
Commercial chicken farmers generally raise White Leghorns , but Mr. Johnson is committed to keeping alive the dozens of antique breeds that once thrived in the United States. “The oldest animal show in the country was for poultry — Boston Gardens in January of 1834,” Mr. Johnson said.
As chicken-raising went large-scale, farmers began to focus on hybrid strengths as they raised birds for egg production or meat. Gradually the dozens of varieties of chickens once commonplace in America diminished. Mr. Johnson said the Jersey Black Giants he now raises were almost extinct in 1934.
While a White Leghorn might grow to be 5 or 6 pounds, his Jersey Giants might reach as much as 13 pounds at maturity when they are 16 months old.
Mr. Johnson and other breeders of heritage varieties attend a growing number of poultry shows where Cornish Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, and Golden Comets are among the types on display. Breeds of heritage turkeys and ducks are also becoming more common, he said.
Mr. Johnson frequently hold workshops for children who may be starting a 4-H project raising poultry. “I started raising chickens at that age. I’m 47 now and I’ve never stopped,” he said.
He’s pleased to see urban dwellers taking an interest in raising chickens. “It’s about the same effort as having a dog or a cat,” Mr. Johnson said.
Baby chicks need to be kept inside for about four weeks, until their feathers grow in. Then they need a sheltered area to be out of the weather — a coop of some sort — and a fenced area where the flightless birds can roam without wandering off. Metal feeders hold commercially available chicken food and water containers need to be filled daily.
Mr. Johnson said that people who are not familiar with chickens are surprised to find out they are smart. “You can teach them tricks,” he said.
Toledo City Councilman Steve Steel has been raising a half-dozen chickens in his Old West End yard for more than two years and he agreed. “They have personalities,” he reported. “They are smart and interesting.”
After living around chickens for a couple of years he has observed that the birds are nervous and quick to avoid trouble. “You can see where we got the expression of calling someone ‘chicken,’” he said.
Mr. Steel’s family, like Ms. Sanchez, embarked on chicken-raising as part of a commitment to eating locally grown foods. He also raises fruits and vegetables and keeps bees for their honey. Chickens’ droppings can be composted.
Mr. Steel said others in the neighborhood raise chickens and that he has never had any complaints about his birds. “We know our neighbors — we get them involved. “
The Steels also share the eggs they get from their small flock, and neighbors help feed and water the chickens when the Steels are away.
Know the rules
In addition to the Tractor Supply Store, chicks can be purchased at some feed stores or by mail from breeders. All note that people who are thinking of raising chickens in an urban environment should check local zoning regulations.
Toledo and Bowling Green allow chickens. Maumee does not. Some municipalities allow hens, but not roosters. Sylvania currently allows chickens, but is in the midst of revising zoning and is considering some restrictions.
In the fledgling urban chicken movement in northwest Ohio, urban farmers seem to be sticking with their poultry commitments.
John Dinon, executive director of the Toledo Area Humane Society, said his agency hardly ever gets a complaint about mistreated birds. “Maybe once a year,” he observed.
As for any small chicks being turned in at the Humane Society, there have been none for years.
“Maybe a couple of rabbits come in after [Easter],” he said of people who have given children an animal at Easter.
Mr. Dinon’s advice to would-be chicken farmers is the same as the poultry experts and applies to adding any kind of animal to a household: “It’s a decision that needs a lot of thought. You’re taking on a long-term responsibility.”