Rodale Wellness
by Lissa Lucas & Traci Torres of My Pet Chicken

Source: Alex Starr

How to plan for baby chicks like a pro when you’re starting your backyard flock.

You may have read everything you can get your hands on, but most how-to books don’t adequately explain how the baby chick ordering process works, or what your responsibilities are when it comes to retrieving your chicks promptly at the post office. You may not know enough about the process to even consider asking about what happens if there is a hatch-day issue with your chicks, a sexing error, or any number of things that can affect the fulfillment of your chick order. (Hatcheries are literally in the business of counting their chicks before they hatch, after all, so it’s important to be flexible!) We’ll teach you how to plan for chicks like a pro and what to do if your chick order is not able to be shipped as planned.

1. Don’t place your order without first having educated yourself about care.
Kudos to you if you’re reading this to avoid that pitfall!

2. Don’t place your order before checking to make sure it’s legal to raise chickens in your area.
You might be surprised at the number of people who don’t bother to check if they can legally keep chickens. It also happens that you may check with the zoning board, who tells you chickens are okay, only later to find out the health board or your housing association forbids them. Conversely, sometimes people assume it’s not legal to keep chickens, when it is perfectly fine. Do your research!

3. Don’t place your order until you’re sure you won’t change your mind about breeds, quantities, and ship dates.
In some cases there are fees associated with changing orders, and they can add up if you change your order repeatedly. But that shouldn’t be the only reason you want to place your order just once. The more changes you make in your order, the more likely it is that a mistake will be made somewhere along the way. It could result in breeds or a ship date you didn’t want. Our hatchery has the most advanced order-reserving software of any in the nation. Many other companies are still entirely paper-based, and errors will be more likely. In addition, the birds you have reserved can’t be adopted by anyone else, so if you’ve reserved them for yourself and then decide you don’t want them after all, they must go up for adoption again. Remember, the chicks have to ship on the day they’ve hatched, so if you decide you want six Faverolles for March and then later decide you’d rather have six in May, your hatchery will have to find homes for the March babies that you rejected.

4. Don’t place an order for a “hatchery choice” assortment unless you’re sure you’ll be happy with any of the breeds you might get.
Depending on the assortment you order, you may end up with breeds that aren’t cold hardy or heat-tolerant enough for your area. Or you may want birds primarily for egg laying, but end up with fancy pet breeds that don’t lay a lot of eggs. If you have specific needs, place your order for specific birds. Many hatcheries, like ours, will allow you to choose alternates or substitutions if you do have some flexibility.

5. Don’t place an order until you’ve read the cancellation and change policies of your hatchery.
And don’t place the order unless it will be okay if those rules apply to you. At My Pet Chicken, before you can place your order, you are required to affirm that you’ve read and agreed to the cancellation and change policies. Other hatcheries may not have a system that makes it as easy to access and understand their policies, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be proactive. Then, after you have read the policies, think to yourself, “If I have to change or cancel my order, would I be okay with the way they handle changes and cancellations?” If you wouldn’t be happy, check out the policies of some other hatcheries. You may find one you think is more fair, or else you may come to learn that the policy you didn’t like is an industry standard, and is actually fair after all.

6. Don’t place an order until you understand how losses or errors are handled.
This is similar to cancellation and change policies. Be sure to read the policies beforehand, shop around if you are unhappy, and consider whether or not you’d be okay with the way things are handled if you experienced a loss or an error. Remember, you can’t send a baby chick back if there’s been a sexing error. If you lose a chick, in most cases your remedy is a refund, not a replacement, since it’s not safe to ship just one chick at a time.

7. Don’t assume that an order for chicks includes anything but the chicks.
They don’t come with a brooder, feed, feeders, waterers, or other necessary supplies–you must have those prepared before the chicks arrive. Likewise, if you’re ordering your brooder supplies at the same time as your chicks, make sure the supplies will come first so you’ll be ready for the chicks. Remember, the hatchery can’t ship your chicks in the same box with a heavy bag of feed banging around. The feed and the chicks may not even originate from the same place, and unless you pay for premium shipping for your supplies, they will probably travel by a slower shipping method than the chicks (which always go fast). In addition, your hatchery is not going to scrutinize your order and try to guess whether or not the heat bulb you’ve ordered is a backup for the one you already have, whether you’re getting it for a transitional period between brooder and coop, or whether you need it to arrive ASAP, before the chicks do, for your brooder. They will not automatically compare your supply order to the ship date you’ve chosen for your chicks, and call you to check on your intent. Instead, you are responsible for planning ahead and making sure you’ll have everything you need by the time your chicks arrive.

8. Don’t wait until the last minute to order–the breeds you want may already have been reserved.
You may be surprised at how early some of the trendier breeds sell out. Even those that are more readily available may be difficult to reserve all together on the same date, so placing your reservation early is an excellent idea.

9. Don’t buy chicks or chickens as a “surprise” gift for anyone.
It sounds fun in theory–surprise, baby chicks! But pets–any pets–make terrible surprise gifts. The exception might be if you’re a parent buying chickens for your family, and you’ll be surprising your own children. In that case, though, expect that you’ll be the one investing in the equipment needed, and that you’ll be the one taking care of the birds. You don’t want to create obligations for someone else who might not be prepared for them.

10. Don’t be unprepared for delays with your order of chicks.
Hatch day issues can occur; Mother Nature works in mysterious ways. Sometimes an incubator might malfunction. Sometimes eggs just don’t hatch at the rate your hatchery expected. Sometimes they’ll hatch fine but a greater percentage turn out to be boys than anticipated, so there aren’t enough girls to fill orders. Don’t get mad at your hatchery; believe me, they’d much rather be able to fulfill all orders and make everyone happy. That’s just good business. But hatcheries are quite literally in the business of counting their chicks before they’ve hatched. Occasional delays are just the nature of things. Some hatcheries like ours will allow you to choose whether or not you want to receive substitute breeds if there is a problem, or whether you’d prefer to wait for your breeds when they become available again. So be sure to let your preferences be known, and check your phone and e-mail frequently on the day your chicks are scheduled to hatch, so your hatchery can get in touch with you.

11. Don’t be unprepared for sexing errors.
Birds are not easy to sex. Hatcheries use experts who have trained many years, and they determine the sex of the baby chicks to about 90 percent accuracy. This means errors are expected, absolutely expected. It’s also possible for someone packing your order to reach into the wrong bin, or for a bin to be labeled incorrectly. Or for a chick to jump ship into another bin. Geronimo! Things happen. You have to accept a certain amount of uncertainty, and be okay with the policies your hatchery has for addressing any problems. If you aren’t, you’re asking to be unhappy. Impotently unhappy, because no matter how much your hatchery wants to make things right, they don’t have a magic wand.

12. Don’t be unprepared for losses.
This admonition is similar to the one above regarding errors. Losses can and do happen. Losses can occur at home with chicks you have hatched yourself, and they can even occur with a broody hen. When you are getting started in chickens, you need to be aware of the possibility that some might die. It’s always heartbreaking to lose any chickens–don’t get us wrong. But the risks and rules apply to everybody and we all have to accept them.

13. Don’t count on having the chicks arrive on a specific day of the week.
The hatchery has no control over how quickly the post office gets your package to you; the only thing they can do is pack the chicks safely and get them swiftly on their way to you on the date they’re scheduled to be sent. Depending on the shipping method used–and how far you are from metropolitan postal hubs–it can take 1 to 3 days for your birds to arrive. The post office may be able to give you a best-guess arrival date, but just keep in mind that it’s an educated guess only. So don’t, for instance, schedule your last remaining vacation day off of work in advance, expecting the chicks to arrive, and then be sunk when they don’t. Instead, make arrangements that are flexible.

14. Don’t vaccinate without first doing your homework.
Different hatcheries offer different vaccinations for chicks. Determine which ones, if any, are important to you. Also, if you’re interested in complying with organic management practices, check with your local certifying agency first. Some vaccinations may prevent you from legally being able to call your eggs organic. Finally, be aware that most vaccinations are not foolproof. Vaccinations for Marek’s disease, for instance, aren’t effective on every bird, and even then, the vaccination doesn’t prevent transmission of the disease–only expression of the worst symptoms. We still recommend this particular vaccine, but it’s great if you know about these issues in advance.

15. Don’t assume that the number of chickens you order is the number you’ll receive.
Hatcheries commonly include one or two extra chicks for free, sometimes of a breed you purchased, and sometimes not. (My Pet Chicken doesn’t purposefully add extras with small orders, because we understand your coop may not have the room to house that extra chick or two, and that an extra bird may put you over your legal limit.) Also be aware that some hatcheries will allow you to place a small order for just a few birds, but will then fill out the rest of the order with “extra males for warmth.” So, if you only want 5 hens, but you receive 5 hens and 20 roosters, you may not be prepared to take care of all of them, and you may not have a way to rehome the extras. If you’re not purchasing from My Pet Chicken, always check to be sure they’ll be sending the number of birds you ordered.

16. Don’t expect a shipping refund from the post office if your chicks are late.
The US Postal Service (USPS) does not guarantee overnight Express Mail delivery for live animals, as much as we would like them to. We agree: It seems a little crazy that the most important packages aren’t subject to the same guarantees that much less sensitive packages have, but that is their policy. Visit or inquire at your local post office for more information. We often find that Express Mail packages are delivered in 1 day, especially to major cities and postal hubs, but, again,USPS makes no promises. Even though USPS won’t refund your postage, My Pet Chicken does cover shipping costs in some circumstances, and many hatcheries do likewise. This is why it’s important to read your hatchery’s policies before you place an order.

Adapted from My Pet Chicken Handbook

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