Like yoga pants, Netflix, sourdough bread and puppies, backyard chickens have seen a surge in demand during the pandemic.
Alberta Farm Animal Care has been putting on workshops for several years to ensure new chicken owners put their birds’ welfare at the top of their list. It had more planned for this year.
“And then COVID-19 happened and we had a few workshops for the spring that we had to cancel,” said Annemarie Pedersen, the organization’s executive director.
After some deliberation, AFAC decided to try a virtual workshop and see if there was any interest.
Up stepped Cassandra Fitzpatrick, who for several years has been putting on organization’s workshops for people who wanted to get backyard chickens for laying purposes. She not only has a background in commercial poultry, but owns about 100 chickens. So Fitzpatrick broadcasts live from her chicken coop near High River.
“We did the first one, and we had an overwhelming response,” said Pedersen.
In the past, about 25 people would show up to an introductory workshop. But the virtual introductory workshops have had 60 to 100 registrants, including people from outside Alberta. The group ran four sessions in July on routine health and flock management, diseases, and basic care of chickens. More advanced classes will cover coop design, disease, biosecurity, and animal welfare, which are key to AFAC’s mandate. These advanced courses build off the introductory courses, will likely run in August and the fall, and are based off questions and areas of interest mentioned by workshop participants.
The group has also been offering a free “Questions from the Coop” service, in which people can call in with questions and check in with their peers, said Pedersen. Fitzpatrick incorporates other poultry experts into the virtual workshops and calls, such as Dr. Margaret Fisher, a poultry veterinarian who is involved with the River City Chickens (an Edmonton group that supports people who want to raise chickens in their backyards).
Pedersen has a simple explanation for the sudden interest in backyard chickens.
“In the early days of COVID-19, people were wondering about food security and worried about getting eggs. People needed something to put their attention to. If they had been thinking about doing backyard chickens for a while, it became, ‘Well, we’re not going anywhere this summer. Why don’t we try it?’”
But the goal of the Urban Hen program isn’t to encourage people to leap into chicken production.
“We want to make sure if people are getting chickens or thinking about getting chickens that they have the information they need to make a good choice,” said Pedersen. “What we found at some of the in-person sessions, is that people just think you put them in a little shed and throw some feed at them. There’s a lot more work.
“We live in a climate that can be very hot in summer and very cool in winter, so if you’re going to have them year-round there’s a lot to think about.”
And some of the information does dissuade people from getting chickens.
“There’s quite a few people in every session who do not know everything that is involved in having a couple of chickens in the backyard, and once they learn the information, they don’t want to do it anymore,” she said.
“From an animal welfare point of view, we don’t want people getting chickens, and then deciding they don’t want them anymore because they’re a lot of work.”
“People need to understand the time and financial commitment before you get them,” added Fitzpatrick.
The birds can live to be 10 to 12 years old, but will only lay eggs for two to three years. They also don’t lay a lot of eggs in the winter months because of the lack of daylight.
The courses also help people to understand the bylaws that come with having chickens in an urban or semi-urban area, and how to get rid of waste.
AFAC recently did a community-focused virtual workshop for Wetaskiwin and Leduc that was specific to their communities, and tailored to their rules and regulations.
Fitzpatrick said people are interested to learn how to build a coop, overwinter birds and learn more about the breeds. The program is also geared for people on farms who want to keep a small flock of chickens.
The interest in backyard chickens has also led to high demands for chicks.
“It’s very hard to find chicks because everyone wants them,” said Fitzpatrick, adding she had difficulty finding laying pullets, and had to wait a month after ordering chicks from a hatchery.
All AFAC’s urban hen resources can be found at afac.ab.ca.