Winter’s here but pandemic poultry are still a hit across Alberta

St. Albert’s Melissa Hills has been enjoying her small backyard flock of brown production layers and heritage breeds since the start of the pandemic.
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Backyard chickens saw a boom during the early days of the pandemic — and the interest hasn’t waned yet, despite the wintry weather.

“I’ve had eight incubator package requests already through November and December,” said Tammy Wheatley, owner of The Urban Chicks, a company near Calgary that rents chickens out for the summer.

“The pandemic has really done wonders for this sort of thing. Everybody was home and able to spend time with the hens and really enjoy them, without having to worry about going away for the summer.

“I just had nothing but good comments about it.”

Across Alberta, people flocked to backyard chickens as COVID-19 swept across the province last spring. Some hoped to relieve short-term periods of food insecurity as grocery store shelves were stripped bare. Others simply wanted a project to keep them busy during the lockdown. But whatever the reason, people developed a passion for poultry during the pandemic.

“I couldn’t keep up to the demand,” said Wheatley. “I have 10 fully operational coops that were all rented out, and then I had a waiting list of probably almost 20 people hoping that somebody would cancel for the year.

“It was just incredible.”

Melissa Hills was one of those newbies.

“I’ve never had chickens before, and had never really thought about getting chickens before,” said Hills, who lives in St. Albert. But then in March when the shutdown happened, all of a sudden I found myself working from home with three young kids and, like everyone, I was worried about what was going on in the world.”

So the family decided to get chickens as a “fun project for everyone,” and so far, her four-chicken flock — a mix of brown production layers and heritage breeds — has been a hit.

“My kids love them,” said Hills. “They really are like pets with fun personalities that are enjoyable to have around. When you go outside, they’re happy to see you. There’s nothing more fun than being out in your yard and having them roaming around. They’re a wonderful distraction and a lot of fun.”

Learning curve

But they’re also a lot of work.

“One of the most surprising things that I’ve discovered about having chickens is just how much there is to know and how complicated it is,” said Hills, an associate professor in the department of biological sciences at MacEwan University.

“It’s a lot harder than getting a cat or a dog. There’s a lot more to know about health, nutrition, biosecurity, and safety. There’s a lot to learn.”

In St. Albert, people interested in getting a licence for backyard chickens have to take a ‘chickens 101’ course, but “there’s so much more beyond that course that you really need to learn,” said Hills.

Alberta Farm Animal Care has been hosting backyard chicken workshops for several years, and that’s been the key takeaway for most participants, said workshop instructor Cassandra Fitzpatrick.

“We really try to stress what a big responsibility keeping chickens is,” said Fitzpatrick, who keeps about 100 chickens near High River. “Our goal with the workshops is to provide participants with the information to make an educated decision about whether keeping chickens was right for them or not. We cover the good, the bad, and the ugly.”

Fitzpatrick recommends newcomers find an experienced mentor and a vet well versed in poultry.

That was one of Hills’ biggest challenges. Early on, she lost a few hens to Marek’s disease, then had to treat lice and bumblefoot in some of her other chickens — all while working with a veterinarian hours away in Calgary.

“The biggest drawback to me is some of the health issues we’ve gone through. Chickens are quite prone to a lot of different things in part because they can catch viruses from the wild birds that are in your yard,” said Hills.

“You can be dealing with those kinds of health challenges and also be struggling to find a vet who can support you.”

That just adds to the expense of keeping backyard chickens, which can already be considerable when factoring in the cost of the coop, heating, lighting, bedding, feed — the list goes on.

“Anybody who thinks having backyard chickens is a cheap way to produce your own food will be unpleasantly surprised,” said Hills. “It’s very expensive to build a proper coop and to get the chickens. There are a lot of expenses going in. Certainly I would get cheaper eggs going to Costco.”

Overwintering chickens

Winter only makes it worse.

“To have chickens over the winter is a lot of work, and there’s just no joy in it, really,” said Wheatley, who only rents her chickens out during the summer months for that very reason.

“You’re feeding more, but their egg production slows down in the winter, so you’re not getting that big return. And the actual physical workload is up.”

There are special considerations for keeping backyard poultry over the winter, including insulated and ventilated coops, safe heat sources, appropriate feed, environmental enrichments, and regular health checks.

Most newcomers aren’t aware of all that, said Heather Zanella, a chicken breeder who admins the popular Alberta Chickens and Chicks Facebook group.

“Winter is a whole other realm,” said Zanella, who lives near Okotoks. “We had a blizzard and I had snow up to my waist, and I had to chug out to my coop and to my cows. If you’re not hardy enough for -20 weather, it’s very daunting.”

For those people, keeping chickens only during the summer may be their best bet, Zanella added.

“Some are fair weather, and that’s totally fine — as long as they make provisions that they keep their animals until fall and then sell them to someone else who wants to winter them,” she said.

“We’ve heard about people just ditching their birds. They decide they can’t do it, and instead of finding a proper home for them, they’ll just throw them into some farmer’s field where they have to fend for themselves.”

So far, that doesn’t seem to be a problem in Alberta.

“I haven’t heard of too many issues yet, but we’ve had a fairly mild winter so far around here minus a few cold weeks,” said Fitzpatrick. “We might see some chicken keepers getting out of keeping chickens if it’s a long, drawn-out winter.”

Reliable research

That’s why it’s important to do your research before getting your own flock.

“I probably studied for a good six to eight months, but some just jump in, go to the farm store, buy them, bring them home, and then say, ‘What do I do now?’” said Zanella, an animal health technician.

“Do your research first, and then get into them.”

And not all sources of information are equal. With the influx of newcomers to chicken-related Facebook groups — Zanella has been approving upwards of 30 new group members a day in her groups — the information being shared isn’t always accurate.

“The biggest challenge I’ve seen is new chicken owners turning to online forums and groups for advice and receiving conflicting, inaccurate information that can potentially jeopardize the birds’ welfare,” said Fitzpatrick.

Workshops are a better source of accurate information, but for Hills, Facebook has been a “nice way to connect” with other fledgling chicken keepers.

“There’s a really thriving, supportive community across Alberta of primarily women who are raising flocks of various sizes, both in the city and out of the city,” said Hills.

“During a pandemic where we’ve spent a lot of time feeling angry at each other, it was really wonderful for me to be reminded of how generous people can be with their time, with their experience, with their wisdom.

“I know it’s a boom across the province, and the longtime chicken people have been really wonderful about welcoming new people in.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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