An unexpected side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic is ruffling feathers across Greater Victoria.
Chickens are a hot commodity as Islanders suddenly find themselves with the time and willpower to build coops and chicken runs for their backyards.
Behind the home of former Oak Bay councillor Michelle Kirby, three adolescent hens roam the garden as a small flock, clucking quietly and pecking at weeds.
The chickens – Sakura, Maple and Bonsai, or ‘Bonnie Hen-ry,’ as she’s loving called for her stoic, independent nature – are a recent addition to Kirby’s family, but the brood has been a long time coming. Kirby advocated for more inclusive backyard chicken bylaws before and during her time on council.
Yet it wasn’t until the pandemic and orders for physical distancing that she suddenly had time to find her own fowl.
“The timing couldn’t be better. We’re going to be around and the kids are home [and] they can use this as a learning experience,” she said.
|Sakura the Light Brahma hen is one of Oak Bay woman Michelle Kirby's three new backyard chickens. Chickens aren't high maintenance, but they are a commitment, Kirby says. (Nina Grossman/News Staff)|
Backyard chicken farming seemingly goes hand in hand with other popular pandemic activities – the last few months has seen a surge in ‘homesteading’ projects such as bread baking, sewing and gardening.
“I think it’s also on our minds [because] of food security,” Kirby said. “During something like a pandemic, your first instinct is to try to prepare and be more self-sufficient when you don’t want to go out to stores regularly, you want to be home where it’s safe.”
Kirby’s hens spend their evenings in ‘Cluckingham Palace,’an insulated chicken coop with burlap sack floors, a shingled roof and sunny yellow siding (painted with leftover paint from the exterior of Kirby’s house).
Since bringing the chicks – now young hens – home, Kirby has been surprised by how attached she and her family are to the little birds.
“I thought they’d become this utilitarian source of eggs… but no, absolutely not. They have been so entertaining,” she said with a laugh. “They’re cute. We’re very attached to them and we see their personalities emerging.
“The benefits are far beyond what I anticipated and I think that goes for the family.”
According to the region’s chicken retailers and experts, Kirby isn’t the only one checking out the chicken market since the pandemic started.
Kate Fraser owns and operates Metchosin-based Bees Please Farms, where she offers rental chickens through a Rent The Chicken program. People can have a home chicken coop set-up delivered, along with temporary rental chickens that are returned after six months – unless, that is, renters become attached to their hens and decide to adopt them.
Fraser said there was a noticeable difference in popularity a few weeks after the pandemic hit.
“I sold out earlier than usual,” she said. “Everyone was calling all at once.”
In a normal year Fraser rents out about 80 chickens. This year she rented 120, and sold another 200.
“I think after people went through the toilet paper thing they started to get smarter and look at our food systems … and what would happen if the food can’t get to us, being on an Island.”
Fraser notes that chicken rentals are a smart alternative for a first-time backyard chicken farmer. While they are, generally, a low maintenance farm animal, chickens can live anywhere from five to 10 years.
“People can do it in a way where they don’t have to commit,” she said. “Not everyone wants to do it continuously.”
|Light Brahma Sakura, Australorp chicken Maple and Wyandotte chicken Bonnie Hen-ry pick at some chicken feed in their Oak Bay yard. (Nina Grossman/News Staff)|
In Langford, Buckerfield’s says the demand for chickens is impacting supply. The farm store typically brings in an order of 100 to 400 sexed chicks every week or two over the spring and summer – depending on demand – but the store’s supplier only has enough for one more order in late June.
“We’re not able to get anymore … it’s unheard of,” said manager Travis Young. There’s really never been a problem before.”
Victoria resident Chris Marks said the pandemic inspired him to take a step towards more self-sufficiency. As a quadriplegic, the difficulties of grocery shopping during the pandemic were compounded. Marks couldn’t ask store workers or shoppers for help reaching items, and physical distancing was next to impossible.
“There’s no socially distanced way I can shop,” he said. “The chickens are a small baby step toward a little bit of food security, a little bit of autonomy.”
With the help of friends and his community, Marks’ backyard now contains a coop and chicken run. The next step is picking up his chickens.
“It’s something I’ve thought about for years but life just takes over,” he said. “Now there’s lots of time and a huge urgency, at least in my mind, to try to put in some basic things.”