Cooped up: is coronavirus lockdown a good time to start keeping chickens?

Alyx Gorman

Covid-19 has radically changed consumer behaviour. There have been shortages on toilet paper and groceries, a run on alcohol and, perhaps most surprisingly, on hens.

In the week to 21 March, Google search interest in “live chickens” reached its highest point in five years. The ABC reported chickens were in huge demand.

Catherine Smith, chairperson of NSW Hen Rescue, a small charity that focuses on rehoming battery hens, noticed an influx of emails. “But not necessarily in the way we would like,” she tells Guardian Australia. “We’ve been getting a lot of messages saying ‘I need to buy hens for eggs’ ... It’s been a very big focus on the eggs, whereas we’re an organisation that focuses on the hens.”

While she hastens to add that many of her recent applicants have been credible, “There’s been a big increase, and they’ve been quite impatient. It’s been an interesting experience, dealing with those enquiries.”

Fiona Scott-Norman, who wrote a book on Australians’ love of chooks in 2019 – This Chicken Life – puts it bluntly: “I can’t believe they’re the new toilet paper.”

Related: Chickens rule: why the backyard chook is the pet of the decade

But Smith, Scott-Norman and RSPCA’s scientific officer Dr Sarah Babington all warn that a backyard chicken coop is not an easy egg fix, if the supermarket runs low.

“They’re not something you can just put in your backyard and leave. They require a lot of care,” says Babington.

“Hens … are very social creatures,” Babington explains. Would-be hen parents need to keep at least three, so the birds do not get lonely. They also require space to explore, a nutritious diet (household scraps won’t be enough), nests, perches, dust baths, an enriching environment, veterinary care and Fort-Knox like protection from predators.

“The great tragedy of the chicken is it tastes good to everyone and everything,” says Scott-Norman, who recently lost her own flock to a very persistent fox. “Once [foxes are] on the beat, they’re on the beat. They’re waiting for you to slip up.”

Most of all, chickens need affection. “It’s like getting a dog or cat,” says Babington. Smith and Scott-Norman suggest that if you do not get to know your chickens, and their individual personalities, you’re missing out on the best part of owning them. “They crawl over you, and they’re preening you,” says Smith of her hens’ friendly nature.

Then, there’s the clean-up. “They do poop a lot,” Scott-Norman says. “The bigger the chicken, the bigger the poop.” Though she adds, “there’s something homey about the smell of chicken poop” and even waste has its uses. “It is black gold. It’s great fertiliser.”

Smith fears “we’re going to get inundated with surrenders” from unprepared new owners. “It’s a very worrying time.”

However, for those that have done their research; have enough space (Smith recommends an area of 10m2 for a flock of five); are prepared for the set-up costs and ongoing veterinary bills; know how they’ll keep their flock warm in winter and cool in summer; and have ensured their flock complies with council regulations, chickens can be brilliant pets.

“They’re productive pets. The whole package,” says Scott-Norman. “My experience is if you want chickens and you get chickens you will fall in love with them.”

Just do not expect them to start laying eggs right away, says Smith. “I’ve heard from breeders of people buying hens, and then being frustrated that they’re not laying yet. It’s a process, it happens when it happens.”

Not all chickens are even bred for regular laying, and those that are – Isa Browns – come with a host of health complications associated with the stress of producing eggs every day. As a result of these complications, many of Smith’s hens are on a hormonal implant to stop them from laying, at a cost of $300 a year.

“The thing about chickens is that they’re incredibly resilient … but they will also get a panoply of afflictions and will occasionally drop dead,” says Scott-Norman, who suggests keeping chickens for companionship, and treating the eggs “as a bonus”.

Choosing to keep hens also comes with a community of like-minded people. Scott-Norman says local Facebook groups are a useful resource if you’re just starting out, and Babington suggests that people turn to their local poultry club for more information about chicken ownership.

Poultry clubs are also the best places to find a reputable breeders. Or, if you’ve ensured you can take care of a rescue chicken’s specialised needs, you can adopt a few.

Related: Turning crap into gold: why a composting habit will change your life

Ultimately, Scott-Norman is optimistic about a boom in backyard hen adoption, provided the animals are well cared for. “We’re always delighted when people choose to join Team Chicken,” she says.

“They’re really smart and hugely fun. They’ve got stuff going on ... there’s always chicken business. While you’re isolating, chickens are the best. It’s like chicken TV.” She also touts their mental health benefits. “The more people have chickens the more calm people are, the more in touch with the land,” she concludes: “It’s a win. It’s a total win.”