There is something to be said for buying a chicken, bringing it home, and having her lay an egg that first day. After all, a baby chick can take anywhere from 14-24 weeks before they begin laying eggs, and if you buy straight-run chicks you could end up with more roosters than you anticipated. But buying older birds already grown at an auction or Farmer’s Market is definitely a buyer-beware situation.
Having just done this myself, I wanted to share some tips, warnings, and words of been-there-done-that, if not total wisdom.
1-Listen Carefully for Clues About Sex
During an auction you may not have time to ask questions about specific cages of birds so listen to the auctioneers description of the occupants. Pullets are young females chickens that will become hens.
A duet or duo or pair is just what you might expect, a male and female that have been paired together, possibly just for the sale, and usually when you see this they are of a specific pure breed and being sold as a breeding pair. A trio is a male with two females.
2 – Look the Birds Over Before Purchasing
Take a look at their overall health, appearance, demeanor, and age and sex of the birds. In an auction the birds will be tagged with the seller number, lot number, and a brief description of what is being sold. Get it idea of which lots you want to bid on depending on your needs for your flock.
Sometimes birds can look a little rough if they are molting and will have bare patches of skin. This is different than birds with obvious signs of lice or mite infestations. One mistake I made was in not recognizing the signs of scale mites in some hens I bought, even though I checked under their feathers for signs of mites or lice. Scaley leg mites live only on the scales of the birds legs, or around their comb and wattles.
3 – Try To Determine Age of the Birds
If the description doesn’t specify the age of the birds, or give you a clue (the terms “pullet” means young female not quite laying yet), you will need to use your eyes and try to determine the age. Because “hen” can be anything from 4 or 5 months old and just laying, to 3 or 4 years old and slowing down on their egg production. Most homesteaders who are very interested in egg production will cull their hens in the third year so you could well be looking at someone’s cast off hens that are 3 years old.
4. Pay Attention to Health Concerns That Affect the Whole Flock
Mites and lice are of primary concern any time you introduce a new bird to your flock. They can be hard to eliminate, especially if they take hold in the wooden joints and roosts of your coop area, so take extra care before introducing new birds to your flock. Check the condition of their feathers, and if you can, look under their feathers at their skin and look for signs of bites, blood, or even mites and lice bugs crawling on the skin. Do not bid on or purchase these birds.
There are pros and cons to buying full-grown or nearly-grown birds. The pros are that you are getting an established flock and can clearly see the quality of the breeding birds, especially if you are trying to develop a specific breed or color pattern. You also have fresh eggs right from the very start. The downside is that buying a grown bird can be very expensive compared to purchasing newly-hatched chicks from a hatchery, and you are buying with zero guarantees as to quality, longevity, and performance.
We have used Hoover’s Hatchery to purchase day-old chicks via mail-order with very good success. This fall, though, we did pick up a few replacement birds at auction after a stray dog pretty well put us out of the egg-laying business. I also picked up a beautiful trio of Wheaten Marans and a pair of Splash Cochin so I can hatch out chicks of a specific pure breeds that are more unusual and unique. Next year, we will order replacement mixed-layers from Hoover’s Hatchery again to split with my in-laws at the ranch and replenish our laying stock.
Have you ever bought chickens at a Farmer’s Market or Auction? What was your experience like?