Somewhere between Iowa and Morrill’s home in Cockeysville, Md., was a box containing the 16 live chicks she ordered. The young chickens were going to be the inaugural members of Morrill’s backyard flock — that is, if they survived the trip.
The agonizing wait was only the beginning of Morrill’s foray into chicken rearing. Over the year, she would experience the joys and perils of raising a flock at home. Although the birds became a source of emotional support and respite from pandemic stressors, protecting them from dangers such as predators has at times felt like an impossible task.
“I didn’t expect to be so emotionally attached to them, but it was a very pleasant surprise,” Morrill said. “They’re not a bit worried about covid or the bad things that are going on in the world.”
America's pandemic hobby
Like many Americans, Morrill, an endocrinologist and internal medicine doctor in Baltimore County, began looking into raising chickens in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic. Her sister keeps a backyard flock and Morrill “always thought that was kind of cool.”
“Just going on over and opening up the chicken house to get your eggs,” she said. “But it seemed to me to be a lot of work for that when you could just go to the store,” and running her own medical practice meant a schedule that wasn’t conducive to raising chickens.
Then, shutdowns last spring forced Morrill to temporarily close her practice and transition to telemedicine, and she was suddenly spending much more time at home. She also started to notice more barren shelves at the grocery store, prompting concerns about food shortages.
But in Maryland, she discovered, “there were no chickens to be had.”
Prospective chicken owners nationwide were running into a similar problem as demand for chicks, especially those that would grow up to be egg-laying hens, skyrocketed at the beginning of the pandemic.
“There was just a big sense of urgency,” said Tiffany Denter, a buyer for poultry at Tractor Supply Co. “Stores were selling out of chicks within the first couple of hours of receiving them.”
Meyer Hatchery in Ohio saw a 200 percent increase in the sales of chicks from March to May, Meghan Howard, the hatchery’s website manager, wrote in an email. Around the same time, Iowa-based Murray McMurray Hatchery was receiving 5,000 orders a week, a significant increase compared with the business’s typical weekly average of 1,000 to about 1,500 orders, said president Tom Watkins.
“We try to tailor our supply to demand, and we weren’t really scaled for that kind of year,” Watkins said.
Morrill, though, got lucky, securing an assortment of rare and exotic chickens from McMurray Hatchery, which has long been dedicated to preserving less common poultry breeds.
Forming a bond
From Morrill’s first order, six chicks survived. Chicks dying en route or soon after arrival is not uncommon, despite hatcheries’ best efforts to ensure their safety. The newly hatched birds can typically only live without food or water for up to 72 hours.
Beyond keeping the surviving chicks nourished, Morrill said she cuddled the chickens — all named after iconic women in music — daily.
“I bonded with them right away,” she said of Lady Gaga, Ariana Grande, Beyoncé, Diana Ross, Carly Simon and Stevie Nicks. “They were little babies, and they were fragile and vulnerable and cute and adorable, and I was responsible for their welfare.”
For decades, researchers have been studying the complexities of human-animal bonds.
Though research in this area is often qualitative and findings have at times been disputed, studies suggest that interacting and forming bonds with animals, such as dogs, might have a positive effect on a person’s well-being. During the past year, in particular, many people have reported that pets played an important role in helping them cope with the physical and psychological tolls of pandemic life.
Animals provide companionship and can offer unconditional affection, which people don’t always get from other humans, said Lori Kogan, chair of the Human-Animal Interaction Section of the American Psychological Association and a professor at Colorado State University. Owning pets can also help people maintain a schedule and feel a sense of responsibility, Kogan said.
Although existing research has largely focused on more traditional pets, she said, “raising chickens can provide an incredible amount of emotional support.” Plus: “Chickens have their own little personalities. They’re very funny. They’re very cute.”
For Kelly Rutkowski, 38, of Ashland, Va., her chickens are her “therapy.”
“Just going out with them and just caring for them, interacting with them, it makes me happy,” said Rutkowski, founder of the Adopt a Bird Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness of adoptable birds in animal shelters and rescues nationwide. In addition to hens, Rutkowski also keeps a “bachelor flock” of roosters.
“I know we’re missing out on being able to go out and do things and stuff, but being with the chickens is just an experience which makes it easier,” she said. “I’d say they’re just as fulfilling as a dog or cat.”
Within weeks of receiving her first batch of chicks, Morrill had “chicken fever.” In July, she welcomed another 17 chicks, gifting many to family members. Morrill kept seven, naming them all after ice-cream flavors: Coconut, Cocoa, Cookie, Blackberry, Raspberry, Caramel and Cherry.
She had a sturdy wooden coop constructed in the corner of her sprawling backyard, complete with an automatic door opener that allows the chickens to roam freely in the yard. A single word is carved above the entrance: “Elysium.”
“A little slice of chicken heaven,” she said.
For much of the past year, Morrill would go outside with treats or food multiple times a day between telemedicine appointments, delighting at the sight of her chickens flocking toward her and filling the air with their excited squawks. As she watched the birds eat and listened to the gentle clucking, she felt relief.
“Every day I see people that are sick,” she said. But outside with the chickens, “everything would just melt away, and I felt at peace and I felt joy there.”
But raising a backyard flock is not without its challenges, said Rebecca Gounaris, a veterinarian who treats chickens and keeps her own flock. Chickens can get sick, requiring professional care, or fall prey to predators.
Next to illness, Gounaris said, a majority of her cases are chickens that have been injured in predator attacks. Although many people like to let their chickens live “free range,” that can be dangerous, said Gounaris, who practices in Fallston, Md.
“Everything likes to eat chickens,” she said. “If they know the chickens are around, they will be going after them, and it can happen in a second.”
Morrill knew the dangers and took precautions. The coop had a predator apron. A Ring camera provided a view of the chickens’ roost. And when the birds roamed the yard, Morrill’s golden retriever, Nugget, whom she dubbed a “stout defender of chickens,” often accompanied them.
But on a recent Saturday morning, when Morrill went to feed her flock, the birds didn’t come running. “That was a bad sign,” she said, especially since she had heard them laying eggs earlier that morning.
She rushed to the coop and found only Coconut huddled inside. Then, as she scanned the yard, she spotted the first feathery body just outside the fence. It was Ariana, and the hen had been decapitated. Nearby were the headless bodies of Carly and Diana.
Morrill deduced the identities of the remaining victims from the “huge piles of feathers” scattered around the rest of the yard. Based on what was left, she said she believed hawks had been responsible, noting that she thought she saw several flying around her house later that day.
In total, Morrill lost nine of her 13 chickens. Three — Caramel, Cocoa and Berry — managed to escape and were safely returned by a neighbor.
“The magnitude of the attack was just horrific,” she said. “I always thought that if a predator came by, maybe one or two chickens — not nine.”
Morrill said she is no longer letting the chickens roam and has disabled the coop’s automatic door opener. She has plans to build a playset inside an adjoining coop that will be connected to where the chickens live through an enclosed run.
“I’m never going to let my guard down, ever,” she said. Predators are “thinking this is prime real estate.”
As she grieves, Morrill is trying to help the surviving chickens recover from the attack. Coconut, she said, stopped laying eggs and now rarely ventures out of one of the nesting boxes. Morrill has been feeding Coconut by hand and cuddling and singing Bob Marley to her.
“Don’t you worry about a thing, because every little thing is gonna be okay,” she sings, gently rocking Coconut in her lap.
“I’m sad every day,” Morrill said. But, she added, “My nature is to try to not dwell on sadness, and to look to the future and try to plan for a future that’s better.”
And the future appears to be looking up. Morrill, who said the trauma of the attack does not outweigh the benefits of chicken rearing, expects to have a group of new chicks by the summer.
“They have given me great joy,” she said of her flock. “I wouldn’t be getting other baby chickens if I hadn’t had such joy.”