Killingworth, Connecticut“Hey, girls,” John Farrugia says, opening the door to a fenced-in run where about 50 hens cluck, coo, and strut. He reaches in and picks up a fluffy brown chicken, cradling her in his arm. “This is a red cross,” he says, pointing to the red comb and wattles on the bird’s head. “She’s a real sweetheart.”
Soon, this gentle bird will be nestled in someone else’s arms as part of Farrugia's chicken-rental business, CT Rent a Hen, which he co-owns with partner Marisa Fabrizi.
While many Americans have adopted puppies or kittens to cope with the pandemic lockdowns, others are turning to chickens for comfort. Caring for the domestic fowl can provide a sense of self-sufficiency and domesticity, as well as companionship on par with mammals, owners say. Oh, and fresh daily eggs, too.
The rent-a-chicken concept varies, but most companies provide two to four egg-laying hens for anywhere from four weeks to six months (roosters are generally too aggressive). The animals are delivered with their own coop—which is secure against predators—food, bedding, and educational materials. Renters must also confirm that they have adequate outdoor space for the birds to thrive. (Learn about the surprising ways that chickens changed the world.)
The demand for chicken rentals has surged across the country in 2020—and 2021 looks on par with last year, according to several businesses. CT Rent a Hen has already rented out all of their 180 available hens as of April 2021. Last year, they were sold out by March, with a waiting list of 80 families. In most years, hens don’t run out until June.
“We maxed out,” says Phil Tompkins, who owns Rent The Chicken with his wife, Jenn Tompkins. It’s currently the largest chicken-rental company in North America, with local partners that supply hens in 26 U.S. states, along with several Canadian provinces. Typically, the Tompkins, who live in Freeport, Pennsylvania, rent out 45 to 55 coops a year. In 2020, they rented 72—about a 30 percent increase.
At RentACoop, based in Germantown, Maryland, coop rentals more than doubled in 2020, from between 50 and 60 hens to 120. “It was really hard to find chickens,” co-owner Diana Phillips says, noting that breeders were sold out.
Several companies also saw increased demand for hatch rentals, in which customers can incubate eggs until they hatch. Surprisingly, about 10 percent of renters kept and raised their chicks, noted Philips. “Up until now, that never really happened before,” she says.
“These animals have a way of seducing people,” says Farrugia, adding that renting is a low-risk way to try out chicken ownership.
“Like little people”
Depending on the breed—of which there are dozens—chickens grow to be 8 to 12 pounds and generally live between five and 10 years.
Their egg-producing is most consistent between the ages of five months and four years.
But many chicken devotees say there’s much more to the birds than their output. For one, the birds are natural composters and pest controllers, eating as many as 80 ticks an hour. And then there’s the enjoyment of watching their personalities in action. (Learn about the forgotten history of “hen fever,” a 19th-century obsession with breeding fancy chickens.)
“We call it Chicken TV,” Whitney Gratton, of Takoma Park, Maryland, says of watching her two chickens preen, take dust baths, and dig in her backyard. Like many, the pandemic had left her and her husband working from home and not traveling, removing the typical barriers to chicken ownership. “I surprised myself at how much I enjoyed them,” says Gratton, who ultimately adopted their two chickens, Lavender and Rhubarb, from RentACoop.
Natacha Springer of Westport, Connecticut, thought renting chickens would be a good distraction for her two children, who were being homeschooled during the pandemic. “The kids were taken immediately,” Springer says, particularly her 13-year-old son, Max.
He took on the responsibility of caring for their two chickens from Rent The Chicken, cleaning their waste, leading them back to their coop at night, applying medicine when they caught mites, and even starting a hyperlocal egg-selling business.
For his part, Max enjoyed getting to know the birds’ different personalities, which he described as ranging from “anxious” and “broody” to “super nice.” “They’re like little people,” he says.
Indeed, chickens are as cognitively, emotionally, and socially complex as other pets, says Lori Marino, an animal neuroscientist and founder and executive director of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy, a Utah-based nonprofit. (Read why chickens prefer “attractive” people.)
“Chickens are one of the most underestimated animals,” says Marino, who reviewed the existing literature on chicken intelligence in a 2017 paper in Animal Cognition.
“The big take-home message is that when you see chickens pecking at the ground, there’s a lot more going on than you think.”
For instance, chickens can recognize numerous other individual chickens, as well as keep track of each bird’s hierarchy within the pecking order. They can also distinguish quantities of objects; newborn chicks can perform arithmetic up to the number five. In one experiment, chicks imprinted to a partially obscured image of a red triangle, indicating the animals can imagine objects in their minds.
Of course, only people who are committed and serious about pet ownership should consider renting or owning chickens. It’s a daily responsibility, and, like other animals, chickens can get sick and injured. They also attract predators, so ensuring their safety when they roam outside their coop is crucial. “You have to protect them, or you’re going to lose them,” Farrugia says.
Before renters are signed up, they verify that their living conditions are conducive to caring for chickens, such as providing adequate space and time. Chickens need to be let out of their coop to roam each day, for instance.
Renters can also expect to be asked questions about other animals in the household and neighborhood—dogs can sometimes stress chickens—their use of pesticides, and more.
Stephanie Rice of Columbia, Maryland, cautions that “while chickens are easy to maintain, it's a learning curve at first.” Rice, who started renting two hens from RentACoop and now owns four, found that without a fenced-in yard, she had to make a small chicken run that could be moved periodically so the birds had fresh grass to scratch and explore. (See seven regal portraits of chickens.)
An important first step in renting chickens is knowing your local ordinances. “Even if a town allows poultry, there may be specific guidelines on waste disposal, coop location,” and other factors, says Jennifer Graham, an associate professor of zoological companion animal medicine at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.
Graham, who has studied the health of backyard chickens, adds that chickens can shed infectious disease such as salmonella, so frequent handwashing around chickens is vital, as is being mindful of contact with children under 5, and anyone who’s immune-compromised.
To Rice, the joy of chicken cuddles makes any downsides worth it. She may even continue to add to her brood after the pandemic subsides.
“Chickens,” she says, “are addictive.”