On a recent errands-run I visited a local farm-supply store, stocking up on safflower and nyjer for the other birds I feed. As I wheeled my cart past the bins of bulk bird seed, I heard the unmistakable peeping of baby chicks. Of course I had to investigate.
In the center of the store, under a sea of heat lamps, stood more than a dozen stock tanks with assorted levels of peeping. There were Amberlinks, Golden Comets, Black Sex Links and Red Stars, all hybrid varieties with an excellent track record as backyard birds. These fluffy little babies brought a smile to my face—until I turned the corner and came across something that knocked the grin clear off.
That something? Ignorance. Every spring, during chick days, ignorance shows itself. It’s understandable that mom-and-pop feed mills as well as national chain stores want to profit from providing the public with an assortment of chicks and related supplies. Unfortunately, just because a store sells something does not mean its employees are experts on the inventory. Most staffers at farm-supply stores are simply trying to earn a living wage, with little or no knowledge of everyday animal husbandry. Ask where you can find picks to clean frogs and you’ll probably get a confused look. Ask about the different breeds of infant poultry, and, well, caveat emptor: Let the buyer beware.
So what exactly did I see?
- A tank of chocolate Khaki Campbell ducklings mislabeled as Pekin ducklings (which are sunshine yellow).
- A tank of Easter Eggers mislabeled (and misspelled) as “Americanas, a common barnyard bird.” (True Ameraucanas are not common barnyard birds.)
- A tank of golden baby chicks misidentified as Barred Rocks (Barred Rock chicks are black with creamy underbellies and a creamy white spot on their heads).
- A tank of sandy-beige chicks misidentified as Plymouth Blues (the breed/variety is Blue Plymouth Rocks; the chicks are very similar in appearance to Barred [Plymouth] Rocks).
Mislabeling like this is sadly common. Not a single chick days has gone by without my encountering at least one incorrectly identified set of baby birds at a local feed store or farm-supply center. While I’m well versed enough in poultry breeds not to be misled by erroneous signs, not everybody is. Avoid coming home with Cornish Crosses when you were planning on Buff Orpingtons by following these suggestions.
1. Know Your Varieties
Determine which chicken varieties you want before you head to the store. Having a specific variety of bird in mind keeps you from being overwhelmed by the assortment of chicks your store might stock. Going in knowing you are looking for Silver-Laced Wyandotte chicks, for example, keeps you on track instead of melting over every bit of baby fluff you see.
2. Know What Those Breeds Look Like
Familiarize yourself with the appearance of your desired breed’s chicks. If you want Rhode Island Reds, recognize that these chicks are auburn in color with pale-yellow chests. Looking for White-Crested Black Polish babies? Those pale-yellow chicks look like they are wearing little black vests and cream-colored pompom hats. If you can, save a photo of the chicks you want on your smartphone as a reference to use for comparison while you are at the store.
3. Know What Your Store Carries
Call the store to confirm which breeds they have in stock. Ask whoever answers to check the inventory list provided to the store by its supplying hatchery. This master list is frequently set aside and forgotten when it comes time to unbox the new arrivals, which is why tanks are often mislabeled or just marked as “assorted pullets.”
4. Know Your Desired Traits
If you haven’t decided on a specific breed or variety of bird, make a list of the traits you want in your backyard flock. Bring your list and a chicken reference book, such as Storey’s Illustrated Guide to Poultry, with you to the store. This way, you can narrow down your in-store selections according to the characteristics you desire, such as which breeds are cold hardy, which are active foragers, which are docile, which go broody and so on.
5. Know Your Store’s Shortcomings
Assume that the staff members at your farm store could just as easily be stocking cereal at a supermarket as they are stocking chick and duckling grower. If you’re lucky, your sales associate will readily admit to having limited knowledge when it comes to poultry. If you’re not so lucky, be polite as you thank your salesperson for inaccurate (or flagrantly incorrect) information, make your intended purchases, then let the store management know what transpired.
This feedback is absolutely crucial, because it might very well help your fellow flock-keepers down the road. You don’t want to discover six months after your purchase that your assorted bantam chicks are Bobwhite Quail. Why wish this on anyone else? Keeping a store informed and responsible for its poultry stock can prevent future mixups on the floor and in the barnyard.
I did my best to explain this to the daytime manager of the farm-supply store I visited. In addition to pointing out the incorrect signs, I patiently explained to her that the sales associate unpacking chicks had informed a little girl and her grandfather that the bantams she was unboxing would indeed grow up to be full-size chickens (they won’t; that’s why they are bantams) and that the “Americanas” were fantastic meat birds (Easter Eggers are layers, not broilers). I can only hope that the manager informed the entire store staff, not just this one salesperson, not to make any claims that are not backed up by fact. However, I will operate under the assumption that this won’t be the result and, unfortunately, so should you.