Don Dyer stood among boxes full of tiny, fluffy chicks on a recent weekday afternoon in Anchorage and read off customer Rachel Varela’s order.
“One Dominant Copper. One Rhode Island Red. One Blue Sapphire. Two Barred Rocks,” the poultry farmer called over a chorus of high-pitched chirps at Alaska Mill and Feed.
“That’s it!” said Varela.
Varela is 28, lives in Anchorage and is among the growing number of Alaskans raising backyard flocks. It’s a national trend, fueled by the pandemic as people spent more time at home. And it’s hitting hard in Alaska. According to the Office of the State Veterinarian, poultry imports totaled almost 132,000 in 2020. That’s up about 70% from the year before, and is about 5% higher than prior record-setting numbers in 2016.
“Demand was incredible,” said Dyer, who owns Polaris Poultry, based in Palmer. “There were so many people who were off work and wanted projects, and their children weren’t in school, so they wanted pets for their children.”
That’s right: pets. Chickens might be more accurately described as livestock, but people do become attached to them. And, depending on who you talk to, the chickens may become attached too.
“They’re very trainable,” said Dyer. “We have a chicken at my house right now that she just, if we leave the front door open, she walks right in the front door, and goes right into the living room and looks for a place to lay an egg.”
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‘It’s just a fun pet thing’
For Varela, buying a house had a lot to do with her chick purchase. A record number of homes were sold in Anchorage last year.
“We both grew up with chickens and we just decided that now — we recently bought a house — we have the space for them, built a coop and we’re ready to go,” she said.
Finally having space also pushed Alexia Guedea, 30, to buy some birds as well.
She got four chicks from Dyer, and held them in a cardboard container. Three she had already named: Mabel, Basil and Gertrude. The fourth, a slate-colored chick, she picked up on a whim that afternoon, and still needed to name.
“I’ve always really wanted chickens. We just didn’t have a house for it. So we wanted to wait until we were a little more settled,” she said. “I definitely enjoy eggs. But I think it’s just a fun pet thing too.”
According to State Veterinarian Bob Gerlach, about 30,000 birds were brought into Alaska during the first quarter of 2021. Those numbers are largely chicks and chickens, but also include turkeys, geese and other birds.
“We’re expecting to see another big year this year,” Gerlach said.
There are three main factors driving Alaska’s increase in bird imports, according to Gerlach: More backyard flocks, more small slaughter operations and more interest in specialty breeds for poultry shows.
Steve Brown, an agent at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Cooperative Extension office in Palmer, is also watching backyard flock interest soar.
Since the Anchorage Assembly legalized backyard coops in 2011, popularity has “been going up and up and up,” he said. “But then last year when COVID hit, it exploded. And it wasn’t just in Alaska.”
“Normally, you can call a hatchery in the Lower 48 and order chickens and have them in a couple of days,” he said. “But it took months to get them.”
Brown sees the poultry popularity spike reflected in other ways too. He runs UAF’s “Chicken University” class and had almost 300 attendees by Zoom this spring. He said there are more and more Facebook groups dedicated to chicken care, plus a growing number of chicken accessories you can buy online from diapers to “Incredible Hulk” arms.
“Chickens as pets are huge,” said Brown. “I cannot tell you how many 50-gallon aquariums are sitting in peoples’ living rooms in Anchorage right now with chicks in them.”
(But, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is warning: Don’t get too cozy with your chicks, even if they are pets. A salmonella outbreak prompted the federal agency to advise people last week to not kiss or snuggle their ducks and chickens.)
‘I’m a chicken mom’
Poultry farmer Dyer’s chick-selling business in Palmer was actually born out of the pandemic.
He started shipping up more chicks for backyard flocks just over a year ago after the pandemic crushed a big part of his work: Supplying chicken meat for restaurants.
“All of a sudden restaurants shut down,” he said. “So, we invested heavily in baby chicks, and the bet turned out good.”
To start, Dyer flies all his chicks up from a hatchery in Oregon — there are no big hatcheries in Alaska.
He sells roughly 2,000 to 3,000 chicks a week at the peak of business.
While many of those chicks stay in Anchorage and Mat-Su, he’s also sending chicks across the state in jets and single-engine planes. He’s had customers from the Aleutians to Utqiaġvik to King Salmon to Glennallen.
After last year’s big spike, Dyer said, he expects demand for backyard chickens to remain steady this summer. He’s also found a niche selling newborn turkeys — though they’re much less popular than the chicks, he said.
Earlier this month, Dyer sorted through pages of orders as customers like Varela and Guedea streamed in to pick up their poultry.
Some said they planned to raise the chicks for meat, some for eggs.
Brandy Crowley, 38, will have chickens for both.
She’s a first-time chicken owner, and picked up 15 chicks from Dyer a few weeks ago. On this afternoon, she was buying a few baby turkeys to fill out the flock.
She said spending more time at home over the past year in part drove her family’s decision to build a coop and get birds. Her kids love them, she said.
“My five-year-old, she’s in there every day and she sits in the cage,” Crowley said. “She doesn’t care what mess is around. She just sits in the cage with them.”
Crowley has a new descriptor for herself now too.
“I’m a chicken mom,” she said. “I’m just excited about it. I’ve seen a lot of people that have done it and they have relationships with these birds. I think it’s fun and, yeah, I’m a chicken mom now.”
Reach reporter Tegan Hanlon at email@example.com or 907-550-8447.