June 6, 2017

Old McDonald’s farm isn’t the only place where contented egg layers, colorful quack-makers and other pleasant pheasant-like feathered friends can be found. Today, all manner of urban poultry pals have found a home in the backyards of animal lovers living in the boondocks as well as the big city. And pet retailers who want in on the action stand to make more than chicken feed, according to the pros.

Consider that there are at least 5 million chicken keepers in the U.S., per research conducted by ChickenGuard, the Fulbourn, England-based makers of automatic coop door openers and closers. But chickens aren’t the only domesticated poultry that’s garnering more attention. From Cayuga ducks to royal purple guinea fowl to white Chinese geese, farm fowl are becoming increasingly popular as pets. A big reason is one of the extra perks of ownership: ready-to-eat fresh eggs.

“A hundred years ago, it was common for families to raise and keep chickens, and most everyone had some experience with poultry,” said Tiffany Denter, poultry and wild bird buyer for Tractor Supply Company, the Brentwood, Tennessee-based retail chain founded in 1938 that has over 1,600 stores in 49 states. “Over the years, people gave up their chickens for supermarkets, but now families are taking a bigger interest in their food and the average person’s familiarity with backyard fowl is growing again.”

Breeds That Succeed
Austin Johnson, founder of eFowl, a Denver-headquartered online supplier of live poultry and related products, says the top pet chicken breeds these days include Easter eggers (a hardy species and prolific layer of blue, green, cream, brown and pink eggs), Rhode Island reds (offering a cross between red malays, brown leghorns and Asiatic native stock), black Australorps (known for their calm demeanor) and welsummers (kids love the chocolate-colored eggs they lay).

“There’s also been a greater demand for ducks, which some owners choose because they’re allergic to chicken eggs,” Johnson said. “And white guinea fowl as well as heritage breed turkeys like the Rio Grande or Narraganset are gaining traction, too.”

Because of their docile natures and relative tolerance for being handled and held, these and other urban poultry breeds are preferred to other birds.

“Ducks, for example, can be very affectionate. And we’ve seen more people using chickens and other poultry as therapy animals,” said Frank Cardaropoli, owner of The Chicken Fountain in Davidson, North Carolina, which has been making its Chicken Fountain automated poultry watering systems by hand since the company launched in 2011. “This is especially true for children on the autism spectrum and individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Better Edibles
A prominent trend in this subcategory includes enhanced emphasis on a healthier urban poultry diet.

“Many customers want organic feed options for their flocks today. Improved diet is important because these animals can produce food for the family, and with proper care, a chicken can live to be up to 10 years old,” said Denter, who notes that Tractor Supply is catering to this clamor by recently carrying DuMOR Poultry’s line of Organic non-GMO grower, starter and layer feeds, each boasting no herbicides or pesticides.

Another player capitalizing in the organic ingredients arena is Scratch and Peck Feeds, a Burlington, Washington-based maker of organic chicken feed, which offers a healthy assortment of Naturally Free brand products.

Perhaps the biggest name among diet providers is Purina Animal Nutrition, a wholly owned subsidiary of Land O’Lakes, Inc. in St. Louis, known for its Layena Plus Omega-3 complete feed, Organic Layer Pellets or Crumbles, and Gamebird & Turkey Startena.

Owners like the healthy consumables, but they also want to pamper their poultry with fun snacks, too. Notable treats in this space include Hentastic brand Mealworm Pie, Peck ‘n’ Mix Herb Surprise, and Chick Sticks with Mealworms, Sunflower Hearts, and Oregano with Probiotics, all by Chicken Snacks in Travelers Rest, South Carolina.

“People used to laugh at the concept of treats for chickens,” said Edward Gates, director of sales for San Antonio-warehoused Happy Hen Treats, whose Sunflower and Raisin Party Mix, Mealworm & Sunflower Treat Square, and Mealworm Frenzy treats are sold in over 2,000 stores nationwide. “But in the past year, people have become more accepting of treats and accessories for backyard poultry.”

Home Cluck Home
There’s also a wider array of coops on the market nowadays compared to years ago.

“People want more options for customized coops that suit their home or yard and that offer more protection from natural predators,” said Denter, who cites the Big Green Coop by Innovation Pet, which houses 15 birds, as a big seller.

Martin Hodson, head of sales and marketing for ChickenGuard, which has sold over 35,000 of its units worldwide over the past four years, agrees.

“Coops have become more than just housing for chickens,” Hodson said. “Custom designs and aesthetic appeal are very important for owners.”

Consumers who lack significant backyard real estate also have more size options today. Case in point: Chilton, Wisconsin-based Kaytee recently rolled out a Chicken Coop with Nesting Bob, ample enough for up to four chickens. The igloo-shaped Eglu Go, by Wilmington, Delaware-stationed Omlet—first conceived in 2003 by London art students—is another popular compact plastic coop, complete with a fox-resistant chicken run.

For those desiring more wing room, Trixie Pet Products makes a two-story coop with an outdoor run as well as the Coop Deluxe, with two nesting houses that accommodates six chickens.

Customers will Crow
If you’re going to offer urban poultry livestock in your store, it’s important to choose a reputable source.

“Connect with local farms and nearby hatcheries as trusted breeder sources that can create a healthy ecosystem for any live urban poultry you sell,” Johnson said.

Be a responsible retailer, too—one that does more than simply stocking the necessities.

“Education is so important for urban poultry owners, which is why offering classes and workshops at your store is a must. It’s a perfect time to also demonstrate all the products they’ll need to successfully care for these pets,” Hodson said. “In rural areas, farm and feed retailers provide these educational opportunities regularly.”

Want a surefire crowd-pleaser that can both train and entertain?

“Hold a ‘chick days’ event where you showcase baby chicks and let customers hold, pet and learn about them, and you’ll see sales skyrocket,” Cardaropoli said.

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