Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is providing readers free access to critical local stories about the coronavirus during this time of heightened concern. See more coverage here. To support journalism like this, please consider donating or become a subscriber.

Jonathan Morrison and his wife, Joellyn Manville, were supposed to be in Bolivia this summer. Instead, because of the coronavirus, they’re at home in Salt Lake City with a lot of time on their hands.

Manville “idles at 60 mph," Morrison said, and they both needed somewhere to direct their energy. They’ve raised chickens in their backyard before and decided they wanted to give it another shot this summer.

“If you’re going to be stuck at home," Morrison said, “you might as well have a garden, have some chickens and enjoy that process.”

But when the couple tried finding chicks, they soon discovered they weren’t the only ones with the idea of raising an urban flock this summer. Chicks are sold out many places online, and Intermountain Farmers Association can hardly keep the baby birds in stock. Jill Singleton, an IFA manager who oversees poultry and rabbits, said people are buying out an entire week’s worth of chicks in a few hours.

Those who rescue birds and people who own chickens worry that those buying chickens solely for the eggs — and the benefit of not having to go to the grocery store during the pandemic to purchase them — don’t know what they’re getting themselves into. For one thing, the chicks won’t start producing eggs until about 16 to 20 weeks after purchase, and you’ll really only get eggs when it’s warm.

“If you’re going to do this,” said rescuer Tiffany Young, “do it with eyes wide open.”

Keeping the birds safe from predators, particularly raccoons, is harder (and more expensive) than you think. So is mustering up the will to trudge through the snow to care for them in the winter. And you need to make sure the coops and feed aren’t going to attract rats, especially in Salt Lake City, said Young, who runs Ducks and Clucksy.

Plus, chickens are messy and don’t save families much money.

Darcy Page, a Park City resident who’s kept a flock of five chickens — Hei Hei, Tikka Masala, Vindaloo, Meryl Peep and Kevin — for about three years, said that when you account for money spent on a proper coop and feed, she still hasn’t broken even on the purchase.

(Photo courtesy of Darcy Page) Darcy Page's backyard flock of chickens stand in a circle near the coop in Park City. Page said the chickens have more personality than people think — and require more work that many assume.

But, she said, the eggs do taste much better. And the birds are really fun to watch.

“They’re super funny; they’re like little creatures that have so much more personality than people think they do,” said Page, who began the conversation by shooing Hei Hei, who’d tried to sneak into the house, and ended it among a flurry of clucks and honks from her flock.

IFA normally sells bunches of chicks in the spring, but this year is an anomaly, Singleton said. “Our chick sales are through the roof,” she said, “They’re definitely flying off the shelves.”

So much so, the store has had to institute either a numbering system or a sign-up list for wannabe poultrymen and women, and have limited the number of chicks people can purchase to six at a time.

Morrison and Manville knew if they were going to have any luck nabbing a brood of Rhode Island Reds — fluffy auburn chicks that turn a deeper red as they mature into premiere eggs layers — they would need to arrive at IFA early.

(Photo courtesy of Jonathan Morrison) A Rhode Island Red chick is held for a photo.

The Salt Lake City store opens at 8 a.m. They were there at 7:20 a.m. last Wednesday and saw a line had already formed.

Morrison and Manville were assigned the number 21. They were given a piece of paper and told to list their top three breed choices, and from there it was up to chance.

Singleton said that before this year, customers tended to buy the less utilitarian birds. These chickens lay eggs, but aren’t considered heavy layers, and are more docile, Singleton said, naming breeds like the Buff Orpington and Ameraucana.

This year, people want Rhode Island Reds and White Leghorns — bona fide egg machines.

Morrison and Manville said they went through the store that morning, picking out a few chick essentials, like a heat lamp, and waiting until their number was called.

About two hours after they arrived it was time — and Morrison and Manville were in luck. They got their six Rhode Island Red chicks, who for now have taken up residence in the couple’s basement under the red glow of a heat lamp until they’re ready to go outside.

Morrison said when he was at the store that day, he saw plenty of people trying to buy chicks but nothing else. He hoped they had purchased all the other supplies in advance, but he still worried that maybe the chicks were going to homes that weren’t ready for them.

“These are living creatures. They’re not beans and rice. They take a good amount of care," he cautioned, “and if you don’t provide care, it is cruelty.”

(Photo courtesy of Jonathan Morrison) Rhode Island Red chicks huddle in the corner of their enclosure under a heat lamp.

Those interested in starting their own backyard flocks should check their local ordinances. Salt Lake City, for instance, requires a permit and that coops be kept in a backyard, 25 feet from homes. Roosters are not allowed. More information can be found at slc.gov.