Mail-Order Chickens: USPS Ships Live Birds by the Thousands

May 25, 2006

Some people want fresh eggs or poultry, others just want a quirky pet. Whatever the reason, just about any U.S. resident can get live young chickens in the mail.

"If you have a zip code, we can get them there," said Murray McMurray, owner of the McMurray Hatchery in Webster City, Iowa.

"That's the advantage we have. The U.S. Postal Service will carry our product to these people in a timely and effective manner. And we're able to guarantee 100 percent live arrival because of the service we get through them and Mother Nature."

During the hatchery's busiest time of year—the weeks leading up to Easter—the company mails about 200,000 one-day-old chickens a week, McMurray said.

He explained that a baby bird forms and hatches from the white of its egg, called albumen. Prior to hatching, the bird consumes the yolk.

"That yolk gives all the nutrients it needs for quite a few days, three or four days," he said. "It does not need food or water because of that."

According to McMurray, the delayed need for food and water allows a hen to sit on all her eggs until every one is hatched, which can take several days, before she begins feeding her chicks.

Hatcheries, which use incubators to hatch the eggs, take advantage of this biological phenomenon for shipping.

"Our critics say that it's inhumane, that it's cruel. But it's not, because Mother Nature does the same thing," McMurray said.

Controversial Business

As long as the birds are properly packaged and can reach their destination within 72 hours of hatching, the U.S. Postal Service will accept live birds for delivery, according to Robert Anderson, a U.S.P.S. spokesperson in Washington, D.C.

"The Postal Service wants lives business"—the term of art for shipping living animals—"but we also want to ensure that we can provide timely service and protect the safety of the animals," he said in an email.

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