WEBSTER CITY — Sitting off to one side in a quiet corner of the packing and shipping room at McMurray Hatchery is a plastic bin with about two dozen freshly hatched chicks in it.
There’s a good variety in the bin, some yellow, some black, some with fuzzy legs, some without fuzzy legs, some with patterns and some without.
The little birds in the bin have a unique destiny, each one will be given to a customer as a bonus bird if the customer wants one.
Now what exactly is the one with the fuzzy legs?
Tom Watkins, vice president at McMurray can tell you exactly, he knows them by sight and as he picks them up in turn, he easily identifies the breed.
He’s a man who knows his chickens.
“We have 107 chicken breeds,” he said, something that many find surprising.
“Absolutely they do,” he said. “Many people will say I did not know chickens were anything but white.”
The classic white chicken, called the White Leghorn, is the most common type used in egg production. A breed called the Cornish Cross is the most common chicken for meat production.
McMurray caters to those who want something different, a unique breed, an heirloom breed or even for some, a pet.
“That’s where we come in,” he said.
Different breeds are more suitable for different regions. Some do well in hot humid southern weather, others cope well with colder climates up north.
“Every region has a breed because it did well in that area,” he said.
Some of those are quite colorful.
“There’s white, green, blue,” he said. “Well, not actually green, kind of though, they’re irridescent.”
In recent years, the popularity of backyard chicken flocks has increased. Watkins said that it’s starting to plateau though.
Getting a flock started in one’s backyard does require a little preparation. Not every community is chicken friendly.
“Check your city ordinances,” he said. “The more rural, the harder it is to have chickens. It was only last year that Webster City passed an ordinance to allow them. In rural areas, they’re considered livestock, in metropolitan areas, they’re considered pets.”
So how metropolitan has the chicken gotten, pretty uptown.
“There are chickens on rooftops in downtown Manhattan,” he said.
It’s also a good idea to check with your neighbors, while chickens produce very little odor and if not stressed, are quiet, it’s still a good idea to ask.
Eggs from the flock can help pave the way too.
Watkins said the average flock is about 15 to 20 birds. An average order is 15 to 34, he said.
Chicks are still delivered to the customer the same way they’ve been getting to them for generations. Ventilated boxes shipped via the U.S. Postal Service.
“That’s the only carrier that handles live birds,” he said.
McMurray typically sends out two truck loads a day. Depending on their final destination, the birds start their postal journey either in Des Moines or the Minneapolis Airport Post Office.
Some of them yes, may fly to where they’re going.
Once in a coop at home, the birds can live for about a decade although that’s not often the case. Some of them, obviously, end up as Sunday dinner and some, dinner for wildlife.
“The biggest threat is predators,” Watkins said.
Watkins said the chickens will begin laying eggs when they’re four to five months old. They will lay regardless of whether there’s a rooster around or not. He said their laying is cued by the hours of daylight available. 14 to 16 being needed. In the winter, unless provided with artificial light, they’ll stop producing eggs.
“Any light will do,” he said. “Just not all the time, it stresses them out.”
Chickens, while some people do name them and consider them pets, should not be kept in the home.
“You can’t potty train them,” he said. “You should never have them in the house but some people do.”
For those who insist on doing so anyway, there’s a product available — but not from McMurray.
“You can buy chicken diapers,” he said.
The number of chicks hatched at McMurray isn’t chicken feed.
“At our peak well ship 25,000 a day or about 150,000 in a week,” he said.
Their current building on the Southeast side of Webster City was built in 1992. The company is 101 years old. Watkins said it was started in a bank building on Ohio Street that’s now a funeral home.
To produce that many chicks, of that many breeds, McMurray relies on nine farms offsite where the chickens that lay the chick’s eggs, are located.
The eggs are cooled, which halts the embryos development, then trucked to the hatchery. Once enough eggs are onsite to efficiently produce a batch, they’re placed in incubators. The eggs spend 17 days being temperature controlled, turned, doted on and read bedtime stories before on the 18th day, they’re transferred into another incubator to hatch on day 21.
“The hatching is the dirty part.” Watkins said. “It’s a lot of manual work.”
Speaking of messy, McMurray Hatchery got to star in the pilot episode of the TV program Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe.
“That was before he even had a contract with the Discovery Channel,” Watkins said.
Rowe and his crew were welcomed visitors and tried their best to stay out of the way. Watkins said once he saw the show, her realized that the program takes a tongue in cheek approach and isn’t always too serious.
Rowe did most of the jobs well except the one that really does require an experts trained eye and skill.
Sexing the birds which while it might sound dirty, is nothing more than separating the roosters from the hens.
“It takes a special skill,” Watkins said.
They’ve also had several other brushes with the famous. There’s an entire wall of signed photographs in the office from well known people that have ordered chicks including Steven Tyler — of Aerosmith fame.
The Chicago Zoo even have some.
“They walk through to make sure everything is up to par,” Watkins said. “They took some birds with them.”
Some past famous customers include the Emperor of Japan, a senator or two and perhaps a few people who may, or may not, have bought some ( it may be classified ).
There’s even some fun chicken trivia for those who call — ask to be put on hold for a few minutes — there’s lot to learn.