The United States Postal Service says that a Pennsylvania hatchery ignored warnings of winter weather delays, apparently causing a shipment of baby chicks to a Mercer farmer to arrive dead earlier this month.

Moyer’s Chicks Inc., a hatchery in Quakertown, Pa., was told by postal management before the chicks were shipped “that there may be delays in delivery due to extreme weather and temperatures throughout the Northeast,” according to Postal Service spokeswoman Melissa Lohnes.

The hatchery “using this advice” shipped 140 crates to locations east of the Mississippi on March 5, she said in an email.

Three days later, one of those crates arrived in Mercer with all of the 26 recently hatched birds inside dead — the day after they were scheduled for pickup by farmer Dan Charles.

The shipment of dead chicks, coming at a time when many farmers across the region are preparing for the spring season, highlighted broader concerns about shipping live creatures in Maine and elsewhere,

Charles, who routinely orders birds in late winter, said a loss of one or two birds is a normal part of receiving chickens in the mail, but he was disheartened that all the chicks arrived dead.

“A loss of 1 to 2 percent is not an issue. That’s chicken farming, unfortunately,” Charles said. “It’s when a whole box of birds arrives dead that it raises alarm.”

That weekend, a snowstorm passed through the mid-Atlantic states and the highs were around 40 and lows 27 in northeast Pennsylvania, according to the National Weather Service. In central Maine, temperatures ranged from the high 20s to below zero.

Leon Moyer, co-owner of Moyer’s Chicks, wouldn’t say whether his company is at fault and said in an email this week there are no simple answers about what conditions keep hatcheries from shipping chicks. The company ships year-round, weather permitting, according to the company website.

“The reality is that most times during the year the decision of when we ship or not and how the cartons are made up to adjust for either extreme heat or cold conditions is subjective,” Moyer said. “If there are major blizzards or major heat waves in certain geographical areas, we attempt to respond accordingly.”

Weather is not the only factor that can jeopardize whether a shipment arrives in good condition, said Moyer, and it often varies in unpredictable ways around the country. There can also be problems that arise with the postal service, although the company receives few complaints regarding USPS service from customers, he said.

“Throughout the year there are likely just as many nonweather related logistical USPS challenges that happen as actual weather caused problems,” Moyer said.

Animal rights activists say that the stress birds are exposed to in the mail is torturous and a tragedy, even when the birds arrive alive.

The animal rights group PETA has long been campaigning for a ban on animals in the mail and has recently focused attention on USPS expansion of birds that are allowed in the mail.

In September, the postal service expanded the kinds of birds that could be sent in the mail, allowing birds up to 25 pounds to be sent, Lohnes said. Hatcheries are encouraged to work with the postal service to determine the optimum times for shipping live cargo, she said.

Stephanie Bell, a casework director for the Cruelty Investigation Department of PETA, said that while the organization is against sending animals in the mail, it recommends that if transport is necessary, distances be kept short and that animals are not transferred between handlers multiple times.

“One of the issues with live animal transport via mail is the animals change custody multiple times,” she said. “They go from tarmac to trucks, back to a different tarmac and then to the post office, so you have a variety of people handling them with potential delays at every point.”

Charles’ chicks were a day old when they were shipped. Chicks that age are one of the few animals the postal service will ship, because there’s a 72-hour window in which they can survive without food or water. The postal service has strict regulations as well as recommendations for sending birds, including that they not be more than 24 hours old, the date and hour of hatching is marked on the box, the box is properly ventilated and it is mailed early in the week to avoid weekend or holiday post office closures, according to Lohnes.

She said the postal service works closely with hatcheries to determine optimal shipping times, but if recommendations are not followed or outside factors lead to other delays, it can kill the baby birds or cause them to suffer.

The loss of birds is likely because of freezing temperatures or starvation, according to experts, but could have been prevented had the hatchery adhered to postal service warnings of extreme weather around March 5, when the birds were scheduled to be shipped.

Lohnes said the postal service did not have information about the other 139 crates that Moyer’s shipped the same day as Charles’ chickens, or whether other complaints have been filed.

Charles, who contacted the company to track the package when it didn’t arrive on time, said he filed a complaint with the postal service after the shipment arrived with all 26 birds dead.

Moyer’s has replaced the birds with 26 chicks, which arrived alive last week, but Charles said he is concerned the problem could come up again.

Charles said responsibility for the shipment should fall to Moyer’s, saying a customer rarely has an idea of the route the birds will take when a shipment is ordered.

For example, the chickens that died traveled from Quakertown to Hampden to Norridgewock, according to tracking records. The second group of birds traveled from Philadelphia to New Hampshire to Scarborough and then to Norridgewock.

“The company is usually the one that makes that call,” Charles said. “As a farmer or a hobbyist, yes, you have a responsibility to keep them warm, fed and give them water, but it’s common sense that the shipper is the one who decides when they ship.”

Charles says he routinely orders birds in late winter, counting on the fact that the hatchery and postal service won’t ship if the weather is inclement. Raising meat birds in the late winter and spring prevents the birds from suffering through hot weather when they are plump and ready for harvest, he said.

“I want to get them early because the objective is to grow them as fast as possible in the shortest amount of time,” he said. “Hot weather is a stress on them.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368[email protected]