It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon, and Beatrice, Gertrude and Zelda, three butterscotch-brown Buff Orpington hens, are having a field day in Jennifer Carlson’s Seattle back yard. A landscape designer and organic gardening expert, Carlson has placed a floorless chicken coop–or “chicken tractor”–on her lawn, where the hens methodically search for bugs and worms, taking an occasional break for a dust bath. Once the birds have excavated one area, she moves the tractor to a new piece of turf.
The remains of the chickens’ excavations–a rich mixture of dirt, chicken manure and grass that’s sprinkled with oak leaves to help decompose the droppings–gets a second life as compost for Carlson’s organic vegetable garden, which features basil, raspberries, eggplant and heirloom tomatoes. “The vegetables we grow then provide scraps for the birds, who produce delicious eggs and great compost for the vegetables,” explains Carlson, who has raised chickens in the city since the 1980s. “It’s a really cool cycle.”
Carlson, who spent her early childhood among Wyoming and Colorado ranchers, now lives in a cheery red house on a corner lot in Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood. “Chickens make ideal pets,” she says. “They like being around people, and they’re very curious, comical and ungainly. Yet they’re contained, so they’re not chasing the mailman.” With a cup of coffee in hand, she makes a daily round of the garden every morning. “It’s relaxing seeing the chickens and garden thrive.”
From Seattle to St. Louis, hens are the latest trend in natural gardening. The Murray McMurray Hatchery in Webster City, Iowa, the country’s largest supplier of two-day old chicks, sends about 1,000 chicks a week to people in urban and suburban areas. (Five years ago, the number of urban buyers was so small the hatchery didn’t even keep track.) Reversing decades-old laws against urban chickens, advocates across the country are lobbying city officials to permit backyard hens, while community gardening organizations are hosting overflow crowds for chicken-coop tours and chicken-raising classes.
“People have lost touch with what used to be considered common knowledge about animals,” says Pam Karstens, who teaches Backyard Chickens 101 through the Madison, Wisconsin, nonprofit Mad City Chickens. Most attendees are well-educated urban professionals in their 30s and 40s. “Many are parents trying to teach their children where food comes from,” she says.
As the number of city chicken owners increases, chicken-coop entrepreneurs have sprung up to meet the need. Many cater to the custom-built sensibilities of urban professionals, including Egganic Industries in Ringgold, Virginia, which sells the $1,300 (plus shipping) luxury Henspa, complete with an automatic egg-retrieval system. A British company, Omlet, sells the Eglu, which resembles an iMac computer and is made from recyclable polymers.
For most people, however, hosting a couple of backyard chickens is neither high tech nor high cost. Carlson’s henhouse, a regular stop on Seattle’s annual chicken-coop tour, is a 3-by-18-foot modular coop painted bright orange and yellow. The wooden structure, which Carlson designed and built herself, sits on six inches of gravel, topped by concrete pavers. “The pavers protect the wood from rotting and discourage burrowing by predators–and you will have predators,” Carlson says, noting that raccoons and possums pose the biggest threats to urban fowl.
A storage unit under the nesting box contains feeding and cleaning supplies. Carlson points out other useful coop features: plenty of horizontal space for birds to move, good air circulation, sunlight in the afternoon and a spot for shade. The chicken tractor, a portable cagelike structure without a bottom that is meant to be rotated and moved on a regular basis, gives birds daily escape from the coop and access to new scratching space, while restricting yard destruction to a designated area.
“It’s kitty TV,” Carlson laughs, noting that the family cat spends hours watching the hens peck in the tractor. Zelda, Gertrude and Beatrice are unruffled by the feline attention, she says. “That’s what I love about this breed; they’re so mellow.”
Ordinances governing city chickens vary from city to city. Bill Finch, a Mobile, Alabama, newspaper editor who has written several articles on the subject, says laws prohibiting backyard hens often can be traced to the suburban development boom in the 1950s and 1960s. “As bedroom communities incorporated, they overturned codes allowing animals so they wouldn’t appear to be podunk towns,” he says. “But in older cities and towns, the codes were never updated.”
Mobile, for example, allows a liberal 25 chickens per household. Finch himself keeps seven backyard Ancona hens–a good breed for hot weather–that make the rounds of his oversize vegetable garden in a chicken tractor. “It’s the only nitrogen fertilizer I need,” he says.
As the “buy local” food movement gathers steam nationwide, activists are working to loosen more restrictive chicken codes. In Madison, Karstens says interest in backyard birds was so high that a fairly active “chicken underground” was developing until last year, when she and several others persuaded local officials to pass an ordinance permitting backyard coops and a maximum of four hens. The group prevailed with support from affiliates of the University of Wisconsin Poultry Science Department, who helped convince city officials that reasonable regulations could deter potential problems. “With a flock of 40 chickens, manure is a concern,” Karstens says. “With four, it isn’t.”
In Providence, Rhode Island, the Southside Community Land Trust raises urban chickens to educate the public about safe treatment and how to use chicken manure as compost. The organization also is working to combat the myth that you need roosters, the chicken world’s noisemakers, for egg production. You don’t. Although females need to mate with a male to produce a fertile egg, hens lay edible eggs as part of their ovulation cycle.
Every once in a while a male can sneak into a backyard, unannounced. A few weeks after Cranston, Rhode Island, resident Joanne Rich got her first hen–a Polish Golden Lace she dubbed Mrs. T because of a crown resembling a mohawk–she awoke to an unexpected surprise: a 5 a.m. wake-up call in the form of rooster crows emanating from the coop she had fashioned from her daughter’s swing set.
Mrs. T., as it turned out, was actually Mr. T–a gender mix-up that got the hapless male whisked out of Rich’s yard to an urban farm operated by the Southside Community Land Trust. “I didn’t want a run-in with my neighbors,” says Rich, an avid organic gardener who tends a vegetable patch and grows five kinds of berries. “And I wanted eggs.”
For Carlson, eating eggs straight from the source is like nothing else. Between March and October, Beatrice, Zelda and Gertrude each lay about one egg per day. The rest of the year, Carlson gets an average of one or two eggs per day from the trio. “I make the mistake every now and then of ordering an egg dish at a restaurant, and I regret it,” she says. “It’s like eating cardboard. A homegrown egg tastes just like butter. It’s fantastic.”
Aren’t Chickens Unhealthy?
Talk of chickens inevitably brings up two big health concerns: salmonella and Asian bird flu.
Emilio DeBess, public health veterinarian for the Oregon Department of Human Services, says his department occasionally sees outbreaks of salmonella associated with chickens in Portland, where hen-free neighborhoods are becoming the exception, not the rule. These outbreaks usually occur around Easter, when families get baby chicks and keep them inside, DeBess says. “Keep chickens outside, wash your hands and don’t allow kids under 5 to handle them,” he says. “If you follow these guidelines, you’ll reduce salmonella exposure by 100 percent.”
First-time chicken owners often raise questions about Asian bird flu. Like mad cow disease, avian flu is largely a product of limited resources, overcrowded conditions and cross-contamination between species–and thus has little to do with managing one or two chickens in a yard. The fear among world health officials is that the disease will spread to migratory birds; if and when that happens, urban chickens will be a bit player in a catastrophic global epidemic, not the cause. Echoing DeBess, organic gardening expert Jennifer Carlson says: “It’s a matter of being mindful and keeping clean.”
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