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Metro chickens

(article, Jes Burns)

p(blue). Editor’s note: Last week, Kelly Myers tackled the mystery of egg-carton labels and what they really mean, while food editor Carrie Floyd confessed she's been duped by advertising. This week, Liz Crain reviews the DIY bird book Keep Chickens!, and Jes Burns reports below on how to get the best eggs you'll ever taste, by keeping your own chickens.

Four-year-old Lilie Durazo-Garcia is a blur, dashing past in black Mary Janes, lacy ankle socks, and a thigh-length, faux-fur blue coat. A minute ago, she was up a tree in her mother’s broad backyard; a minute before, she was showing off her pink princess-themed fort. 

Now she holds a basket in the crook of her arm and is running full speed toward the back of the yard. The basket is huge compared to her tiny body, bouncing off her legs wildly, mimicking her excitement. “I’ll get the eggs!” she yells over her shoulder.

“Kids love chickens,” says Lilie’s mother, Andrea Garcia, nodding her head toward her daughter as the young girl disappears into a garden shed. Converted into the family chicken coop, the garden shed is now home to six hens.

[%image eggs float=right width=400 caption="There's a tactile delight in harvesting eggs your own chickens have laid." credit="Photo: iStockphoto/millanovic"]

Garcia and her daughter keep their chickens in a suburban neighborhood in Eugene, Oregon. Backyard chickens aren’t an uncommon sight in Eugene, and across the U.S., more and more urban dwellers are opting to keep a small flock. Actual counts of urban chicken populations have not been done, but city chicken-coop tours and urban poultry workshops are increasingly popular around the country. Metro chickens, it seems, have come home to roost. 

In Seattle, a nonprofit organization called Seattle Tilth offers classes in organic gardening and about five “City Chickens 101” workshops each year. On average, the workshops attract about 40 participants each time and rival the popularity of the nonprofit’s other organic gardening, composting, and community-garden classes.  

“We had very consistent large crowds,” says Karen Luetjen, Seattle Tilth’s executive director. “We moved to a larger room so we wouldn’t have to turn people away.” Seattle Tilth doesn’t keep statistics, but Luetjen estimates that hundreds of people in Seattle keep chickens. “We’ve had many participants come back and say they’ve started keeping chickens,” she says. “They say we’ve taken the mystery out of it.”

h3. The tastiest eggs

Most urban chicken owners keep poultry less for companionship and more for their by-products: fresh eggs and yard maintenance. 

Except in winter, when chickens don’t lay as consistently, Andrea Garcia’s six hens produce nearly three dozen eggs every week. Garcia puts aside enough for her family to eat before Lilie and her live-in grandmother sell the rest of the organic, free-range eggs to their neighbors. The going rate? A mere two dollars a dozen. 

In grocery stores, the average retail price for free-range, organic eggs ranges from $3.50 to $4 a dozen. That’s a lot of cash, considering that the label “free range” has a legal definition when applied to chickens raised for meat but no such power when slapped on eggs. (See Kelly Myers’ article last week on egg-carton labels and what they mean.) 

In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the terms “free range,” “cage free,” and “pastured” don’t have any legal standards associated with eggs at all. This means that egg producers can use these terms on their packaging and never be held accountable for their claims. Only “certified organic” carries regulatory meaning, and even then, a carton of “free range” organic eggs may come from chickens that spend just a few minutes a day outside, pecking at dirt instead of grass and grubs.

h3. The littlest gardeners — and entertainers

In addition to providing the freshest eggs possible, Garcia appreciates her chickens’ contributions to her yard. Hens are especially effective for slug control. Their incessant scratching helps keep her lawn aerated, and speeds up the natural composting process. And then there’s the seemingly endless supply of free fertilizer, courtesy of the chickens’ manure. 

“The poopy straw is great for over-wintering your beds,” she says enthusiastically. The compacted straw from the coop and enclosed chicken run helps to suppress weeds, and the winter rains wash the manure into the soil, enriching it for spring planting. 

The growing popularity of urban hens can be attributed partly to how easy it is to keep them. Getting a coop and chicken run set up necessitates a bit of planning and work, but overall, chickens require a fraction of the care and attention demanded by dogs and cats. And what they lack in cuddliness, they make up for in fresh eggs — and entertainment. 

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“I’ve come to love their little cultural rituals, their little processes,” says another Eugene chicken owner, Nancy Lewis. Every night, she says, her small flock gathers outside its straw-bale coop. Through a series of negotiations only chickens understand, they form a line and put themselves to bed. 

h3. The practicalities

[%image chickens float=right width=350 caption="Keeping your own chickens means you can guarantee that your eggs will be cage free, free range, organic, and even pastured." credit="Photo: iStockphoto/Gravicapa"]

Chickens are also surprisingly inexpensive to keep — even organically. A year’s supply of organic food for two hens costs less than $50. Of course, chickens seem happiest when they can supplement their diet with food scraps, insects, grasses, weeds, and vegetable starts from your back yard. They’re cheap (unless you count all those munched starts), and they compost for you, too.

Urban chicken owners are relatively practical people. They may give their chickens names, but they realize that poultry’s position on the food chain isn’t very high: barely above worms and lettuce. And few animals will refuse a snack of fresh chicken: dogs, cats, raccoons, possums, hawks, and rats have been known to dine on city chickens. This prevents many chicken owners from considering chickens to be full-fledged pets. They exist in an anomalous region between cats and dogs and, well, lettuce. 

“This is Petunia,” says Lilie, standing over a nervous fuzzy-faced Ameraucana her mother holds. By the look on her mother’s face, it’s clear that Petunia is a popular name rotating among different chickens in the flock.

“I’ve spent the whole winter fighting the raccoons,” laments Garcia. She’s lost quite a few Petunias over the years, and she stresses how important it is to keep the flock’s coop and run secure. 

As with dogs, different breeds of chickens bring different physical and personality traits to the coop. And for owners, deciding which breed or breeds to keep can be as casual as window shopping or as complex as deciding which car to buy. The most important question is, “What do I want out of my chickens?”

John Henderson, a reference librarian at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York, has become mildly renowned among chicken owners for compiling a comprehensive breed-comparison website. He keeps a flock of nearly 50 chickens with 18 different breeds at his rural home in nearby Lodi. 

“Primarily for eggs,” Henderson says. “Then as lawn ornaments.” He’s used his seven years of experience keeping the flock and his skills as a natural-science librarian to gather the information on his website.

Sex-link chickens (poultry crosses in which the bird’s sex can be easily determined at birth) are bred to be good commercial layers. These birds are not recognized by the American Poultry Association as standard breeds; they’re more akin to vegetable hybrids, bred for commercial purposes. 

Henderson says they produce heavily for the first two to three years of their lives before going into a steep laying decline as they age. The New Hampshires and Rhode Island Red breeds, says Henderson, can be champion egg-layers; they are reputed to lay eggs nearly every day of the year. 

Then there’s egg color. Ameraucanas are known as “Easter-egg chickens” because they lay blue and green eggs. Henderson likes the cream-colored eggs one of his Speckled Sussexes lays. The Barnevelders, Marans, and Welsummers are known for laying dark-brown, sometimes reddish, eggs. 

[[block(sidebar).

h1. Chicken feed

Feel the need to learn more? Check out last week's article on shopping for eggs, as well as this week's review of the handbook Keep Chickens!.

Online info sources include The City Chicken, Backyard Chickens, the Mississippi State University extension service, and John Henderson's breed website.

Spring is the typical season for buying chicks; popular mail-order sources of baby birds include McMurray Hatchery and the Sand Hill Preservation Center.

And don't forget to check with your local municipality about chicken-keeping restrictions. Many cities limit the number of birds a household can own and regulate coop construction.

]]

There are also breeds known for their unusual looks: tufted heads, feathery feet, curly feathers, or spectacularly colored plumage. Polish varieties are known for their fancy crowns of fluffy feathers. Silkies are known for looking like a giant puffball, with feathers down to the ground. Wyandottes have delicately patterned feathers that resemble different colors of lace. 

All chickens can be trained to be interactive if you handle them consistently from a young age, but certain breeds are known for their even temperaments and engaging personalities. Buff Orpington chicks, for example, are easy to find at feed stores in the spring and are often cited as docile, even friendly birds. 

But like any animal, personalities vary from chicken to chicken. Nancy Lewis doesn’t favor Ameraucanas because hers aren’t particularly friendly or remarkable, but other owners, like Andrea Garcia, seem to enjoy the breed’s company. Breed descriptions should be seen as behavioral guides, not hard rules. 

h3. The real estate

Nancy Silver lives about three blocks from Garcia in Eugene. Their kids play together, and Garcia is helping to establish a new flock in Silver’s backyard. Silver has a hutch in her laundry room filled with six frenetic baby chicks. The young chicks are friendly, clean, and devastatingly cute. They leap onto Silver’s arm when she reaches into the hutch; a soft Buff Orpington is perfectly content to be held and rubbed on its back and newly feathered wings. 

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Silver’s coop in the back corner of her yard is a thing of beauty. It’s as large as a small garden shed, with a door flanked by two faux windows and two real flower boxes. The chickens’ entrance is a small fold-down ramp that will eventually lead to a wire-enclosed run. 

[%image coop float=left width=250 caption="Nancy Silver's chicken coop is a poultry palace." credit="Photo: Jes Burns"]

The upper two feet of the structure and roof is made of a truck-bed topper with sliding windows around the perimeter, allowing for ventilation and light. Finally, there’s a built-in water-catchment system that funnels rainwater from the roof through gutters and into two 50-gallon barrels. The water should provide for the flock’s needs throughout the year.

Urban chicken owners may be realistic when it comes to a chicken’s place in the grand scheme of things, but they take pleasure in their birds and are proud of their coops. “Almost all of the coop is built with recycled materials,” Silver says. “My neighbor gave me the truck top; the siding was an old fence. The barrels are food-grade that I bought used.” 

But Silver’s pride fades when she’s asked to show off the inside of her coop. She gets a pained look and sucks in a large breath, then exhales and steps toward the door. The coop’s not finished, and she’s embarrassed. The structure is filled with wood scraps and tools.

Still, she has a few weeks’ grace before her chicks grow enough adult feathers to be moved from the indoor hutch to the backyard coop. The coop will be their home. And Silver is taking as much care with their shelter as she does with her own.

Jan Spencer, who keeps three chickens in his north Eugene backyard, says that keeping chickens isn’t just about the eggs and the yard maintenance; it’s also a statement of independence and values. “It’s a point of status to have chickens, at least among the people I know,” he says. He pulls up a handful of dandelions and offers them to his hens. Weeds gone, birds fed, owner happy.

People who care about where their food comes from are often the first to hop on the chicken coopwagon. The eggs you produce yourself are sustainable, local, even environmental. And about as pure as you can get. 

p(bio). Jes Burns is a writer and radio producer in Eugene, Oregon. She currently owns three chickens: two Ameraucanas named Sofia and Dorothy, and a baby Silver Laced Wyandotte named Rose. She’s on the lookout for a Polish pullet, to be named Blanche.


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