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Backyard chickens on the rise, despite neighbors' clucks

Urban poultry farmers get a taste of rural life -- and a constant supply of eggs -- with their own coops. But not every city will run with the idea.

June 15, 2009|P.J. Huffstutter

MADISON, WIS. — Jen Lynch and her family live in the heart of the city but roll out of bed to the sound of clucking chickens.

Their day starts with cleaning coops, scooping out feed and hunting for eggs for morning omelets. Eight families in a three-block radius and an estimated 150 families citywide do the same.

"It's our slice of rural life, minus the barns," said Jen Lynch, 35, as Flicka the chicken pecked at her backyard lawn.

As the recession drags on, city dwellers and suburbanites alike are transforming their backyards into poultry farms. Victory gardens, proponents say, are not enough. Chickens are the next step.

"People are turning to things that remind them of simpler times," said Ron Kean, a poultry specialist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. "If you're smart, you can save money doing this."

Growing interest in backyard chickens has fans rallying for change in dozens of cities, although the movement leaves some people squawking.

"I moved to the city for a reason," said Evan Feinberg, 41, a technology consultant in Madison who said he grew up on a Midwest farm. "I never wanted to see another chicken, unless it's wrapped in plastic."

Still, the idea of urban chickens is picking up steam. In Traverse City, Mich., officials are weighing the issue. In Iowa City, Iowa, chicken lovers have collected 600 signatures urging local officials to permit backyard chickens.

Poultry fans in Madison persuaded the city's common council to reverse a ban on backyard hens about five years ago. The ordinance -- similar to regulations in Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago and Baltimore -- allows up to four chickens per property. The animals are to be raised for eggs, and must be housed in a coop that is far separated from neighboring homes. (Roosters are typically banned in cities because of crowing.)

The Lynches assembled their wire-and-wood coop, about the size of a big doghouse, with $40 worth of building supplies and wood salvaged from neighbors. Flicka and her sister, Lucy, were adopted from friends.

In exchange, their hens give them 14 eggs a week, a bug-free backyard and manure for compost bins.

"And they're cute," said Evie Lynch, 9, who takes the russet-hued Flicka for a walk each night before bedtime. "They like to snuggle in my arms."

Chick hatcheries say they can't keep up with urban orders. Murray McMurray Hatchery, the world's largest supplier of rare-breed chicks, has sold out of its "Meat and Egg Combo" collection of meat birds and laying hens. Customers hungry for a standard hen must wait: There's a six-week backlog on orders.

"I tell people we're getting out of the country livestock business, and getting into the city backyard pet business," said Bud Wood, president of the Webster City, Iowa, firm.

Each animal typically lays one egg a day. Angelina Shell, who runs "City Chickens 101" classes at the Seattle Tilth Assn., an organic farming group, admits it can be exasperating trying to eat the 18 eggs her hens lay each week.

"I bake constantly," said Shell, 36, whose refrigerator is crammed with bright yellow-tinged quiches. "I go over to friends' houses and they say: 'Oh, it's another egg dish. Great. Thanks.' "

The cost of being an urban poultry farmer can rise quickly. Chicks can cost up to $20 each with shipping fees, and feed costs about $25 a bag. For those not content with a homemade coop, there's the $1,300, Amish-made "Egg Man."

A popular coop design is by Dennis Harrison-Noonan, a handyman in Madison whose family chicken is named Fluffy. He built a 4-by-8-foot coop that looks like a child's playhouse -- complete with a window box of petunias -- to appease a neighbor.

When a friend suggested he try selling the blueprints online, "I thought I might sell 10, 20 max," Harrison-Noonan said. He's sold 1,000 in the last year, at $35 each.

His neighbor, however, is still unhappy and has stopped talking to him.

Critics say the birds could be smelly, and have raised concerns over sanitation and public health. Property owners fret that coops will sour their real estate values.

City leaders in New Haven, Conn., this month wrestled with the implications of legalizing backyard roosts at a contentious public hearing. Critics worried the urban homesteaders wouldn't stop at vegetable gardens and chicken coops. There are already rumblings that, in cities like Seattle, they have expanded into beekeeping and miniature-goat herding.

"When you live with your food, you have issues," said Paul Kowalski, head of New Haven's environmental health program. "Raising your own food is cool, but not when you have yards that are 20 feet by 30 feet."

Such fears were enough to quash pro-chicken legislative efforts in the village of Caledonia, Wis., about 30 miles south of Milwaukee.

Patrick Flynn, who tried to keep his birds hidden from neighbors for years, was told to find a new home for his hens. Friends offered to take them. One person suggested a better hiding place; one option could be the "stealth coop," which is built to look like a trash can, from MyPetChicken.com.

"I'm going to keep fighting," Flynn said. "I keep my family stocked with eggs. It's not much, but these days, every little bit helps."

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p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

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