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Austinites' backyard chicken flocks grow

Source: American-Statesman (Austin, Texas)
Date: July 7, 2008
Byline: Molly Bloom

Local chick and layer sales up 100 percent from last year.

Frank Curry bought his first chickens to get manure for his compost pile.

Eight years later, Curry and his wife and daughter have a flock of 10in their South Austin backyard, making them members of a growing group of urban chicken enthusiasts.

"In no small part, I think, it is taking control of your food supply," Curry said of the fowl renaissance. "And the eggs are heaven."

H-E-Bs and Super Wal-Marts have made it easier to pick up a dozen eggs at the store than grab them from the backyard coop, but in recent years, Austinites and city dwellers across the country have rediscovered the joys of backyard chicken husbandry.

At Callahan's General Store in Southeast Austin, sales of chicks and layer hens have roughly doubled from last year, manager Mike Young said. With grocery store egg prices rising — up about 50 percent from two years ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — most people buying chickens say they're looking to save a little money by growing their own, Young said.

Some chicken buyers say they are seeking a local, sustainable and safe supply of eggs. Others just prefer the taste of fresh eggs.

Carol Ann Sayle of Boggy Creek Farm, an organic farm and farm stand in East Austin, held her first chicken seminar in Austin three years ago. More than 200 people came. She expects a large crowd at her third annual chicken seminar July 19.

"People are really interested in chickens," Sayle said. "It's amazing."

Sayle has raised chickens for more than 25 years and used to have a flock in West Austin's Clarksville neighborhood, on Highland Avenue. Now, Sayle has what she calls a "backyard flock that's gotten out of hand" of 60 Americanas, production reds and white leghorns, all led by a barred rock hen named Aunt Penny. The chickens eat kitchen scraps, farmer's market leftovers, and worms and bugs — some chicken owners also feed their flock commercial chicken feed — and make great pets, Sayle said.

"You don't have to sleep with them, and you don't have to have them in the house — unless you want to, of course," she said.

Though roosters aren't specifically banned within Austin's city limits, the ordinance against animals that make "frequent or long, continued noise that is disturbing to a person of normal sensibilities" effectively bars rooster ownership for all but those with the most easygoing neighbors.

Dewey Coffman and his family don't have any roosters in the small flock in their Northwest Austin yard, which started with chickens his children brought home from Doss Elementary School's annual chicken incubation project. But they do find that the gift of an occasional egg or two makes the neighbors pretty accommodating, said Coffman, a software engineer who grew up in an Oklahoma suburb.

Keeping chickens has even been a font of mortal revelations for Coffman, Curry and other chicken-raisers-come-lately who grew up in cities.

Curry, a photographer who grew up in suburbs overseas, was once tasked with killing roosters that his family acquired thanks to a breeder who accidentally sold them some male chicks. A neighbor with experience in these matters showed him how to kill and pluck the grown roosters, which Curry and his family made into the French stew coq au vin.

"It was probably the first and the last time" he'll do that, Curry said of killing and butchering a rooster he raised from a chick. "It was really tough."

Austin chicken laws

Chickens must be confined to a yard.

Owners must keep chickens' enclosures at least 50 feet from neighboring residences or businesses.

If you've got a rooster, it better be a quiet one. City law prohibits owning animals that make 'frequent or long, continued noise that is disturbing to a person of normal sensibilities.'

Chickens and other animals must be kept in clean, sanitary and healthy conditions.

You're free to give away eggs to friends and neighbors, but anyone selling eggs to the general public must follow city and state health regulations.