Chicks are for Peeps
Date: June 10, 2009
Byline: Bruce Schimmel
"Chickens can be very affectionate, actually."
Nancy Parsons and some of her flock.
Nancy Parsons knows the answer to the eternal question of which comes first, chickens or eggs. "People," she answers with a chuckle.
Nancy knows poultry; she has a graduate degree from Penn with a specialty in bird behavior. But in her first year of keeping hens for eggs, what's surprised her most is how the birds have changed some human behavior. In particular, her own.
Standing in the modest yard of her gray clapboard house, Parsons cradles "Mami," who's nuzzling her arm. A pale orange hen, flecked with black, Mami has downy soft feathers and claws that go clackity-clack in the driveway.
"It turns out we really love them," says Parsons. "They make wonderful pets ... in a way. They're not like a dog who'll come and sit on your lap. But they can be very affectionate, actually."
One challenge for Parsons has been to share that love with her Flourtown neighbors. A love that would endure the persistent cackling and occasional leavings of 15 chickens and reveilles, daily, from her two roosters. Parsons' chicken charm offensive began with eggs. "Everybody wants to eat local these days, so I share a lot of eggs with a lot of people," says Parsons.
And, besides, at least in this little hamlet just outside Chestnut Hill, suburbia is slowly reverting to rural. Many here keep gardens, dozens have hens of their own. Others keep bees. One nearby couple just got an adorable pair of baby goats — who just bleat and bleat and bleat.
So with this amateur farming has come some country values. Like allowing for the smell or the noise. Helping each other on vacation. And by gathering in each others' yards for picnics.
"Oh, boy, do we ever party," says Parsons.
Parsons helped form this community, in part, by proselytizing for homegrown poultry. She founded COOP — Chicken Owners Outside Philadelphia — in February 2008, a couple of months before getting her first chicks.
Parsons — who works for a Web company — put up chickenowners.com. The Web site is filled with cute stuff, like chicken dance music and video, which features COOP's savory mascot, "Frida Tata."
But beneath the swag is COOP's fairly serious motto: "Bringing eggs to our township officials since 2008." The site lists local codes, and offers advice on dealing with neighbors and bureaucrats.
Fortunately, Parsons had only to bring her own eggs across the kitchen table to reach her own local official. Parsons' partner, Doug Heller, was recently elected as a commissioner in a township that never got around to banning chickens.
Officially, raising chickens is forbidden in Philly. But unless neighbors complain, officials look the other way. Philadelphians for Egg Farming, through a petition on Facebook, wants to change the law to allow four hens on a property.
Nationally, chicken fanciers have been coming out of their coops. Stories about city chicks have been featured in The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times, among others.
The trend seems so intense that media critic Jack Shafer recently pushed back, calling it "bogus," and condemned keeping chickens as "filthy, time-consuming and expensive."
Maybe so, but Parsons sure thinks it's worth it. Because in the matter of chickens and eggs, you get to put people first.