Keeping poultry in cities: Checking out the chicks
Date: June 18, 2009
The financial and health reasons behind a new craze
ONE day Judith Haller was watching television and saw that Martha Stewart had chickens. "I was very envious that she had her own chicken manure," she recalls. So last year, she got a couple of chickens on behalf of her vegetable garden. They proved to be industrious providers and pleasant companions. Now there are 13 hens pecking around the yard. And Ms Haller has become an advocate for a hot movement: backyard chickens. In April, as part of Austin's first Funky Chicken Coop Tour, she hosted 637 visitors.
Chickens are having a moment. For Americans who are concerned about eating locally or organically, hens can help. They produce fresh, free-range eggs. They eat table scraps, and their waste goes in the compost pile. Finances are a factor for some families. Mimi Bernhardt says that she and her partner became more reflective about sustainability when the economy worsened. Now they are growing melons, tomatoes, onions and aubergines, and they raise ducks as well as chickens. Their grocery bill has plummeted. There is also a pet aspect. Hens are soft and fluffy, if not very affectionate. As Ms Haller puts it, they make cats seem like dogs.
It is impossible to know exactly how many Americans have joined this trend. The Department of Agriculture does not track hobbyists. Owners can register via the National Animal Identification System, but it is strictly voluntary. This is a sore point with some health experts, who say that America needs a better way to keep track of its animals.
In any case, signs point to a bird surge. Hatcheries that deliver chicks by mail have reported backlogs. Rob Ludlow, the owner of BackyardChickens.com, says that his forum has 35,000 members and about 100 more joining each day. Backyard poultry groups meet in at least two dozen cities, from Seattle in Washington to Tallahassee in Florida. Over the past few years many cities have, in response to public pressure, relaxed ordinances against the birds.
Andy Schneider, a radio host known as the Chicken Whisperer, says he gets calls every day from people who are interested in challenging their city council on this score. Web sites like Craigslist, Facebook and Twitter help them organise. "If you have 50 people wearing buttons saying 'I love chickens' on the steps of the courthouse, it does make a statement," he says.