Chicks and the city
Date: April 9, 2009
Byline: Amy Z. Quinn
A home hen coop provides the ultimate in local eggs. The law often clucks at keeping chickens, but efforts are afoot to scratch the bans.
So you're an expert at recycling, the compost pile is in full swing, and your recession garden is under way, but you're still looking for a way to live more sustainably, to eat "smaller," meaning more locally produced, minimally processed foods. Saving money wouldn't hurt, either, but taste is premium. What's an urban locavore to do?
You might take a cue from Vidalia, Cecilia, Rhoda, and Penelope, four city hens kept in a homemade coop only a few blocks from where the trolley slides along Baltimore Avenue in West Philadelphia. Their digs, while not spacious, give them room to strut around, maybe fly a few feet. They're feasting on sprouting grass and the shade-loving shrubs in their fenced-in yard, and they go absolutely silly over a handful of sunflower seeds.
In exchange for about as much care and feeding as your average golden retriever, these gals will eat ticks and other pesky bugs, contribute their own organic material to the compost pile, and — the best part — provide you with locally grown, couldn't-be-fresher eggs.
Technically, owners of city chickens are in violation of Section 10-112 of the Philadelphia Code, which prohibits the keeping of farm animals, defined as "any chicken, goose, duck, turkey, goat, sheep, pig, cow," or similar creature in all but a few designated areas like zoos, schools, and slaughterhouses. Which is why Zoe and other city chicken keepers interviewed for this article asked to be identified by first name only, even though the PSPCA, which handles animal control for the city Health Department, said the law is mostly enforced only when neighbors complain about smells or a particularly throaty rooster.
Now, a small movement has started to change the city's law to allow chickens on residential property. A petition being circulated online by Philadelphians for Egg Farming asks the city to amend the farm animal ordinance to let residents keep up to four laying chickens — no roosters — on a single property.
Right now the effort is small: The petition has only 131 signatures so far. But there is interest. An Old City art store, Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, which is coordinating the petition, hosted a lecture on keeping birds, and another is planned for May 20. Mount Airy Learning Tree held a class on keeping backyard chickens last year, and drew a dozen or so potential keepers to a class last Saturday.
It is reflective of an urban egg-farming trend in cities like New York, where chickens are allowed and young locavores are keeping flocks in Brooklyn. In Atlanta, a local urban egg-farming proponent dubbed "The Chicken Whisperer" is giving away 500 baby chicks as part of what he's calling his Chicken Stimulus Plan. In Portland, Maine, and Missoula, Mont., egg-farming enthusiasts have successfully lobbied for changes to local laws. The City Chicken Web site keeps a user-generated list of changes in state and local chicken ordinances to keep chicken owners clucking on the right side of the law.
In the Philadelphia suburbs, many municipalities allow for keeping of some chickens, although the laws vary wildly. The group Chicken Owners Outside Philadelphia, or COOP, a co-op of chicken owners in the city's northwest suburbs, keeps a small list of local codes (www.chickenowners.com), but it's wise to check with your local officials. One enthusiastic longtime chicken owner interviewed for this article changed her mind about being quoted after realizing her South Jersey municipality doesn't allow livestock in residential neighborhoods.
Of course, city chickens aren't a new thing. Some might recoil at the idea of neighborhood fowl — especially as those memories of the "back-to-nature" MOVE house don't die easily in this city. But old-timers can tell you about backyards in South Philly or up in Roxborough and East Falls, places heavy on immigrants or where yards and green spaces are no larger than a postage stamp, where chickens lived and everybody ate local eggs, no big whoop.
So, if you're just in it for the eggs, the way around the crowing-rooster problem is to keep only hens. They'll still lay eggs, sometimes every day, though they'll be unfertilized and could never hatch into a chick. If you do think about raising chicks, owners say, be forewarned: It's not easy to tell the sex of a small chick, so you likely won't know there's a rooster in the henhouse until about 10 weeks later, when he starts crowing and his comb appears.
On appearance alone, Zoe's backyard eggs make the supermarket version look like so many chalk-white clones with identical orangey insides. On a recent morning, Zoe's hens produced a smallish white-shelled egg containing a yolk more the hue of the morning's sunshine than of orange juice, and a supersized specimen whose latte-colored shell contained two perfect, identical yolks. The differences in taste are apparent, too. Because they hadn't been refrigerated in the hours between the nest and the frying pan, the whites of the local eggs remained tender, and the yolks had a richness missing from factory-farm eggs. They just taste, well, eggier.
Up in the city's northwest, Anna keeps a small flock of five hens in a tidy blue coop on her Mount Airy property, not far from the Weavers Way Co-Op. Her flock began with a handful of chicks purchased at the Agway in Souderton about six years ago; now Anna collects about 20 eggs each week in exchange for about $100 worth of feed and other costs each year. It's a more than even swap, in terms of both sustainable living and the quality of the eggs, she says.
"They make great scrambled eggs, and a yellow cake is truly yellow with only two or three eggs added," she said.
At the height of their laying, Zoe's four hens were laying an egg each a day, though production slows in winter and will slow down even more after the birds molt next year.
So what happens once they stop laying? Will the four West Philly galpals end up on the dinner table? It could happen, Zoe said, who eats chicken but said she doubted she could eat one of her pets.
She laughed. "Maybe if it was in the freezer for a really long time."