Chickens Becoming Popular Urban Pets In US
By Amanda Onion
They don't bark, bite or require daily walks. They even offer tokens in return for their care.
More and more urban and suburban elite are moving beyond keeping poodles and cats and adopting another kind of animal to coddle: the chicken.
"They're just so relaxing to watch," says Robin Fox, a Miami resident who began keeping chickens in her apartment in the late 1990s. "They're friendly birds, they're fluffy and they give you eggs. Dogs don't give you eggs."
While some immigrants have long recognized the benefits of keeping chickens in urban lots (free fresh eggs and chicken breasts) the concept appears to have taken flight, so to speak, among urban yuppies and suburban elite who build elaborate coops for their flocks.
And then there is Fox, who says she must have chickens in her life, no matter the inconvenience.
"The only problem is they can't be potty trained. You have to change their paper every day," says Fox who reports some of her furniture is spotted by chicken droppings but she's sure only she can see the stains.
Steven Keel, the owner of Egganic Industries in Ringgold, Va., says that sales of his elaborate $1,500 Henspas - low-maintenance, high-comfort homes designed for urban and suburban chickens - are up 15 percent. The McMurray Hatchery in Webster City, Iowa, reports they're sending more mail-order chicks (ranging in cost from about $1 to $5 per chick) to addresses in upper-class suburbs.
And the City Chicken Workshop sessions at the Seattle Tilth Association have been filled to standing-room only. The two-hour classes held four times a year teach new chicken owners the basics in building coops and keeping their animals healthy. Director Pamela Burton says they'll soon be adding classes.
"The demand is too great," she says. "We're thinking we'll have a beginning chicken class and then add intermediate classes."
What's there to learn about keeping chickens in urban lots? For starters, says Burton, it's good to know if it's legal.
The city of Seattle allows residents to keep up to three small animals, including chickens. New York, Los Angeles and Miami ban chickens in private lots, though many residents ignore the rule. Other cities that permit keeping chickens include Key West, Fla.; St. Louis, Mo.; and Mason City, Iowa.
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Even if a city allows residents to keep live poultry, chicken owners stress that keeping their neighbors happy is also key since unhappy neighbors can lead to chicken evictions.
"The trickiest part is making sure they blend in," says Bart Pals who keeps about 25 chickens in his 50-foot by 250-foot backyard city lot in Mason City, Iowa. "We also give eggs to our neighbors. That helps."
To ensure his chickens "blend in" and look pleasant, Pals plants petunias around his hens' cages and keeps the pens clean.
Others go to more extremes.
A recent show by the Seattle Tilth Association featured the latest in chic coop designs. Among the most elaborate was a seven-part cedar structure including a fully-insulated main tower with sand-blasted glass windows decorated with etchings of chicks and hens. The coop has four windows, complete with screen and storm windows, a thatched roof and a swinging drawbridge.
The owner, Ray Nichol, declined to speculate on how much he had spent on the abode but told the Seattle Times , "Chickens could care less. But if you're going to have them as pets, it's not much of a leap to make their habitat something you can enjoy looking at!"
Another important rule, says Seattle Tilth instructor Jennifer Carlson, is to "avoid the boys" - roosters, that is. Roosters are likely to annoy the neighborhood with their crowing while the females stick to what Carlson calls "soothing clucking" sounds.
"I have my cup of coffee out by the coop in the morning and watch the girls," says Carlson, who lives in Seattle. "It's a very nice way to start the day."
As Carlson suggests, many urban chicken owners derive more than eggs and poultry from their feathered pets.
Cook, who kept up to three chickens on her second-floor balcony of her previous apartment, swears her chickens recognize and run toward her when she walks in. Trisha Anderson, who keeps chickens in her suburban lot in Northern California, likes comparing her hens to her co-workers after a frustrating day at the office.
Keel argues chickens can fill a spiritual hole in an increasingly technology-focused society. Keel, himself, sells computers to earn his primary living and produces his Henspas as a side business and hobby.
"People sit in a cubicle or an office and they want to be able to touch something real," he says. "Chickens don't take much time, but if you want you can set up a chair and stare into their eyes all day. There's something therapeutic about a chicken."
Cook, a trance music performer, says it wasn't a technical society, but a Martha Stewart moment that led her to the joys of keeping chickens.
"Martha Stewart is my idol," Cook said about the domestic marketing queen. "When I saw her on TV with her chickens, I realized that is it. That is exactly what I want."
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