Urban chickens abound

Shhh. Listen carefully around our neighborhood, and you just might hear the clicking and clucking of an emerging subculture.

The Perry family lives in a quaint home on a quiet street near White Rock Lake. Their dog, a graying black Labrador named Ella, greets guests at the front door, but out back, less traditional and more passive pets strut their stuff.  Four 1- to 2-year-old hens curiously peck around the small yard (unimpressed by the comparatively towering canine), pick at bugs, and provide their owners with approximately one egg each per day.

“We always have at least a dozen eggs in the fridge,” Sarah Perry says. “We eat a lot of them, and the kids have learned that what the chickens eat affects the way the eggs taste.” She points to a blooming honeysuckle bush behind the chicken coop, noting that honeysuckles make the eggs taste good, while garlic does not.

The Perrys are hardly an anomaly these days in the White Rock vicinity, or any other urban area. In fact, they are just one of several families in the neighborhood raving about the wonders of home-raised chickens and their eggs.

Sharon Price counts educating her children among the reasons for buying chicks about a year ago. “I wanted the kids to be in touch with their food and where it comes from,” says Price, who has 6- and 8-year-old children (plus one teenager who isn’t very interested in the whole thing, she says).

“There’s something about being able to feed them scraps, watch them grow, and collect the eggs — it’s a great learning experience.”

It’s a contribution to the environment to boot, she says. “The [chicken owners] I know are interested in the sustainability aspect, too; you can cut your carbon footprint a little bit. It’s small, but it makes a difference.”

While the Prices eat most of the eggs and give away the overflow, others have made a business out of harvesting eggs — such as Karrie Nichols, who makes gift boxes out of the naturally colorful eggs and sells them for around $4 per dozen. Whatever their motivation, neighborhood chicken owners share a love of animals and see their feathery friends as far more than a food source.

Bird owner Brenda Sanchez admits she’s near cuckoo over her little cluckers. “Most of us who have them get a little obsessed — once you get them you begin to understand how amazing they are. They make these low, soothing sounds and they have these funny little personalities,” she says. “We nicknamed one ‘puppy’; she will sit on your shoulder or play with the kids on the trampoline.”

Sanchez also tells the story of caring for a sick chicken named Fuzzy: “Sure, we should have just eaten it, but instead I spent $150 at the vet,” Sanchez says laughingly. “Fuzzy had something wrong with her eye, and my daughter was so upset, thinking she would die, so I had to take care of it. We kept Fuzzy in the house and nursed her back to health, giving her antibiotics and eye drops for a week. I even snuck the bird into the elementary school one day because my daughter was the only one who could get the drops in.”

Despite the treatment, Fuzzy went blind in one eye and earned a new name — “Dead Eye” — from the kids. “She occasionally trips up or falls in a hole, but she’s alive!”

Sanchez’s neighbors, Bill and Barbara Katz, owned birds even before the city chicken movement started to take wing. “They all have names — Obama, Cream Cheese, California, Fajita — our daughters named them,” Bill Katz says.

“A hen will produce eggs for two or three years. Once they stop, usually a farmer would end it, but I just don’t have the heart to,” he says.

Sarah Perry, who initially bought her chickens because, though she had rural instincts, “couldn’t keep a horse in my yard”, agrees she wouldn’t have the heart to kill any of her hens.

In Dallas, the rule regarding chickens is “girls only” — no roosters. Other than that, poultry is fair game.

“We get a complaint about a rooster, and we’ll go issue a citation — the roosters are noisy and you can’t have them,” says Kent Robertson, Division Manager for Animal Services. But he hasn’t received many chicken-oriented complaints.

“We basically enforce chapter seven of the city code, which pertains to animals. As long as there are no instances of abuse, free running or flying chickens, or failure to maintain the premises, it is very seldom that we see any problems.”

Keeping the roosters off a homestead can get tricky, though. “It’s hard to tell if they are male or female when they are babies,” Sharon Price says. She ended up with a rambunctious rooster, which her family had to send to live on a farm.

Most say the chickens are relatively low maintenance, but owners offer a couple of tips for their responsible raising: “Pay attention to the breed descriptions,” Sarah Perry says. “We have two Barred Rocks, the black and white ones, and two Buff Orpingtons who, true to their breed descriptions, are maternal and homey and content to lie around. We had some before that laid beautiful, colorful eggs, but they were mean, so we had to give them away.”

Keep them cooped, Brenda Sanchez says. “These animals are fairly easy to care for, but you have to be there to lock them up at night or they will get eaten.”

Adds Bill Katz, “On a farm, they would at least have a rooster around to help protect them, but in the city, they are more vulnerable.”

Have a garden or a deck? Build a fence. “They ate everything in our garden at first,” Perry says. “When we let them roam, they always wanted on the back porch so they could look in the window at us, but they pooped all over it, so we built a fence to keep them back.”

All-in-all the unlikely pets ask for little and offer significant benefits in the way of fertilizer, bug control and breakfast food. On top of that, they lend their owners an endearing quirkiness.

The “chicken culture” is more than a hobby or fad, Katz says, but a funky way of life that sets the chicken people apart from the crowd.

“Most people bring wine to parties; we bring a dozen eggs — you get used to it.”

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