Like a fresh egg, Kate's backyard hobby could land her in the frying pan. Under her town's zoning ordinance, keeping live chickens is prohibited — and Kate, an otherwise law-abiding citizen, has a half-dozen hens living in a coop behind her home. "They're so pretty. They look like toddlers wearing rumba pants."
So far, town officials haven't uncovered her secret. "They've never come snooping around. God forbid, it would be awful to relocate them," says Kate, who asked to be identified only by her first name. She, her husband and their 12-year-old daughter, Kiki, consider their chickens pets, a roster that includes Mimsy, Mandi, Henny-Penny and Hermesia.
"Once you name them, you will never eat them for dinner," Kate says. In fact, the family's morning ritual revolves around "the girls."
"My husband hooked up three video monitors near the coop," says Kate. "We have our cup of coffee in the morning, and we turn on 'the chicken channel' and watch the hens emerge from the hen house."
But one person's pet is another's person's poultry.
Many Connecticut towns, including Hartford, West Hartford and Middletown, consider poultry to be livestock and prohibit residents from keeping fowl. Authorities say noise and health concerns over trumpeting roosters and unfettered chickens combing city streets justify keeping such restrictions in place.
But zoning and health code bans haven't squelched the backyard chicken movement. The resurgence has hatched dozens of websites, a national magazine — Backyard Poultry — and leagues of chicken fanciers who enjoy poultry in motion and gush about their "girls," including the South Connecticut/Westchester Backyard Poultry group, which has more than 100 members.
Statewide, the number of households who've opted to try their hand at raising backyard chickens, legally or illegally, has soared in the last two years, says Michael J. Darre, professor of animal science at the University of Connecticut at Storrs. Darre's two-hour seminars on tending chickens have proved increasingly popular, playing to packed houses throughout New England and Connecticut, and drawing enthusiasts and skeptics alike.
Credit the heightened interest to the nutritional resurrection of the egg, the "locavore" movement, the clamor for fresh eggs, and parents who want their children to better understand where food comes from, Darre says.
The egg — one per day is fine, according to most nutritionists — is the protein source by which all other proteins are compared, says Darre. "It's got everything except vitamin C."
"It's probably going to cost you more to own the bird and take care of it than to go and buy a dozen eggs," Darre says.
But for Kate's family, the sense of self-sufficiency associated with keeping a passel of hens is priceless. "It's knowing if the world stops grinding tomorrow, and we couldn't go shopping at Stop & Shop, we could feed ourselves," she says.
Darre estimates the population of backyard chickens in the state at "several thousand." As more municipalities rescind their laws, the number of chicken fanciers and their flocks has grown. Last year, New Haven lifted its ban and now allows residents to keep up to five hens, "but no roosters because of the noise," Darre says. But not to worry; hens will lay eggs even if there's no rooster around.
There's also been a rise in the number of 4-H youths raising poultry.
Nationally, New York City, San Francisco, Seattle and Baltimore are among the cities that have embraced the urban chicken, while Boston, Providence, Albany and several towns throughout Connecticut have not.
Cooing And Purring
Kate, by necessity, keeps her chickens on the sly. But just a few miles away, John and Jennifer Aldieri are on the right side of the law, despite having eight laying hens. Their backyard flock lives openly in a sleek, vinyl-top coop outside their home in Southington, where it's legal for residents keep up to a dozen hens.
Jennifer Aldieri can reel off the reasons why chickens aren't appropriate city dwellers. She was of the opinion that chickens were "dirty, smelly and noisy."
For years, she said no to her husband's request to keep a couple of chickens. Eventually she relented. "He wore me down," she says, and he and their two children bought three chicks for about $15.
Now, three years later, keeping chickens is more her hobby than her husband's. "I was very wrong; I admit it," says Jennifer, standing near the dozen hens she's acquired and the nicely appointed chicken coop, which John, a Southington firefighter, constructed using a $75 dog house purchased on Craigs List and a wire dog kennel he found in the road. Fifty pounds of feed, which costs about $15, will feed a dozen chickens for 10 days.
Chickens, as Jennifer discovered, are even-tempered and sociable. Content to coo and purr, they rarely raise their voices above a hum. The occasional cackle issued by Buffy, the chicken-in-charge, is almost always a warning to her sister hens that a seagull or hawk is nearby.
Not only do the hens provide the main ingredient for omelets, frittatas and quiche, but they make short work of table scraps, gobbling leftover spaghetti, strawberries and lettuce, and they annihilate the insect population.
"We haven't picked a tick off the dogs since we had them," Jennifer says. Before she got her flock, she asked neighbors if they would be OK with it. They offered no objections, so the family bought three Rhode Island Reds. When they proved too aggressive with each other, she began researching the more than 200 varieties of gallus domesticus and settled on a collection of barred rocks, Wyandottes, Americaunas and sizzles.
In the winter, egg-laying slows down, and the "girls" become a bit fussy about where they put their feet. "They don't like to walk in the snow," Jennifer says. And once they stop laying eggs permanently, Jennifer vows: "they'll still be our pets."
"I call them 'welfare hens,' " says Darre. "They still get fed, even though they've stopped laying eggs."
A Pecking Order
Kim Neild of East Windsor grew up in a condominium in Cheshire. Three years ago, she acquired three guinea fowl to "take care of the ticks" in her backyard. The guineas' walk-in house looks "like a dog house on stilts," says Neild, an administrative assistant at Connecticut Children's Medical Center in Hartford
In February, Neild decided to add to her brood and bought five chickens. "I raised them from day-old chicks," she says.
"I've had cats and dogs all my life," says Neild, "and let me tell you, chickens are a lot easier to take care of."
Backyard chickens must be properly cared for, says Dr. Mary Jane Lis, state veterinarian for the Connecticut Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Regulation and Inspection. "They're not a push-button animal that gives eggs."
And proper care involves making sure the nest boxes are dry, checking their range for noxious or poisonous plants, and counting calories.
"Just like people on a rich diet, chickens can get gout because they're fed too well," says Lis.
Kate's covert chicken-keeping has yielded unexpected benefits — "You can't feel stressed after a day of work when you have a relaxed hen sitting in your lap," she says — and even insights into the human condition.
"I've learned a lot about people from watching hens. There's a pecking order. There's always a righteous leader, and there's always a bully."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun