Last February following a snowfall, 7-year-old Presley Goins took her chicken, Blueberry, sledding.
Presley’s mom, Alexa Felts, snapped a photo of the little girl lying on her back in the sled, both arms supporting Blueberry, who stood on her human friend’s chest. As the pair slid down a slight slope together, Presley stared up at the chicken’s beak, her face rapt. Blueberry, not a feather askew, appeared completely unruffled.
Moments like that are exactly why Presley’s grandmother, Patricia Felts, fought for three years to persuade the Aberdeen City Council to allow residents to own hens within city limits. The legislation, which permits up to six hens per half acre of land, took effect Aug. 16.
“Chickens make great emotional support animals,” said Patricia Felts, who owns seven of the birds.
“They use chickens in nursing homes. They have been good for my grandkids, especially since COVID-19 has been keeping everyone at home. You can sit there and watch them and interact with them, and it’s amazing how calm that can make you feel. Now, the girls are focused on something other than not being in school. They feed the chickens and water them and help socialize them. They hold them and love them. If they could bring the chickens inside to sleep with them at night, they would.”
Since the pandemic descended on Maryland in the spring of 2020, activities related to sustainability and in particular to in-home food production have experienced an upsurge of popularity. Packets of vegetable seeds flew off the shelves. There were monthslong delays in purchasing such major appliances as refrigerators and ranges, and a nationwide shortage of canning jars and lids.
And increasing numbers of Marylanders began experimenting with raising their own flocks.
Tractor Supply in Fallston couldn’t keep enough fluffy baby chickens, ducks and turkeys in its two high-rise coops to satisfy the public demand, according to Katelyn Mosmiller, a team leader for the store, which sells poultry annually between March and September.
“Last year, we sold twice as many birds as we did in a normal pre-COVID year,” she said. “For a while, I couldn’t get enough chickens in. This year, the demand has remained really high.”
More than 279 poultry premises (including backyard flocks) are registered in Harford County, according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture, or 3.3% of the total establishments statewide.
A Facebook group Phelps started called Aberdeen Backyard Chickens had 148 members in August. By April, the group had grown by 64% to 230 members.
According to state officials, the number of poultry premises in Maryland increased 26.4% during the pandemic, from 6,770 as of July 1, 2019, to 8,561 in April.
The vast majority of poultry premises — 88.9% — are small backyard flocks where Marylanders are raising their own chickens, ducks and turkeys.
Individual municipalities make their own rules regarding the keeping of livestock.
In Annapolis, residents can have up to five hens (no roosters), but only if the neighbors with whom they share property lines sign off. The city of Baltimore allows up to four chickens as long as the coop is at least 15 feet away from the nearest home. Prince George’s County generally prohibits all animals that aren’t customary household pets, though there are exceptions.
In Aberdeen, chickens had been banned since the 1950s. Opponents who testified last year feared that backyard flocks would tarnish the city’s image and would make it more difficult to turn down requests from residents wishing to own other unconventional pets.
The opponents argued that there was no shortage of cheap eggs. Then the pandemic hit.
“When we moved into our new home last May, I wanted to make our new property more purposeful and self-sustaining,” said Laurena Fringo, 37, of Havre de Grace.
“We all got a real glimpse of what it would be like when you couldn’t buy food in the store. The shelves were pretty bare. My store ran out of eggs, and sometimes I had a hard time finding milk.
“And even when you could find everything you needed, if you were self-sustaining and grew your own food at home, you wouldn’t have to risk going out to the store.”
Some may debate which comes first in the hearts of flock owners: the chickens, or the eggs.
Style maven Martha Stewart is often credited with helping revive the interest in backyard chickens nationwide. Beginning in the 1980s, her publications showcased rare, heritage breeds that laid eggs ranging from white to a deep brown, from speckled olive to bright copper to robin’s egg blue.
“They’re natural Easter eggs,” said Fringo, who has started selling some eggs from her three dozen chickens and ducks to friends.
Suddenly, owning chickens became a status symbol, as chronicled in a 2009 article in The New Yorker magazine, “The Rise of the It Bird,” in which the writer Susan Orlean chronicled her own obsession with her feathered friends.
But there’s no question that for many poultry owners, the birds are their pets.
They name them. They throw birthday parties for their flocks. When the birds become ill, the owners stay up all night, feeding them by hand. Fringo’s favorite chicken, Henny, sits on her shoulder for their daily walk to the mailbox at the end of a long driveway.
Flock owners report being charmed by the birds’ often quirky personalities.
“A few years ago, we had a chicken who would knock on our front door with her beak every single day,” said Sarah Hindle, 35, who keeps 40 chickens on her property outside Aberdeen.
“One day, when my grandma was over, we heard a knock. My grandma opens the door. It’s the chicken, and she just lets it in the house.
“‘Grandma what are you doing?’ we asked.
“And she said: ‘Well, it knocked.’ ”
Hindle initially resisted having chickens, saying she’d been afraid of birds ever since she was a kid and her friend’s pet parakeet flew into her hair.
But her daughter, Emmalyn, now 8, begged. And her husband thought that having a pet that makes breakfast would be cool. About five years ago, Hindle succumbed.
“And then all of a sudden, chicken math kicked in,” she said. “And now, I’m the chicken lady.”
“Chickens are like potato chips,” explained Hindle, who is in the process of getting certified to run her own hatchery.
“You can’t have just two. I originally bought four babies. Then, when I was buying food for them, there were two that were dying, and I had to rescue them. Then I saw one that was a different color, but they only sold them in twos. And then I found one that lays blue eggs.
“I started out with four chickens, and now I have 40. That’s chicken math.”
Jennifer Dorsey, 52, was in the Fallston Tractor Supply this April supplementing the flock she keeps at her home in nearby Kingsville, just across the Baltimore County line.
Dorsey has found that the cheeping balls of fluff are a perfect teaching tool for her students at A World of Friends, the preschool she runs in Baltimore. As a bonus, many of the eggs she collects from the 28 chickens, four ducks and two turkeys go home to the families of her 4-year-old pupils.
“Some of these kids are really sheltered,” Dorsey said. “They don’t get outside much.
“They don’t know what a horse or a sheep is. They don’t know that a cow says ‘moo.’ I take them on hikes. I show them nests and teach them that they can eat dandelions. They are very, very interested. If you show them birds, soon they start to notice other things: flowers and plants and bees.
“Three little chickens can rock their world.”