Howard families look to backyard chickens for eggs, companionship

The Gallaghers still miss Betty White and wistfully recall how much the Silkie loved to be held.

The hen, who was named after the 90-year-old celebrity because she was "ditsy and really out there" like many of the actress' TV characters, was killed by a fox last fall in the Glenelg family's backyard.

"We normally don't name our chickens so we don't become too attached," said Karinna Gallagher, an IBM employee who works from home and who witnessed the attack but couldn't stop it. "But Betty White was such a flighty bird who didn't care about the pecking order. 'Peck on, whatever,' was her attitude toward the others. We all loved her."

The Gallaghers are among a group of Howard residents who keep backyard chickens as pets, which enthusiasts say is a growing trend. Since Betty's demise, they are now caring for four other hens of exotic-sounding heritage on their 3.5-acre lot, including a buff Orpington and a golden-laced Cochin.

While the family of six feasts regularly on the four eggs a day laid by the hens — Karinna's daughter Mercedes says they "make pancakes taste 10 times better" — the fowl are treated like members of the family and will never be served up for a family meal, Karinna said.

"They all have great dispositions," said Mike Gallagher, a stay-at-home dad to the couple's son and three daughters: Jake, 17; McKenzie 15; Mercedes, 13; and Bronwyn, 10. "And they started laying eggs at 6 months, which was great."

Owning chickens is more than just a hobby, according to owners and experts alike.

"The main reason we are seeing more and more backyard chickens is the same reason we see more and more backyard gardens," said Kathy Zimmerman, agriculture marketing specialist with the Howard County Economic Development Authority. "People want to know where their food is coming from, and that it's fresh and safe.

"But they also want to get back to that connection with the land," she said. "We're only four generations removed from the days when most people had a cow, a pig and some chickens."

McKenzie said she likes to jump on the family's backyard trampoline, and lets the chickens out of their pen to roam the yard and keep her company. Karinna, who doesn't particularly enjoy holding the chickens, loves the "wonderful, comforting sounds they make."

Howard's regulations allow chickens to be kept on residential property in most neighborhoods outside Columbia, said Bob Lalush, a county planner. If the principal use of a property is as a dwelling, the maximum number of chickens allowed by law is eight, he said, and the animals must be kept 200 feet from any neighboring home.

Lalush said members of the planning and zoning office field questions about keeping backyard chickens "all the time."

Kathy Hudson, an Elkridge resident and chicken-keeper, said most people get their information through what she dubs "The Chicken Network," an informal system of chicken owners who share tips and advice.

"I tell them fun, food and composting are some of the major benefits," said Hudson who will give a talk on keeping backyard chickens at GreenFest, an environmental fair scheduled April 14 at Howard Community College. "They follow me, garden with me and give me presents — what else could I want in a pet?" she said.

Skip Darden became a chicken owner two years ago when he was mixing cookie dough one day, realized he had no eggs on hand, and decided to remedy the situation in the future, the Dayton attorney said.

Within days, he had purchased six 4-day-old chicks, and by August of that year they were laying eggs.

"My uncle had chickens and rabbits when I was growing up," said the father of two sons and Glenelg High School graduate who went to school with Karinna Gallagher. "And I thought it would be fun for the family."

A gardener who has won best-in-show at the annual Howard County Fair, Darden likens keeping chickens to caring for a garden, calling it "a great hobby." And he points out that the chickens manage the insect population well enough that he doesn't have to use pesticides.

"The more you interact with them, the more you get to know their personalities," he said. "They serve a purpose, but we still spend time with them. It's my way of keeping us close to the earth."

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