If you asked Josh Smith where breakfast comes from, the Baltimore teen would likely say, "the girls." That would be Sugar and Spice, his family's pet chickens.
Josh's mother, Liz, got the girls by mail order in April and set up a coop for them in the backyard of the family's Hamilton house, between a beehive and rows of planted vegetables. Josh, 13, and his brother, Hooper, 7, delight in feeding the ginger-colored birds treats of worms and melon and collecting the big, brown eggs that come two a day.
"This is how it's supposed to be," Liz Smith said as she nestled and stroked a softly clucking Sugar. "The eggs are really delicious. Though I don't think I'll ever eat chicken again after having them as pets."
The Smiths join an increasing number of urban farmers in Baltimore and around the nation who are growing their own food to save money or to control what goes into it. Or they want to better connect with their environment. Some people have chickens as pets, but many also want the eggs or meat, or a lesson for the kids about the food chain.
And though owning chickens in Baltimore is legal, many people are nonetheless keeping mum, lest they ruffle their neighbors' feathers. That has made keeping track of chickens harder for officials, who have rules to address at least some of the potential health problems from waste, not to mention noise and smell. State and city officials can't say for sure how many birds live in Maryland's urban and suburban areas, though Baltimore is working on new zoning laws to more thoughtfully account for urban agriculture and, perhaps, draw some of the growers out of the closet, er, coop.
State officials have registered 31 households in Baltimore and 626 in five surrounding counties - that includes chickens, pigeons and doves. In Baltimore, a multiple-pet permit is required from the Bureau of Animal Control, but only four residents have bothered. (Smith said the process isn't too cumbersome, though it means visits from city officers, advertising and an $80 fee.)
City health officials said they rarely get complaints that might prompt them to look for scofflaws.
Meanwhile, the backyard chicken movement has become a nationwide phenomenon that has given rise to Web sites, magazines and even inspired a documentary, Mad City Chickens.
One of the fowl Web sites, thecitychicken.com, lists 38 states and 145 cities that have laws addressing chickens. Those that allow them include San Francisco, Atlanta, Minneapolis and New York; most allow three to five birds in a coop not too close to neighbors, which can be the most difficult issue in crowded urban areas. Washington, D.C., does not allow chickens.
Baltimore allows four to be kept in movable coops at least 25 feet from any residence. The chickens must be fed, watered, sheltered and kept clean. No roosters, ducks, geese or turkeys are allowed.
Marilyn Bassford, Maryland's longtime poultry registration coordinator, has seen the rise in interest. She counted at least 300 new names on her list this year, bringing the total of registered flocks to 2,300 statewide. There's no way to know how many ignored or didn't know about the registration law.
Bassford points out that chickens are big business in Maryland - particularly on the Eastern Shore, where some of the industry's principal names operate - and the state wants to keep tabs on backyard operations in case of a health emergency such as an avian influenza outbreak. Most people say they keep backyard flocks as a hobby or as pets, she said.
"I think with each generation, we get further away from the farm," she said. "Many people used to be able to say they had a grandma or uncle with a farm but not so much anymore. People want to get back to that a little."
Baltimore officials, recognizing that times have changed, are rewriting the city's 38-year-old, 250-page book of zoning regulations. Currently, the only reference to chickens (and rabbits) is for butchers. Laurie Feinberg, in charge of the effort in the city's planning department, said officials want clear and understandable rules when it comes to urban agriculture.
The revised rules will focus on impacts to neighbors, such as backyard efforts that become commercial enterprises. But animals may not require any additional regulating. A draft of the revisions is expected in the fall.
"We aren't interested creating an issue where none exists," she said. "We had even joked about finally taking out the reference to chickens and rabbits, but maybe not."
Indeed. Interest in chickens in the city and suburbs does appear to be rising. Andrew Rose of Baldwin read The Omnivore's Dilemma, which touts the benefits of locally grown foods, for his book club a few months ago and was inspired.
He also has a neighbor with chickens and enjoys getting the occasional free egg. He got plans from a Web site and began trapping and releasing raccoons farther from his yard. He's almost finished his own coop.
"My family is interested in raising the birds for their eggs, not meat," he said. "My kids will name the chickens, and it is pretty hard to eat a pet that has a name."
Though some people say chicken feed and waste attracts rats, and the chickens - or illegal roosters, more likely - are noisy, Michelle Brown is happy to live next to the birds. She lives in Upperco and enjoys the cackling, crowing and "ambience" of chickens owned by neighbors. Chickens, she says, imply, "You're in the country."
After reading books and magazine on the subject, she said her family is ready for its own chickens.
Back in Baltimore, Smith said newcomers may discover that chickens require a significant investment of time and money.
Start-up costs were about $1,000, which leads her to joke that each egg will cost $14 for perhaps as the long as the chickens live, eight years or more. The birds have to be fed and watered daily, and occasionally cleaned. Waste needs scooping to control odor, the coop needs moving to avoid lawn damage, and hands and eggs need washing to control a possible salmonella outbreak.
But the affection, as with any pet, goes both ways, Smith says. And Josh adds that the eggs are like none found at the grocery.
"They're kind of sweet," he said. "I like mine fried with bacon on the side."
* urbanchickens.org * urbanchickenunderground