Food - Chicks in the city

The fresh appeal of urban hens

Last December, Amy and Jason Cattanach arrived at their local post office for a special delivery. It was a Friday afternoon, one that they had been planning from the comfort of their Decatur home for months. Though they were thrilled that this day had come, the post office hardly noticed. “They handed the package over like a box of shoes,” Amy laughs. Inside the cardboard box were 26 newborn chicks, mail-ordered through the Internet, bunched together in a noisy bedlam of chirping and fluffy activity. After splitting the chicks with a neighbor and relative, their family of five now keeps a flock of seven hens in the back yard.

Humans started domesticating chickens in Southeast Asia, somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 years ago. With respect to that history, Amy and Jason aren’t doing anything new, though it is something of a fresh approach. Keeping a flock in the back yard means that eggs travel a short walk to the kitchen table, often the same week they’re laid. Compared with our disastrous infrastructure of factory farms and semi-trucks that writers such as Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser have been critiquing in recent years, the urban hen trend makes perfect sense for folks who are trying to eat more local and seasonal food. It is, though, a bit more commitment than putting a couple of tomato plants in the ground.

Because they arrived in December, Amy and Jason kept the young chicks in their heated garage to keep them safe from the cold and opportunistic predators. Wild animals such as raccoons and red-tailed hawks, as well as domesticated cats and dogs, can make a quick meal of a small chick, and remain something of a threat even after they’re full-grown.

A well-made chicken coop, though, should provide shelter from both weather and predators. While the chicks grew inside the garage, Amy and Jason converted their children’s play fort into a new home for the hens. Among other modifications, they added wire for a protected run and a few wooden nesting beds. The process went smoothly, Amy explained, except for some protests from the kids. “They weren’t ready to give up the swings. So, now we have a combination — chicken-coop swing-set.”

Rather than build or convert a coop, Kevin Dawson and Rachel Stubblefield of Ormewood Park decided to purchase an Eglu, a chic manufactured coop designed by a group of former British art students, for their backyard flock. Thanks to some good tree cover, they’ve had only one run-in with a predator. “I heard that tell-tale screech of a red-tail hawk,” Kevin remembers. With the panic of a protective parent, he ran outside to spook the bird right before it set talons in Blanche, one their rare Black Java hens.

Magazines such as Backyard Poultry and Mother Earth News contend that certain breeds of chickens, such as Kevin and Rachel’s Black Javas, have been pushed to the brink of extinction by the breeding practices of industrialized farming. Though they mature slowly, the Java chickens are an old breed of hardy foragers, instinctually able to live off the land and resist inclement weather that newer factory breeds could never survive. By foraging, the Javas depend less on chicken feed, a real plus for urban farmers who aren’t exactly full-time. They also happen to produce a large, rich brown egg.

Talk to anyone with a backyard flock and, eventually, the conversation will come back to eggs. Hens can mature for as long as six months before laying their first egg and it can take even longer before consistent laying of larger ones. Kevin Dawson recalls the experience vividly, of weeks spent checking the coop for eggs, waiting patiently, and then checking again. When it was finally time for Mabel to lay her first, though, she let him know. “She started wandering, looking confused and upset,” Kevin says. Mabel eventually retreated to the nest of the Eglu, where they had placed a ceramic egg as a hopeful suggestion. When she emerged from the coop, Kevin and Rachel proudly retrieved their first egg — a small, brown misshapen one known as a pullet egg.

Now that the flock lay constantly, Kevin and Rachel are happy to find a way to fit eggs into almost every meal, whether that means poaching a few or whipping up a rich, fresh custard. As for the difference between his backyard eggs and the store-bought variety, Kevin says that it isn’t even close. “It’s like the difference between half and half and skim milk.”

Like the Cattanach family, Kevin and Rachel have formed a tight bond with their flock, even naming some of the birds after their grandmothers. Kevin admits that the birds are a bit distant and standoffish, but he also proudly acknowledges that he hasn’t clipped their wings. The flock could leave their back yard anytime but, he explains, “They always come home to roost.”

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