Pip, a gleaming, black, long-tailed Bantam rooster, is no ordinary chicken. He likes to climb the green-runged ladder of the family playset and slide down the lemon-yellow slide; he's treated to table scraps—like shrimp tails and birthday cake—and gets carried about the yard like a king. Because, you see, Pip lives not on a farm, but in a Baltimore County backyard. And he's not alone.
Backyard chickens are so this decade—cheaper to feed than a pot-bellied pig, more practical than Paris Hilton's Chihuahua, and appealing to our collective leaning toward all things organic, home-grown, and economically sound.
The city of Portland, OR, has so many chickens that two savvy women created Just Us Hens, the nation's first chicken-sitting service. Last October, a town near Boston hosted a "Tour de Coops" of local backyard chicken houses. Today, circulation at Backyard Poultry magazine is up dramatically, to 73,000 subscribers. And the trend has landed in Baltimore.
"I think more people should do it," says Charlotte L'Esperance, 43, of the city's Lake Walker neighborhood. She and her husband own a furniture design house, Gunnar Designs, where they fashioned a one-of-a-kind metal coop that resembles the end of an Airstream travel trailer.
"My husband grew up on a farm, and we would talk about how sheltered kids are today," she says. "They don't know where their food comes from." She notes that her 10-year-old daughter was once unaware that bacon came from a pig.
"We thought that owning chickens would be a good way for her to see that food is not just from the grocery store."
In Maryland, chickens can legally live on more than one acre in Baltimore County, or behind a row house in Baltimore City, which quietly passed its own urban chicken ordinance in October 2007.
Large-scale chicken farming is one of Maryland's top agricultural commodities, and quaint, pint-sized flocks are quickly becoming a top hobby, too. More than 3,000 backyard flocks exist throughout the state. Roughly 200 are in Baltimore County, which saw a 25 percent increase in registrations last year, according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture. Twelve flocks have been issued permits in Baltimore City—eight of them in 2010.
And those are just the birds that have been counted. According to the Maryland Department of Agriculture, many owners are unaware of the requirement to register with the State to help prevent the spread of rare, but serious, poultry diseases, like avian flu. It's safe to assume that dozens of illegal chickens are fertilizing flower beds throughout the Baltimore area, their proper documentation as scarce as hen's teeth.
In his suburban kingdom, Pip spends a few hours each day eating ticks from the grass, "free-ranging" between the pea-gravel patio and the two-tone cedar garage with a half dozen regal-looking hens. Some are an attractive shade of auburn, sun-kissed with blonde highlights. One looks as if the tips of her silver feathers have been dusted in charcoal.
These are not the commercial grade, big-breasted, grocery store chickens that produce the eggs found in supermarkets. Backyard chickens, which can be purchased at local feed stores, are usually what they call "fancy" breeds, with their multi-colored feathers, distinctive combs, and beautiful eggs in soft colors like buff, teal, moss, and peony. (Martha Stewart was so enamored of the hues she designed an entire color palette—Araucana Sage for the dining room walls!—based on her own backyard flock.)
Handled since birth, many of these chickens sport family-friendly dispositions and are easy to pick up and pet. They've been known to watch TV alongside their humans. One city chicken is so often brought indoors and indulged that she made it into the formal family portrait.
The birds are also renowned for their comedic antics.
"I've even had one that followed me around the yard like a dog," says Pip's owner, Sheila Muccio, a 45-year-old real estate appraiser who lives in Relay, near Patapsco State Park, with her husband and two children. "Just watch them. They're addictive."
And health industry advocates claim that backyard eggs may be nutritionally superior, if the chickens are fed a diet rich in folic acids, amino acids, and omega-3 fatty acids.
"I went through a period when I was really grossed out by eggs, especially the ones that came from factory farms," Muccio says. But she is so confident in the quality of her home-laid eggs, she keeps them unwashed and unrefrigerated on her counter in cooler weather, unconcerned about what diseases they could be harboring.
"I've never gotten sick on my eggs, and I make raw eggnog every Christmas for 70 or 80 people," she says.
Cole Muccio bursts from the house, all parts of his eight-year-old body in motion but for his hand that gently cradles a greenish speckled egg. The Muccio family's six hens lay three-to-five eggs every day on a 21-day cycle in the former Far Niente wine carrier that serves as a nesting box in their hand-hewn coop.
Cole plays with the birds, flinging them over his shoulder, building them forts, and calling them names like Fluffy and Sleepy Spots. Both he and his sister Tess, 14, are encyclopedic in their knowledge of chickens: how to hatch the peeps, coddle them to adulthood, and feed them with a combination of grain, corn mash, table scraps, and grit (tiny pebbles that aid digestion). They are also well-versed in the lifecycle of a chicken, aware that age or illness, or more likely, a fox or dog or hawk, will get to one of the birds eventually. (Barring an unnatural act, a chicken can live to be about eight years old.)
Loss, it seems, is one of the downsides to keeping chickens. Even in the city, raccoons artfully unhinge hooks and latches to steal into the hen house in the dark of night. Weasels are particularly macabre: they decapitate them, drink the blood, and often leave the carcass behind.
The chickens are not even safe from each other. The term "pecking order" derives from the chicken coop, where stronger birds attack if they sense weakness.
Roosters, too, can be problematic, and are notorious for fighting one another, which is why small flock owners rarely keep more than one. (Not to mention that, contrary to popular opinion, roosters crow throughout the day, not just at dawn.)
To alleviate some of the negatives, roosters are banned altogether in Baltimore City. (Hens always lay eggs, even without a rooster around to fertilize them.) But city residents are able to keep up to four hens in a clean, moveable pen (to avoid the buildup of airborne pathogens), as long as it stays 25 feet from a neighboring residence. The birds must have access to food, water, shade, shelter, and veterinary care.
Roosters are not banned in Baltimore County, but housing chickens on less than an acre is verboten.
This rankles Jason James, 29, who created a Facebook page, "Chicken Revolution," to protest the county requirement. "There isn't a single compelling reason why one would need an acre of property to safely and humanely raise a small flock of laying hens," he says, adding that noise and odor, the most common neighborly concerns, are non-existent with a small flock. At press time, James's page had 140 followers.
Another website, charmcitychickens.com, proposes simple legislation supporting up to six birds for suburbanites with smaller lots, but so far, there's not been a peep from county officials.
This spring, outlying feed stores—like Westminster's Tractor Supply Co. and The Mill stores in Hereford, Whiteford, and Bel Air—expect to be brimming with new chicken farmers ogling day-old hatchlings and asking about which birds will mature into the prettiest hens.
"I can see, for somebody in the city, having chickens would give them a little bit of that country life feel in a small amount of space," says Kelly Vaughn, former retail manager of The Mill of Hereford, where, from late March until early June, Rhode Island Reds, Black and Red Sex-links, White Leghorns, Barred Rocks, and the colored-egg laying Ameraucanas and Araucanas are sold for roughly $3 each.
A baby chicken starter kit would run about $35 and should include warming lamps, mini-feeders, pine shavings, and feed. A plastic storage tub works for raising hatchlings indoors, where they can be easily handled, fed, and kept safe from varying temperatures and prey. Chickens are ready for an outdoor coop when fully-feathered.
Coops range from plastic igloos to elaborate English Tudor replicas with prices that go from around $300 to $2,000 or more depending on the size and "amenities," like attached runs and removable perch boxes. But some crafty owners have been known to rehab discarded playhouses for their chicks.
The idea of chickens as the family pet is certainly quaint, but as we all know, chickens are not only bred for eggs, they're bred for their meat, too. Eating a backyard chicken may not be for everyone, but it's not forbidden, either.
Eliza Gould, 35, lives on a Monkton farm, where her children—ages nine, seven, and four—distinguish the edible chickens from the laying hens.
"The kids call them meat birds," says Gould, whose own parents began raising chickens when she was a teen. "The egg-laying birds are the ones that have names. Those are the ones the kids pick up and carry around."
Chickens intended for eating tend to do quite a bit of eating themselves, about two pounds of feed for each pound they gain. But it's dinner at the back door for those with the inclination to slaughter and dress their birds at home, which is perfectly legal in Maryland as long as the chickens are consumed by the family and not sold for profit.
Gould says she's killed, de-feathered, and gutted her Cornish-Rock hybrid chickens at home—once, as her children peered through a telescope from an upstairs window. But she prefers the two-hour drive to a Lancaster County farm that will slaughter the birds for $2.50 a piece. The farmer's daughters greet her at one side of the barn, in their Mennonite hats, long skirts, and bloody aprons. She picks up the cleaned and gutted birds about half an hour later, at the other end of the barn.
The long, squawking trek is worth it, she says. "I just don't like doing it," she says.
Melissa Sobolewski, 20, of Parkton, also raises meat birds, Bantam Cornish Game Hens, for show. A chicken enthusiast her whole life, she joined a 4-H chicken program at the age of 14 and began to show the birds. Now she is a judge's assistant as well, and a member of a handful of local poultry breeders and fanciers associations. As a result, Sobolewski doles out invaluable chicken advice. Important to remember, she says, is that chickens are prone to disease when under stress, and they stress easily without proper care. So Sobolewski recommends that the birds have plenty of clean food, clean water, and good clean . . . entertainment?
"They can get bored and anxious and antsy. That's when they start to pick at each other," she says. She routinely hangs lettuce leaves just out of reach of the birds. "They like to jump for it," she says. "They need an enrichment activity."
Perhaps that is why backyard chickens—pecking at toys in the sand box, watching TV with their families, and sunning themselves on the doghouse roof— are flourishing throughout Baltimore. And perhaps why Pip is loving life in the Muccio's backyard.