Chicks in the city Backyard Poultry making a comeback
The street in Decatur is your typical suburbia with children playing in a nearby park and couples walking their dog. But walk into Anne-Marie Anderson’s backyard, and enter a pseudo-farm in the middle of a city.
A sign on the fence reads, “Beware of Chickens.”
“Come hang out with some chickens,” she says as she opens the fence and leads the way. “If you don’t hang out with chickens, you don’t know what it is all about.”
To the left, a layer of hay covers the floor of small hen house with a little doggie-door. Two eggs lay in a basket in the corner.
But Anderson’s 18 chickens aren’t cooped up in their house. They are roaming around the sizable terrain, digging into the fallen leaves. Following Anderson’s young daughter, Scarlet, all the chickens scream and flap their colorful wings to get across a stream. Glenda, one of the bigger chickens, has to waddle across the water.
“Here, here chick, chicks,” Anderson clucks in her British accent while holding out some chicken scratch in her hands. The birds rustle over, cocking their heads.
“It’s very nice to hang out with a cup of coffee and watch the chickens running around clucking,” Anderson said. “They exude general contentment.”
Anderson and her family are just some of the growing number of city dwellers that have decided to keep chickens in their backyards. The exact number of city chickens is unclear but just over two thousand “backyard poultry buffs” have joined the Atlanta Backyard Poultry Meetup group, that plans monthly meet-up events for conversations with “eggsperts,” and membership to the “Backyard Chickens” site has now grown to just under 200,000. Whether it is for their child’s enjoyment or for their family’s health, these urbanities have decided to color Atlanta’s city landscape with the wild feathers of their backyard pets, causing many city officials to rework their ordinances.
“It’s coming up at pretty much every town and city across America,” Patricia Foreman, author of the book “City Chicks,” said. “What is becoming evident and emerging to the forefront … is that people are realizing how charming they are and that they do add a lot to the urban landscape.”
Foreman can quite easily discuss chickens with you for hours. From her view, this trend has been evolving for a while, within the broader shift and new embrace of local food.
“Whoever controls your food supply controls you,” Foreman said. “That’s an ancient poultry proverb.”
Anderson agreed that the control is a significant reason for owning chickens.
“Personally, I am very concerned about very large corporations having total control of my food supply because they can do anything they want to it whether I agree to it or not,” Anderson said.
With the controversies about GMOs and the nutritional value in consuming your own food, Foreman said people are turning to new ways to control their own food.
“A lot of people are turning to their backyards and saying, ‘You know, we aren’t lacking land to grow food in,” Foreman said. “We are lacking a different paradigm. We need a new vision of how to produce our food.”
People have now discovered the chicken’s role as a backyard employer, Foreman said. They are bio-mass recyclers, insecticide-ers, food suppliers, fertilizer producers and, Foreman adds, blood pressure reducers.
”First you get chickens. Then, you fall in love. And then, you learn how to employ them,” Foreman said. “They truly are pets with benefits.”
Those benefits transcend the realm of health for chicken owner and founder of Ziegler Homestead Services — a company that helps transforms backyards into “productive and sustainable homesteads” — Joey Zeigler.
“[It’s interesting] how much your family can enjoy it and how it can inherently bring people together,” Zeigler said. “Food security and building food heritage really creates defacto communities.”
Ask any passersby and they know of Zeigler and his elaborate garden of crops and coops. Zeigler said having six chickens makes him spend more time outside which in turn builds a tight-knit neighborhood. A lot of the community building, Zeigler said, stems from the pet aspect of owning chickens: “Chicken T.V.” as he calls it.
No matter the futility of Chicken T.V., the trend is very indicative of Atlanta’s character.
“We are in an agrarian state by tradition so it’s already in and around the edges,” Zeigler said. “A lot of it is just our agriculture heritage.”
Walter Reeves, or the “Georgia Gardener” — one of the most respected garden gurus in the Southeast agrees with Zeiglar. He believes this rural retreat is in Atlanta’s blood and is more of a “psychological phenomenon.”
“In the south, we are not that far removed from a rural agrarian side,” Reeves said. “A lot of people in Atlanta remember the comfort of being on the farm.”
Anderson, who teaches chicken-keeping classes at the Wylde Center, said many of her clients want chickens because of the nostalgia. They remember their grandparents’ chickens and want to go back to those roots. She said these pets have become a hip, fun and low-cost hobby that also act as garden helpers. That nice combination is a “win-win” situation in cities.
As pets, they don’t require a whole lot of up-keep, Anderson said. As long as you clean out the coop and give the chickens their feed, they are always happy, she said. In some ways, it may be easier than to keep than other pets, like dogs.
“I think that’s the really nice thing,” Anderson said. “They fit very well in cities.”
Some don’t agree. Ordinances across Atlanta limit the number of chickens one can own and some counties have an outright ban on chicken keeping.
Bradford Townsend, the planning and zoning director for the city of Roswell, said that one chicken-keeper in his city about four years ago changed the way that his city’s government treated the trend. At one point, the chicken-keeper claimed to have over 100 chickens in his small, single-family lot.
“[It was] to the point where it got out of hand and the neighborhood started complaining,” Townsend said. They complained about the rooster noises, the un-kept coops and the smell. Even more, the man had two streams in his backyard that led to the city water supply.
“You can imagine, when there was heavy rain, what went into our local aquifer,” Townsend said. This led Townsend to research new ways to control poultry.
“There is a nuisance that is created,” Townsend said. “There are ways the city can deal with it through its code. The neighbors have some response when people take their hobby out of control.”
Roswell is just one city out of many that have changed their ordinances after the rise of chicken keeping. Jennifer Blecha, who did her doctoral dissertation on urban livestock, told NPR that at least a dozen cities have recently become pro-chicken. Blecha told the New York Times that out of all American cities, 53 allow hens, 16 forbid them and 9 make no mention of them. Overall, she said, suburbs are less tolerant of domestic livestock than cities. After Roswell implemented their new ordinances — that restrict poultry by acre — there have been less neighborhood conflicts, Townsend said.
“People realize … two or three chickens are good to have, I can’t have 40,” Townsend said. “40 of them is out of control. I think there has been a realization [that] you have got to maintain the proper numbers.”
The problem that enforcement needs to crack down on, Townsend said, lies with the owners who start out with only a couple chicks but soon have anywhere from 50 to 100.
“People who are getting little chicks for their kids to raise really have no clue what they are getting into,” Townsend said. Very few, he said, abuse the situation to this degree but even those few need to get pulled into line.
As a strong believer in individual rights, Anderson said that is unreasonable.
“I personally find it hysterically funny that someone would legislate against having two six-pound birds in the backyard when you are allowed to have as many children you want, a 200-pound dog and a firearm,” Anderson said.
Anderson thinks it is outrageous that the city is trying to prevent people from living sustainably. She is part of the greater movement to glorify the backyard chicken movement, with events like the “Urban Coop Tour” and “Chicks in the City.”
As she wrote in the “Urban Coop Tour” brochure, “It’s not just about the chickens, though they are really cute. It’s also about sustainability, taking control of your family’s food supply and connecting with your inner farmer.”
She says tries not to be the “mad chicken lady,” but it is quite obvious: she loves her chickens.
As she picks one up, she calls out to Scarlet: “Is this Fluffy or the other one?”
“We just call them twins because we can’t tell them apart,” Anderson said. “But Scarlet can!”
As she watches Scarlet enjoy backyard playtime, she continues to describe all the information surrounding chickens. But ultimately, they aren’t too complicated.
“Chickens are simple, very straightforward,” Anderson said. “Why wouldn’t someone own them?”