Chicken in the city

More urbanites are acquiring pet chickens, and filmmakers try to capture their experience

By | May 11, 2007

Last year, two parents living in the city of Madison, Wisconsin decided it was time to get their kids a pet. But they didn't want a cat. Not a dog, either. Not even a rabbit. They wanted a chicken. Twenty-five chickens, actually. All were shipped at one day old, and arrived in a tiny, cheeping package delivered by their mailman. "A big part of our motivation came from our friends who had chickens in [their] backyard, and we saw them do it, and the eggs they got. We thought it was neat," says mom Elizabeth Arth. "We try to eat locally grown foods, and also, this is a way for our kids to understand where eggs come from."
Now Arth and her husband Dan McAlvanah are part of Mad City Chickens, a Madison organization chicken owners formed just three years ago. Like most others in the group, this family ordered chicks from Murray McMurray Hatchery in Iowa, which ships baby chickens through the postal system in boxes of 25, so they can huddle together for warmth. These aren't just ordinary chickens, though. Instead of the solid white or burnt orange color many people associate with chickens, the Silver Laced Wyandotte hens' feathers paint an elegant pattern in black and white. Araucanas boast multiple shades of ivory, brown and red, and sometimes sprout decorative feathers in a ruff around their necks. When people order from a large hatchery, they can choose from a colorful range of genetic variation, whether they want the Araucanas and the blue-green "Easter eggs" they lay, or the pouffy white head crests of the Top Hat Special. Chickens also have gentle, inquisitive personalities when raised in small numbers, say owners. Arth's children, for instance, pick up the chickens and play with them. Dennis Harrison-Noonan, one of the earliest members of Mad City Chickens, says his chickens are quite affectionate, scrambling to sit on his lap and clucking around him looking for bugs when he gardens in his yard. Since city law allows up to four hens but no roosters per single-family household, Arth and McAlvanah share all but four of their new arrivals with another city dweller, and a friend who has a farm. Arth says her children, who are ages six and almost four, enjoy feeding and watering the hens, and collecting the eggs from the coop their parents built. They lock the birds in the coop at night, saving them from predators like raccoons and dogs, but during the day the birds waddle within a fenced-off portion of the backyard.
Arth's family is part of a growing trend of urbanites who keep chickens as pets in cities across the US, including Madison, Seattle, New York, and Austin, TX, according to Ron Kean, poultry extension specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Harrison-Noonan is a carpenter, and has been selling plans for home-made chicken coops for the past year, both nationally and internationally. He says he is now selling four times as many plans for coops than when he began a year ago. Madison itself has about 40 families with backyard chickens, according to Madison's city treasurer's office. This was illegal until 2004, when Madison began allowing ownership of small flocks in city-dwellers' backyards. Prior to that point, says Harrison-Noonan, there was the "chicken underground" ? scattered citizenry who secretly kept their birds.
Chicken enthusiasts caught the attention of independent filmmakers Robert Lughai and Tashai Lovington, who used to own chickens themselves and loved the experience. The husband and wife duo have shot 22 hours of film following chickens and their owners, from the mail-order chicks to chicken retirement on a farm. They hope to finish the film, called "Mad City Chickens," by August. "There's something fascinating about watching chickens -- they're funny," says Lovington. "Some people say they've given up watching TV; they just watch their chickens." Naturally, some people get very close to their birds. Indeed, the majority of urban chicken owners consider the birds as pets, not a source of food, says University of Wisconsin-Madison's Kean. "We found out that chickens can be taught tricks," says Lovington. "We've heard of a family where children take chickens for skate board rides." One woman walks her chickens outside on a leash. Arth is not sure what the family will do once their chickens get old, but she doubts her children will allow them to end up on the table. Harrison-Noonan says he has no qualms about consuming chicken, but plans to let his pet hens live out their old age on a farm. There is the issue of disease, but it's likely not much of a concern, says Karin Kanton, a veterinarian of exotic pets in Madison. All Madison poultry owners have to register their birds so the local government can keep track of them. "If there's a [serious] outbreak, you will lose all your birds, end of story," says Kanton, who keeps 32 free-range chickens and four ducks on her large property outside Madison. Most chicken owners keep their birds warm in the winter with a heated or wind-proof coop and a heated water dish. For his part, Harrison-Noonan says he enjoys having a bit of a farm in the city. "Food travels a long way to get to your place, and it takes a lot of fossil fuel to do it," he says. "It's nice to take 20 steps into your yard and get a couple of fresh eggs." Manasee Wagh Images: Dan McAlvanah (31) and Henry McAlvanah (6), Elizabeth Arth (30) and Henry and Opal McAlvanah (4), Henry. All images courtesy of Elizabeth Arth. Links within this article: Mad City Chickens McMurray Hatchery Silver Laced Wyandotte Araucanas Top Hat Special Robert Lughai and Tashai Lovington E. Zielinska, "Extreme science caught on film," The Scientist, January 19, 2007.

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