When retired teachers Carolyn and Rodney Cline, both 57, decided to keep a few chickens in their downtown backyard just off Nevada Avenue, they didn't realize they'd soon be the center of attention. One neighbor in particular took to regularly peering over the Clines' fence to observe the activity.
"People love them," says Carolyn. "I should sell tickets."
While farm folk would likely laugh at city slickers' excitement over a few yard birds, the scene says a lot about most Americans' disconnect from their food sources. And it exemplifies a small part of the pervasive green movement (eating local, organic, etc.) that's rooting across the nation.
According to Rob Ludlow, owner of San Francisco-based backyardchickens.com, "there is a huge growing trend towards owning backyard chickens." His three-year-old Web site continues to grow at a rate of roughly 80 new accounts per day, and now enjoys a very active forum page and membership of more than 43,000. Ludlow jokes that he wants to turn the old phrase "a chicken in every pot" into "a chicken in every yard."
And while he enjoys a steady growth online, the print magazine Backyard Poultry also points to rising interest, with a current subscriber list of some 71,000 (47 from the Springs), up from 54,000 just a year ago. The New Yorker magazine featured an article this fall titled "The It Bird: The return of the back-yard chicken," in which the author listed several indicators of the chicken "movement."
Who knew? Chickens wooing urbanites enough to build them coops, feed them expensive grain and routinely clean their excrement? And to what benefit?
"I have a chicken-shaped hole in my heart," says Carolyn. "It's nice to have eggs, but these are pets."
54-year-old Weldon Walker raises chickens in Calhan and sells their eggs out of Green Valley Weavers and Knitters, an Old Colorado City yarn shop at which he works. He also delivers baby chicks to city residents every spring. Walker speculates that the growing interest in backyard chickens results from people wanting "more control over what they eat."
And chickens stand out for lots of reasons. Their feed is relatively inexpensive in comparison with the cost of the eggs produced; chickens are easy to keep in a small area; they provide an alternative to composting (since they'll eat just about any kitchen scrap that comes their way); their manure makes good fertilizer; they consume lots of bugs; and on a feel-good, non-utilitarian level, they're fun to look at.
Plus, while places like Northglenn, Thornton and Westminster prohibit chickens, and others like Denver require permits, Colorado Springs allows up to 10 birds per property, all for free, as long as coops are kept clean. (Roosters, however, are prohibited due to noise concerns.)
Taryn Lewis' birds "free range" in her Stetson Hills backyard during the day, and at night sleep in a small coop that her husband built from plans he pulled off the Web. The only drawback to keeping chickens thus far has been the loss of nine adult hens within a year, to what they suspect were foxes. After continuing to tweak their predator-proofing, they think they "finally have it in check."
After she got her first two baby chicks (by mail order), Lewis says, she researched the difference between fresh and factory-produced eggs and was appalled at abuse suffered by commercial hens: overcrowding, clipped beaks, lack of normal pecking order, and manipulated lighting that forces unnatural egg production.
"After getting our first eggs and tasting how different, fresh and delicious they were," she says, "we could never go back to store-bought."
Considering how much people spend on food and vet bills for cats and dogs (who don't yield anything that's delicious on toast), spending, say, a few hundred dollars on a coop, some hens and supplies for guilt-free eggs doesn't seem out of line.
So, how much will you spend, and will you save any money in the end? Let's do some rough math.
Firstly, chicks will set you back a paltry $2, and point-of-lay hens cost about $12. Let's say you go with five hens, and take the organic route. The most expensive organic chicken feed and amendments will cost you $400 annually. For that, your hens will lay an average of 18 eggs a week (more in summer, fewer in winter).
Buying the same number of organic eggs in a store or farmers market, at a price of $4 per dozen, will cost you $312 a year. So you lose some money in the deal; and that's before considering the up-front cost of a coop. (A small, but adequate one can be constructed for as little as $150, but a deluxe prefab coop with chickens, such as one of the "eglu cube" models on omlet.us, can cost you up to $1,600.)
Maybe instead, you use regular commercial feed for about $10 a bag. This feed doesn't contain hormones or other additives, but the ingredients aren't guaranteed organic. Now the recurring cost is down to about $100 a year to feed the five birds, and the value of the non-organic eggs you'll get — $2 a dozen at stores — amounts to $156. So you'll save about $56, but remember, coop costs will put you in a hole, at least for the first year or two.
You might do a bit better by selling eggs, or by keeping more or fewer birds. But the general picture that emerges is that after a few years, home egg production is either marginally profitable or fairly expensive, especially since hens produce fewer eggs as they get older.
However, for most chicken keepers, there's obviously more to it than pure food economics. The local, cute and non-tortured factors tend to count for a lot. And when you consider the existence of items like knitted dog sweaters, you can't overestimate what folks are willing to spend on their pets.
Caroline and Richard Barton, 71 and 67 respectively and both retired, keep five hens near Memorial Park in a smartly painted, custom-built coop complete with windows, adjustable ventilation, an egg collection access door and a fully enclosed 12-by-12-foot yard. According to Richard, who built it, "These chickens are living at the Hilton."
And though we're likely quite a ways from seeing more high-end, hotel-like poultry pads in every yard, don't be shocked to hear a few clucks soon, be they from pets or producers.