It's all part of the back-to-the-land movement whose proponents want to save on grocery bills, take control of their food supply and reduce the carbon footprint of industrial agriculture.
WASHINGTON — Shenandoah is a red-feathered hen nestled under the right arm of Anna Mae Conrad, who is 10 and lives in Takoma Park, Md. "When you hold her for a long time," Anna Mae says, "you can feel her relax; you can feel her putting pressure on you." Anna Mae strokes the stole of plumage around Shenandoah's neck, and the bird closes her eyes in a moment of chicken bliss. "This is actually my chicken."
The announcement is to distinguish Shenandoah from the four other hens clucking softly in the back yard of the home where Anna Mae lives with mom Mary Cush, dad Kevin Conrad and sister Zhania. The family got its first bird six years ago, and the hens live in a converted greenhouse in a corner of the shaded lot, which is in an established suburban neighborhood inside the Capital Beltway.
The Conrads are at the vanguard of a resurgent interest in backyard chicken keeping, especially in distinctly nonrural settings. In cities across the United States, raising backyard poultry has suddenly become as chic as growing your own vegetables. It's all part of the back-to-the-land movement whose proponents want to save on grocery bills, take control of their food supply and reduce the carbon footprint of industrial agriculture.
The urban homesteading movement got a huge symbolic boost this spring when the first family installed a 1,100-square-foot vegetable garden at the White House. Poultry is the natural next step in the sustainable back yard; chickens produce eggs, devour kitchen scraps and add manure to the compost pile.
"Chickens are America's cool new pet," said Dave Belanger, publisher of the magazine Backyard Poultry. When he launched it three years ago, "we were thinking 15 to 20 thousand" subscriptions, he said. The print run for the bimonthly is now 100,000.
Belanger's magazine is published in Wisconsin, where five years ago chicken activists in Madison succeeded in getting the city council to reverse a ban on chicken coops. Madison's ordinance is typical of other cities'. You can raise chickens for eggs, not meat; they must be enclosed in a coop or run; and it's strictly a hen party: Roosters who crow day and night are prohibited.
In Baltimore, you can keep up to four hens (no roosters, ducks, geese or, darn, ostriches), in a coop no closer than 25 feet from a neighbor's residence. A one-time fee of $60 is required for the permit.
Whether the Obamas could join the ranks of chicken fanciers may be a more difficult question. The District of Columbia does not permit backyard chickens, said Michael Rupert, a spokesman for the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. You can have racing pigeons and captive-bred species of cage birds, meaning parrots and the like, but you can't have chickens.
D.C.'s ban stands in contrast to other cities in the nation that have either permitted poultry all along or succumbed to pressure recently to allow them once more. In and around Washington, the convergence of so many jurisdictions each with its own rules has clouded the question of whether chickens are allowed. The resulting confusion has produced two types of chicken owners: Those who raise poultry openly and lawfully and those who do so in the shadows.
Kevin Conrad is confident he meets the requirements of Montgomery, but elsewhere in Takoma Park another owner, fearing the loss of chickens his daughter views as pets, is willing to talk only anonymously.
He started keeping the chickens early last year and has three hens. Two of the chickens he raised turned out to be roosters, and they were given to a friend in a rural area. His neighbors have been supportive and share in the eggs, he said. Chickens "are easy pets, and the eggs you get from them are spectacular," he said. Two close neighbors also keep chickens, and he is about to allow another neighbor's daughter to keep some hens in his coop in exchange for chicken-sitting when needed.
I am walking along a block of rowhouses on Capitol Hill to meet a young professional who is also flying under the chicken radar. She offered to show me her coop, but anonymously, because she feared that her enterprise was unlawful. She leads me through the house to the back yard, where three Rhode Island Red hen hybrids live in a homemade coop and adjoining run, which is enclosed with chicken wire. "I bought a circular saw to make it," she said. The coop is lined with newspapers (try doing that with a laptop), and the base slides out for cleaning.
When she returns from work, she lets the hens out to roam in the garden, which includes newly planted fruit trees and raised beds with lettuce, beans and strawberries in growth.
"It's been fascinating," she said. "All my neighbors know about them, and some of the neighborhood kids love to come over and collect the eggs. They're really curious about them, and they love to feed them."
She got the hens — named Dree, Dot and Fluffy Bottom — in March as 1-year-old egg layers and says they are quiet and their coop is easy to keep clean. "I named them after my grandmothers. Well, not Fluffy Bottom," she said.
"I really like producing my own food," she said. "My father always had a vegetable garden."
D.C.'s anti-chicken stance troubles activists such as Liz Falk, who has an inner-city vegetable garden here. "Other cities are more welcoming of urban agriculture than us," she said.
To those who would say chickens should be raised only in the country, Falk would say no. "Why don't we grow food where the people are? It's so much more sustainable," she said. She'd like to keep poultry at the garden, called Common Good City Farm, but "we are unclear as to the law."
So what's it like to keep chickens? From what I gather, they are exasperating, dumb, funny, beautiful and so hopelessly ill-equipped to survive on their own that you have to love them. They also have a distinct social hierarchy. In the Capitol Hill garden, Dot rules the roost and poor Dree is last in the pecking order.
Whether in the country or city, unprotected birds will usually fall prey to an array of predators, including hawks, owls, raccoons and, of course, foxes.
Until this winter, Robin Wedewer's coop in rural Calvert County, Md., was ruled by a black feathered cock bird named Johnny Cash. The second banana was a white rooster, T. Boone Chickens. Late one afternoon, as the light was fading, she returned to her 22-acre farm to see a pile of white feathers on the front lawn, another pile on the back lawn. Johnny had vanished in what may have been an eagle attack. T. Boone was gravely injured, with talon wounds on his sides. Wedewer's 18-year-old son, Benjamin, had dug a grave behind the chicken coop, not expecting him to last the night, but the plucky bird pulled through.
T. Boone still walks with a pronounced limp, but he now rules the roost. He crows a lot, but he has a lot to crow about, both as protector of his harem and as its lone lusty prince. He guards the hens while they take dust baths behind a lilac bush, and if Maude and Myrtle, two red starters, wander off, he will call to them and go racing off to retrieve them. With a limp. When he finds food, he will offer a low, repeated cluck, which is his way of telling the hens to dig in.
Wedewer gets about half a dozen eggs a day and raves about the flavor, the size and color of the yolks, and the stiffness of the whites. The chickens live in an Amish-built playhouse and a caged run that Wedewer and her husband, Harry, put together from lumber and chicken wire last year when they got the birds. "I make my own cheese, my own wine vinegar, my own wine," she said. "Why not have chickens?"
In the evening, the Wedewers like to sit in lawn chairs by the vegetable garden and watch the birds scratching around. "We call it chicken TV," she said.
For the Conrads in Takoma Park, the chickens have been a way to introduce their children to the joys and grimmer realities of the natural world. One of their birds was taken by a fox, another by a raccoon. "It's like a big science project," Mary Cush said.
For her most recent birthday, Anna Mae had friends over for a slumber party. "When we woke up, we all got to go into the coop and pick our own egg for breakfast," she said.