Re­ally lo­cal eggs: Pet hens a ris­ing back­yard trend

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - BY GABRIELLA BOS­TON

Lady Sus­sex, Lady Mar­malade and Lady Chat­ter­ley are pets that pro­duce food. In­deed, th­ese cud­dly, funny Sil­ver Spring, Md. hens are ex­am­ples of a new trend in metro ar­eas across the na­tion: back­yard chick­ens — a kind of ex­ten­sion of the lo­cal-food move­ment.

“They’re fun to watch, and they pro­duce about three eggs a day, de­pend­ing on the weather,” says Stephanie, who, along with her hus­band and chil­dren, keep th­ese dis­tin­guished-sound­ing chick­ens in their back­yard. “And their waste is great fer­til­izer for the yard.”

Sounds like a match made in heaven.

Yet Stephanie is afraid to use her last name in print.

That’s be­cause Sil­ver Spring, along with the District of Columbia and other ju­ris­dic­tions, have strict rules on where chick­ens can be kept in re­la­tion to hu­man dwellings.

In Sil­ver Spring, the chicken coop has to be 100 feet from the hu­mans’ house, says Stephanie, who adds that her chicken coop and run — which she cleans sev­eral times a week — are much closer.

“I don’t want An­i­mal Con­trol to take them away,” she says, adding that she checked with neigh­bors be­fore get­ting the hens ear­lier this year and that “every­one was on board, and no­body has com­plained.”

In the District — be­cause of pres­sure from back­yard­chicken-loving res­i­dents — the D.C. Coun­cil is con­sid­er­ing drop­ping its 50-foot rule.

“The or­di­nances are an­ti­quated,” says back­yard-chicken ad­vo­cate and land­scape ar­chi­tect Ch­eryl Cor­son. “They’re based on the idea of peo­ple keep­ing hun­dreds of chick­ens.”

Ms. Cor­son, a for­mer Capi­tol Hill res­i­dent, lives on 4 1/2 acres in Up­per Marl­boro, Md., where she raises three chick­ens and tons of veg­eta­bles.

“I hope the [D.C.] Coun­cil re­laxes the rules to bring Wash­ing­ton in line with other pro­gres­sive cities,” Ms. Cor­son says.

But won’t re­lax­ing the rules mean a re­turn to the not-so-good old days when sun­rises in city back al­leys were greeted by a ca­coph­ony of crows, neighs and moos? Not likely. Cows, pigs, horses and other large live­stock are not per­mit­ted within city bound­aries, says Dena Iver­son, spokes­woman for the District’s Depart­ment of Health.

Nei­ther are roost­ers, which — be­cause of their shrill and fre­quent cock­adoo­dle­doo­ing — are banned in most ur­ban ar­eas.

But as it turns out, hens don’t need their male coun­ter­parts to pro­duce eggs.

“They do just fine without a rooster,” says Robert Lud­low, owner of the Web site www.back­yardchick­ens.com, which has about 42,000 mem­bers na­tion­wide.

Mr. Lud­low, who lives with his wife and two young daugh­ters just east of San Fran­cisco, has five hens of his own and — like Stephanie in Sil­ver Spring — never buys eggs at the gro­cery store.

But, while self-sus­tain­ing, he’s not sav­ing money.

“Peo­ple are not do­ing this in re­sponse to the re­ces­sion,” Mr. Lud­low says. “This is an ex­ten­sion of the sus­tain­able, grow­inglo­cal move­ment.”

It’s a move­ment based on the ideas that food should be sea­sonal and grown lo­cally and that you should know what goes into that food’s pro­duc­tion, he says.

In the case of chick­ens, what goes into it is just about any­thing.

“They’re om­ni­vores,” Mr. Lud­low says. In fact, they’ll eat bugs, weeds and food scraps in ad­di­tion to store-bought nu­tri­ent-rich feed.

While ap­plaud­ing the “grow and raise your own food” move­ment, Nick Zim­mer­man, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor in the Depart­ment of An­i­mal and Avian Sciences at the Uni­ver­sity of Mary­land at Col­lege Park, has a few words of cau­tion.

First, make sure to keep the hens in a place that’s fenced off and out of reach for preda­tors such as rac­coons and cats.

Sec­ond, wash the eggs and cook them thor­oughly be­cause, un­like com­mer­cial eggs, home­grown ones are not tested for pos­si­ble dis­eases, which are in­fre­quent but can oc­cur, he says.

Other than that, “I don’t think it’s a health haz­ard, he says. “I think it’s kind of nice that peo­ple are grow­ing their own food.”

But it’s more than just food.

“It sounds corny,” Stephanie says. “But my hus­band and I — and I re­ally had to talk him into [get­ting the chick­ens] — just en­joy watch­ing them peck around. They’re funny and kind of la­dy­like.” Hence the names. Mr. Lud­low calls them the per­fect pets.

“What can I say?” Mr. Lud­low asks rhetor­i­cally. “My pet makes me break­fast.”

The hens pro­duce about three eggs a day.

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