Pets: Raising the roost

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

It's a dreary March afternoon, but the four puffed-up, colorful divas strut through the yard in triumphant procession - bobbing their heads, kicking their feet and snatching up the occasional blade of grass.

Fresh from a night spent in a nearby coop, they pay little attention to their owner, a baying hound or the flustered photographer trying to herd them. An occasional handful of grain catches their attention. Mostly, they go where they please.

This is clearly their yard, though their yard isn't where you might expect.

Far from the factory farms and free-range fields that dot Ohio, these hens' green pastures lie in a dense residential section of Clintonville where backyards abut and neighbors can see into each other's windows.

These birds are city birds.

Sussy, Pecky, Austra and Elia are among a growing number of chickens being raised by folk many miles and several generations removed from farm life. To follow protein from plot to plate, many of these passionate locavores have brought the barnyard to the backyard.

houndsinthekitchen.com

From a home less than five miles north of Capitol Square, Tayse Baillieul has worked to bring the eat-local movement to Columbus with the help of her husband, Alex, and young daughter, Lil.

Like many other urban homesteaders, they decided adding chickens seemed like the next logical step after mastering the three-season garden, learning to churn butter and experimenting with basement charcuterie.

When a friend had a few hens available for $5 apiece just more than a year ago, Tayse Baillieul jumped on the offer. She set out to get three, came home with four and now has a few extra pets that actually earn their keep.

"I thought we weren't going to have names, because I didn't want to have names for animals I might eat," she says. "That lasted about five minutes."

Smitten with the peculiar pets that produced her morning meals, Lil took care of names in no time.

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Protein can be hard to grow in the garden, so one of man's solutions was to raise chickens, a low-maintenance companion that offered up rich deposits almost daily.

The idea, you could say, took off.

This year, the United States is projected to produce more than 92 billion eggs, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The average annual amount consumed by each American? Just under 249 eggs apiece.

But though the nation loves its eggs, it doesn't always love where they come from.

"Most eggs come from chickens that are crammed into tiny cages without room to turn around or stretch their wings," said Rob Ludlow, author of "Raising Chickens for Dummies," in a recent e-mail. "When you collect eggs from your backyard flock, you know exactly how they were treated and cared for."

Large-scale factory farms have made the news in recent years for inhumane conditions and significant recalls. In August, two Iowa companies recalled 550 million eggs after being linked to a salmonella outbreak.

That's a main reason why so many are taking matters into their own lands. Ludlow's how-to website, backyardchickens.com, has attracted more than 80,000 members who register to learn tips, share successes and ensure their birds stay healthy.

Most don't have too much trouble doing so.

Almost like outdoor cats, chickens mainly need nutrients, shelter, routine checkups and time to roam in order to thrive. Chicken farmers must provide corn crumbles, adequate water and a coop, which provides shade, warmth, protection from predators and a place to lay eggs.

During peak sunlight, each bird will lay as much as an egg every day, though that rate slows during the winter. Chickens also are known to control insect pests, trim weeds and even kill mice, which can help to offset start-up costs of about $300.

"Many people want to become more self-sufficient and take part in the grow-local and slow-food movements," Ludlow explained. "Having a handful of egg-laying hens in a relatively small yard allows people to participate in these 'movements' without having to move."

Within city limits, potential chicken sites need to be approved for a permit by the Columbus Public Health department.

"A veterinarian will do a brief investigation to make sure you are complying with our local ordinances," said department spokesman Jose Rodriguez, who has seen a recent increase in the number of permits.

Composting of waste is prohibited, for example, and the floor of the coop must have an impervious floor.

"Anecdotally," Rodriguez said, "most people that have fowl and have sought the permit, they have an understanding of what they must do to have a healthy environment."

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Now that they've stretched their legs, Sussy and company have settled into calmly nipping at some weeds and meandering slowly around the yard. They look every bit as normal as the two nearby dogs.

This is how it happens for many who own chickens: The birds are bought because of ethics and end up as pets. They eventually become part of the family, loved equally for personality and productivity.

"I originally saw them as an egg-production facility, but I enjoy them more than I thought I would," Tayse Baillieul says as she leads her flock back to the coop with small treats. "They're awfully cute to watch out the kitchen window."

Owners learn that chickens like shiny things and will sometimes peck at toe rings or necklaces. They'll occasionally walk atop the fence, checking things out but posing no real flight risk. Sometimes they tilt their heads as if trying to better understand what you're saying.

And, yes, you can even pet them.

As they try to escape beneath a bush, Lil picks up her favorite, tucks it under her arm like a purse and begins listing off facts she's learned about her unique backyard friends.

Chickens do have tongues, she insists. But they don't pee.