Forget Fido. Pussycat’s passe. The hippest pet going these days is a two-legged creature that doubles as food producer: the chicken.
And not just for folks who live in the country, or on the edge of it. Although there are no statistics available, anecdotal evidence suggests that more Wichitans are raising chickens in an urban setting than ever.
“I did not realize so many people keep them,” said Lacey Hansen, a College Hill resident whose three chickens, clad in scarves, appeared in her family’s Christmas card photo. “We know several people in this neighborhood who have them and then we have friends in Riverside who keep them, too.”
If the friends treat them like the Hansens, there are some happy chickens out there. “These are three of the most spoiled chickens you’ll ever meet,” Hansen said of her family’s birds. “They have just become total pets.”
But they are pets that lay eggs, often called nature’s perfect food source.
“We pretty much have (eggs) three days a week for dinner,” Hansen said.
In Wichita, city regulations allow residents to have up to three chickens without a permit. A permit costs $25 a year and allows a household to keep up to a dozen hens. Roosters are not allowed in the city limits, although there are probably few residents of certain neighborhoods who haven’t heard one crowing.
“We get chicken questions all the time,” said Brandon Hall, licensing supervisor for the city of Wichita. The number of permits has been creeping up in recent years and now stands at 95.
Jeremy Johnson of Johnson’s Garden Center said he’s also noticed an uptick in sales of chicks at his family’s stores.
“We seem to have more interest this spring and sold them through quicker than we have in the past,” he said.
Books and websites such as backyardchickens.com are devoted to the topic. The local food movement is probably the biggest factor inspiring people to raise chickens, although the economy may play a role, too.
“I’m all about self-sufficiency,” said Wichita musician Aaron Underwood, who installed chickens in his south Wichita backyard 1 1/2 years ago. “These chickens lay plenty of eggs. And I really like animals.”
Chickens are relatively cheap to buy and feed. Baby chicks were going for 49 cents apiece on Sunday at one local farm store. Full-grown hens ready to lay eggs cost about $12 to $15. A good layer will produce 200 to 300 eggs a year at her peak, or somewhere about $60 worth of eggs at current retail price, for perhaps two years.
But there is an initial capital investment required. Chickens require places to nest, roost, scratch and roll around in the dirt. They also must be protected from urban predators such as possum and foxes. Store-bought coops start at around $200, with the additional feeders, waterers and other necessary accessories costing perhaps $100 more.
Underwood made his own, converting the back of his garage into a coop and building runs out of PVC pipe, two-by-fours and scrap wire. For his security, Underwood set up a live trap. He’s already caught and released eight possum.
Chickens produce something else valuable: fertilizer. Last summer, Underwood grew a big garden. He’d feed his chickens extra cucumbers from it.
“They in turn made compost for my garden,” he said.
Underwood lets his chicken roam the yard at least once a week, counting on them to eat bugs. “They’re good at foraging,” he said. “The more you ‘free range’ them, the darker the (egg) yolks. Those are the ones that taste the best.”
Comparing the yolks’ color to that of store-bought eggs, Underwood said: “Mine are orange. They’ll match your orange juice. And the taste, it’s amazing the difference.”
Underwood and other chicken keepers note that chickens will quickly denude an area of vegetation. Some people move coops around to try to prevent that from happening.
There are other differences between backyard chickens and the ones that find their way into supermarkets, some of which these days weigh 6 to 7 pounds. Underwood’s biggest chicken – named “Big Red,” – weighs about 4 pounds. His smallest, a Polish Blue called “Dawn” because of her blond streak, weighs about half that. “They’re not these big, bloated birds shot full of steroids,” he said.
Economic and health concerns aside, Underwood says he also just enjoys the birds.
“They really remind me of dinosaurs – the scaly feet, the head bobbing thing,” he said.
“They have a definite pecking order. After you watch them enough, you can get who’s the boss.”
In his own flock, it’s little Dawn who’s the most aggressive.
Underwood said his neighbors like his chickens, too, especially their children, who throw vegetables to the birds over the fence.
“I would say try it,” Underwood said of anybody thinking of raising chickens. “If you do some research and pay attention, it’s awesome.”
Hansen feels the same way. She said getting chickens was actually the idea of her husband, Kenton, and son, Judah.
“They’re fun, they’re gentle, they have personalities,” she said of the chickens. “They follow us around the yard. They beg when they know we’re bringing them treats.”
“As a family, we find ourselves out in the backyard together, unplugged and playing with our chickens.”