For Brooklyn real-estate agent Maria Mackin, the obsession started five years ago, on a trip to Pennsylvania Amish country. She, her husband and three children - now 17, 13 and 11 - sat down for brunch at a local bed-and-breakfast, and suddenly the chef realized she'd run out of eggs. "She said, 'Oh goodness! I'll have to go out to the garden and get some more'," Mackin recalls. "She cooked them up and they were delicious." Mackin and her husband, Declan Walsh, looked at each other, and it didn't take long for the idea to register: Could we have chickens too? They finished their brunch and convinced the bed-and-breakfast owner, a Mennonite celery farmer, to sell them four chickens. They packed them in a little nest in the back of their Plymouth Voyager minivan and headed back to Brooklyn.
The family has been raising chickens ever since, in the backyard of their brick townhouse in an urban waterfront neighborhood called Red Hook. Every Easter, Mackin orders a new round of chicks, now from a catalog that ships the newborns in a ventilated box while they are still feeding from their yolks. When they are grown, she offers up their eggs - and occasionally extra chickens, when she decides she's got too many - to friends and neighbors, and sells a portion to a local bistro, which touts the neighborhood poultry on its Web site. She gives the chicken manure - a high-quality fertilizer - to a local community garden in exchange for hay, which she uses to pad the chickens' wire-fenced coop. Occasionally, she kills and cooks up a chicken for dinner - though, she says, her chickens are egg layers and aren't particularly tasty. "We joke and call ourselves the Red Hook Poultry Association," says the former social worker, who at one time housed 27 chicks inside her kitchen - for six weeks. "Sometimes people are like, 'This is really kind of weird'."
As it turns out, Mackin is hardly an anomaly, in New York or any other urban center. Over the past few years, urban dwellers driven by the local-food movement, in cities from Seattle to Albuquerque, have flocked to the idea of small-scale backyard chicken farming - mostly for eggs, not meat - as a way of taking part in home-grown agriculture. This past year alone, grass-roots organizations in Missoula, Mont.; South Portland, Maine; Ann Arbor, Mich.; and Ft. Collins, Colo., have successfully lobbied to overturn city ordinances outlawing backyard poultry farming, defined in these cities as egg farming, not slaughter. Ann Arbor now allows residents to own up to four chickens (with neighbors' consent), while the other three cities have six-chicken limits, subject to various spacing and nuisance regulations.
That quick growth in popularity has some people worried about noise, odor and public health, particularly in regard to avian flu. A few years back in Salt Lake City - which does not allow for backyard poultry farming - authorities had to impound 47 hens, 34 chicks and 10 eggs from a residential home after neighbors complained about incessant clucking and a wretched stench, along with wandering chickens and feathers scattered throughout the neighborhood. "The smell got to be unbelievable," one neighbor told the local news. Meanwhile, in countries from Thailand to Australia, where bird flu has spread in the past, government officials have threatened to ban free-range chickens for fear they are contributing to outbreaks. (In British Columbia, where officials estimated earlier this year that there are as many as 8,000 chicken flocks, an avian flu outbreak four years forced the slaughter of more than 17 million birds.)
But avian flu has not shown up in wild birds, domestic poultry or people in the United States. And, as the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute (an environmental research group) pointed out in a report last month, experts including the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production have said that if we do see it, it'll be more likely to be found in factory-farmed poultry than backyard chickens. As GRAIN, an international sustainable agriculture group, concluded in a 2006 report: "When it comes to bird flu, diverse small-scale poultry farming is the solution, not the problem."
Many urban farmers are taking that motto to heart. In New York, where chickens (but not roosters, whose loud crowing can disturb neighbors) are allowed in limitless quantities, there are at least 30 community gardens raising them for eggs, and a City Chicken Project run by a local nonprofit that aims to educate the community about their benefits. In Madison, Wis., where members of a grass-roots chicken movement, the Chicken Underground, successfully overturned a residential chicken ban four years ago, there are now 81 registered chicken owners, according to the city's animal-services department. "There's definitely a growing movement," says 33-year-old Rob Ludlow, the Bay Area operator of BackyardChickens.com and the owner of five chickens of his own. "A lot of people really do call it an addiction. Chickens are fun, they have a lot of personality. I think people are starting to see that they're really easy pets - and they actually produce something in return."