Wednesday, December 31, 2014

How Do YOU Eat Chicken?

When my kids were little, they loved to listen to Wolf Story, a wonderful children's book written in 1947 by William McCleery.

The book centers on the story that a man tells his young son about the misadventures of a wolf who steals a chicken from a clever little boy named Jimmy Tractorwheel. Waldo the wolf soon finds himself outsmarted not only by young Jimmy but by the chicken, Rainbow, who is definitely not the "poor little twerp of a hen" that Waldo thinks she is.

In one scene that my kids especially loved, Rainbow the hen is shocked when she learns that Waldo plans to eat her without the benefit of a knife or fork:

"`I hope you weren't planning to eat me with your fingers,' said the hen.
"`How do you eat chicken?' cried the wolf.
"`I,' said the hen, `do not eat chicken.'"

I don't eat chicken myself anymore. But lots of people and critters do, and this year we've had a couple of narrow scrapes as our chickens almost became prey.

So here are two stories from 2014: one a hawk story, and the other a fox story. (No wolf story of our own yet, thank heavens.)

1. The Hawk

My son called me at work the Friday after Labor Day. School had dismissed early because of the heat, and he had let the chickens out to roam the backyard. I'd encouraged him to do this, thinking that as long as someone was home the chickens should be safe in our fenced backyard.

Will sounded worried. He told me that he couldn't find Lucille, our Barred Rock, and couldn't get the other hens out of the bushes and back into the coop. I thought the chickens were just being recalcitrant, so told him I was headed home soon and would just look for them when I got there.

When I arrived home, I headed out to the backyard, and found this:

And near the garden, I found this:

Now I was worried. Something had clearly attacked the hens, and I feared the worst as I looked around the backyard.  I soon found four of them--everyone but Lucille--huddled together under a bush, clearly a little traumatized. Both Fanny and Nettie, our Rhode Island Red, had lost feathers on their backs, but no one was bleeding or visibly injured. I shooed them back into the coop, shut the door, and called for Lucille. A minute later, I heard her warble near the fenceline--and saw she was hiding out in our neighbor's bushes. I'm guessing that when the excitement began, she slipped through the opening into their yard, where all was quiet.

I brought her home and shut all five hens in the coop. An hour later, I looked out the kitchen window and there was a big red-tailed hawk sitting on the coop roof, clearly wondering where dinner had gone.

2. The Fox

We had heard from several of our neighbors that we had a fox in our neighborhood; one told us that he had seen the fox early one morning while walking his dog on the next block. A few weeks later, while feeding the chickens around 7:00 a.m., I spotted the fox myself, as he stood stock-still outside our metal picket fence while the hens stood just as still inside the fence watching him.

At the time, I congratulated myself on our "chicken-proofed" fence. Earlier this summer, my daughter and husband had attached hardware cloth to the bottom of the fence to keep the chickens from slipping out, and foolishly, I thought this would be enough to keep other critters out.

Then, one morning in late November, I let the chickens out of their coop while refilling their food and water. I was in the habit of letting them out to forage in the fenced backyard while I ate breakfast and got ready for work, thinking that surely no big predators would attack them in their own yard in broad daylight. That morning, my husband and I were both in the kitchen when he happened to look out the window just as the fox zipped across the backyard making a bee-line for the hens. He dashed out the door yelling "Fox!" I looked out and saw the fox pounce and feathers flying and ran outside myself, just as the fox wheeled away and leaped over the fence.

Poor Nettie! Once again she had been the victim. Although she was missing a clump of feathers off her back, she was otherwise just fine. I herded the hens back into their box, and vowed then not to let them out again unless I was out there with them. There are just too many critters out there who like to eat chicken.

Here's hoping for a predator-proof 2015!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Eggciting Developments

Park Avenue Poultry is now in production!

This week--finally--we have eggs. I found the first one last Thursday, when I got home from work and went out to check on the girls as I usually do. Capitola, my friendly Buckeye, hopped down from the box, which struck me as odd, since the hens don't usually go up to their box until dusk, when they're ready to roost for the night.

I looked in the nest box and sure enough, there was an egg. Since it was no longer warm, I didn't think Capitola had just laid it, nor was I sure she was actually the hen who laid it.  Nevertheless, I was pretty excited, so I had to take a photo:

On Saturday, I found a second egg that looked just like the first. I read somewhere that experienced chicken owners can often tell which hen laid which egg by the color and shape of the egg, and I remember thinking at the time that all eggs looked pretty much the same to me. But those first two eggs actually looked very similar--both were distinctively oblong with a fairly pointy end.

Then, on Monday, I saw Capitola step out of the nest box, and reached around her to retrieve a third egg, just like the other two. And it was still warm, which told me Capitola was probably the layer of all three.

Tuesday, when I went out to feed the girls after my morning run, there was another egg, and this one looked different--a little shorter and more rounded than the first three. So someone else is evidently getting in on the act!

In celebration, Rob and I had scrambled eggs for breakfast.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Regulating Chickens

So this week another city in Illinois--Rockford, about 85 miles northwest of Chicago--is considering allowing people to keep hens in their backyard. One of the alderman there was quoted as saying, "There seems to be quite a bit of momentum from the pro-chicken group." Good for them! I hope they're successful.

It's still hard for me to understand why people would be opposed to their neighbors keeping a few backyard hens. Certainly there's a lot of misinformation about chickens--people think they're loud, they're smelly, they cause disease, etc.

When Champaign revised its ordinance last year to make it possible for folks to keep backyard hens, the City Council did so with a few restrictions:
  • A license must be issued to legally raise hens.
  • No roosters allowed.
  • Up to 6 hens allowed.
  • Coops may only be located in the back yard.
  • Only residents of single family and two-family homes are eligible for a coop license.
  • The coop must have a minimum of four square feet per hen.  The run must have a minimum of eight square feet per hen and be covered on all sides, including the top.
  • Residents who do not comply with Sec. 7-19 – Hens and all applicable sections of the Champaign Municipal Code will be subject to enforcement action.

Although I would do whatever was needed to keep chickens, I had mixed feelings about this kind of regulation. Early last year, I had talked with a number of folks in Urbana who kept chickens, as well as people who lived near chickens, and no one seemed to think there were any serious problems that needed policing.

I wouldn't want chickens if I didn't think I could keep them and still be a good neighbor. In fact, even before I visited the City Council, I'd already decided I wasn't interested in keeping roosters, and I didn't plan to let my chickens free range, since I didn't want them to be carried off by hawks or other predators. But it still makes me wonder why people are so nervous about their neighbors keeping a few chickens in the backyard.

There was a time, after all, when people didn't see chickens as incompatible with city life. During World War I, people were encouraged to keep chickens in their backyard as part of their patriotic duty, and the victory gardens of World War II also included chickens. So what changed? Why did so many communities outlaw chicken-keeping--even agricultural communities like Champaign?

An article I ran across in the Journal of Planning History shows how the regulation of animals in American cities was a major concern for public authorities in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and ultimately gave rise to the establishment of planning as a profession. (See Brinkley, Catherine, and Domenic Vitiello. "From Farm to Nuisance: Animal Agriculture and the Rise of Planning Regulation." Journal of Planning History 13.2 (2014): 113-135; available here:

The authors outline several major waves of city animal ordinances, from 18th century restrictions on cattle and swine running loose in US cities to 19th century bans on urban piggeries (how I love that term!) and dairies due to public health concerns, and ultimately, to the mid-20th century removal of farm animals from most cities through city zoning laws.  In an optimistic coda, the authors note that if planners were responsible for the removal of animal agriculture from American cities, they could, with their increasing focus on biodiversity and integrated land uses, also be the ones responsible for restoring animals to urban settings.

So maybe all this chicken regulation is just the system attempting to right itself. Maybe that's what it will take to convince city-dwellers that a few chickens in their neighbor's yard are not going to cause a public health crisis, lower property values, or pit neighbor against neighbor. Maybe someday the majority of people will think it's reasonable, even desirable, to keep your own chickens rather than buy eggs and meat from factory farms. And maybe city planners (including the ones in Rockford!) will be helping to bring that change about.

Sunday, August 3, 2014


Back in early June (!), I promised to write more about the chickens. This week the girls, as they are affectionately called around here, are 17 weeks old.

When last I wrote about them, they were still chicks, but as you can see from the photo of Capitola below, they are now pullets, in poultry-keeper parlance. We've had no eggs yet, but I'm hopeful that they'll start laying sometime in the next month.

While we're still waiting for that first egg, the flock has experienced a fair number of "firsts" already this summer. Soon after moving into their new coop in early June, they had their first party--a "coop opening" for our friends and neighbors to get a chance to see them and to help us celebrate the return of chickens to Champaign. Many of our neighbors already knew of my interest in keeping chickens--some had even expressed their support to the City Council--and I wanted to be sure to thank them and give them a chance to see the hens for themselves. We also invited members of the City Council, and Lacey Rains Lowe from the City's planning office. Also in attendance were many of our long-suffering friends, who patiently tolerated a lot of talk about chickens this past year.

It was lots of fun--we had cake and lemonade, and the girls got coverage on the evening news, as well as a photo in the newspaper. My friend Lisa even devoted an episode of her Backyard Industry to the occasion.

In late June, we went to Colorado for a family vacation, so the girls also had their first chicken-sitter. It was a first for our friend Sierra too, who had never taken care of chickens before, but it worked out fine for everyone.

This summer the hens have tasted lots of new foods for the first time as well: blueberries, apple bits, tomatoes, cucumber, and kale have all been favorites. Nothing comes close to their love of mealworms, however, or any other live prey. The other day I turned over one of our flagstones in the back yard, and found an ant colony with lots of wriggling larvae. The chickens ate them so quickly I didn't even have a chance to get a photo, so here's one of me giving them some tomato from earlier today.

If you listened to the Backyard Industry piece, you'll know that I also worked with some other chicken-folk here in the twin cities of Champaign and Urbana to organize another first, our very own C-U coop tour. More on that in my next post!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Coop de Coeur

It's been a long time coming, but the hens are finally in their coop!

I can't believe it's been 6 weeks since my last post. Spring is always a hectic time at our house, but this year it's been especially busy, and consequently it took a little longer than we expected to build our coop. But what a coop we ended up with!

When I first started thinking about keeping chickens, I knew I didn't have the skills to build my own coop, so figured I'd order a ready-made one. But after looking at lots of different ones out there, I realized it wasn't easy to find something that was built to last out of good materials and that was still affordable. My husband Rob volunteered to build me one. "Just find a good plan," he said.

That's how I discovered the Playhouse Coop, a design popularized by Dennis Harrison-Noonan, a builder in Madison, Wisconsin.  I watched his video tour of the Playhouse Coop on YouTube, and liked a number of things about it--the elevated box with room for a fairly spacious run underneath, the fold-down door that doubled as a roost, the peaked roof.  I ordered the plans, and thought we'd be all set. Just follow the directions, right?

The directions proved a little hard to follow, especially since Rob had his own ideas of what the coop should look like. He wanted to incorporate some cedar from an old playset he'd built for our kids when they were small, and wanted to use sturdier lumber than the plans called for. He also didn't like the ready-made metal roof. So we made the first of many trips to our local home-improvement store and started looking for materials.

As you can see, we ended up with a great coop, which Rob designed and constructed himself, with input (not always solicited) from me.

As in the Playhouse Coop, the box is elevated, which frees up more floor space for the run. However, our box has two adjoining doors: a small pophole for the hens, and a larger door for cleaning. There's also a small pull-down door at the top for ventilation.

Inside the box there's a nest box, a plexiglass window to let in daylight, and a roost made out of a treelimb. At night, when the hens go into their box, everything can be securely latched. In the morning, when the door is open, the hens can go down the ramp and hang out in the run or return to the box to roost.

The run is made of cedar and 1/2" hardware cloth, and has a full-size door and a nifty corrugated roof. Last weekend Rob also attached a skirt of hardware cloth all around and buried it about 10" deep to keep out any digging predators. He also made a little door on the side of the run for the next phase of the project: a smaller, portable run that we can connect to the larger unit or disconnect and place elsewhere in the yard.

I know it sounds odd, but to me it is really a thing of beauty. I can't imagine a nicer coop.

And the most amazing thing is that Rob built the whole thing with a pretty cheery disposition most of the time. I'm sure about halfway in he was starting to wonder how long this thing was going to take, but he kept at it and kept his cool. The kids and I helped where we could--Jane put in some of the hardware and constructed the chicken ramp, Will helped dig the perimeter and do some of the heavy lifting to move it in place, and I primed and painted and made trips for hardware cloth and nails and whatnot. But Rob did pretty much everything else.

Rob framed the coop on our deck, and finished it after it was moved to its permanent location under the tree.
Here's the team that did the moving: Rob, Will, our friend Robert, our lodger Alex, and Alex's dad.

Next week we plan to do the "big reveal" for some of our friends and neighbors--that should be fun!

More on the chickens next time. In the meantime, here's a photo of Lucille and Fanny in the coop.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Growth Spurt

The chicks have been growing astonishingly fast. This week they sprouted tiny combs and their wing feathers and back feathers are starting to fill in. At the beginning of the week, they were a mix of fine chick down and big feather nubs. Now they have only a few wisps of their chick-fuzz left.

I took them outside for a while yesterday afternoon and again this morning, and was pleased to see that they are a lot more proficient at foraging than they were last week. This morning I raked some of the top layer of soil off one of our garden beds, and they rushed right in to find all the little worms and bugs lurking there. They are definitely learning to operate as a flock; no one strays too far from the rest of the group, or they are quick to sound the alarm. I only managed to get a couple of individual shots--here's one of Lucille that shows off her new barred plumage and a perfectly respectable set of tail feathers.

And here's one of Mathilda that shows her new jet-black chest feathers. Right now she's pretty mottled in color, but in time she should be entirely black. Not sure if she'll remain pied-billed, but I hope so.

Capitola and Nettie still hang out together--I think of them as "the cousins," since they tend to stick close to one another, and they both look so similar. Here they are venturing into some leaf litter in the back of the yard--that's Nettie in the lower left, Capitola in the upper right.  Note how much darker Capitola's feathers are coming in; she looks like she'll be at the brown end of the Rhode Island Red spectrum.

And here's Fanny, looking large and in charge, as she is wont to do. While the other birds will run toward me when I call, or come up to me when I reach out a hand, Fanny has not quite decided whether I'm trustworthy. So even though she came up to check out my phone, she was keeping a close eye on me.

Of course, as I said, everyone's happiest when they're all together.

With the marathon (and post-marathon recovery) yesterday, and rain this afternoon, we didn't do much work on the coop this weekend, but I'm hoping for more progress this week.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Meet the Girls!

So, it's been 10 days now since the chicks arrived. Last week they were little fluffballs, and this week they sprouted tail feathers and primary feathers and have started flapping around the brooder box.

This afternoon was lovely and warm, so I popped them into a bucket and carried them outside. Here they are, hanging out in the yard (daughter Jane took this photo, which she called a chicken-selfie):

The chicks seemed to have a great time, scratching in the dirt and foraging for sprouts and tiny insects. Even the chicken skeptics in my house had fun watching them and helping them practice their perching:

I took some individual photos of the chicks as well. Here's Capitola, our Rhode Island Red. She's a feisty little creature, really not afraid of much, although she looks fairly demure here:

Then there's Fanny, the Buff Orpington. She's the biggest of the group, and maybe a little pushy. This photo shows how she's already losing her chick-y down and growing real chicken feathers.

Next up, Lucille, our Barred Rock.  This photo doesn't show it very well, but she's already starting to grow her barred wing feathers.

Matilda, our little Australorp, seemed to be quite cooperative during her photo shoot, but if you look closely you'll notice that having her picture taken proved (how shall I say?) a little upsetting to her:

And here's Nettie, our Buckeye. If she looks a lot like Capitola, it's because Buckeyes are close relatives of Rhode Island Reds. How do we tell them apart?  Nettie has three little stripes on her back, and is usually a little more laid-back than her sharp-eyed cousin.

And here's a group shot. They're generally happiest when they're together. 

Rob and I also started work on the coop today--no actual construction yet, but we did some serious planning and acquired our materials. More on the coop next time!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Chicks Arrive!

It's been nearly a week since the chicks arrived, and I've been so busy with work and chick care that I just haven't had time to write about it until now.

The chicks arrived last Wednesday afternoon. I received an email on Monday to let me know that they'd shipped, and should arrive here sometime between Tuesday and Thursday. Tuesday came and went with no word, so I signed up for USPS Text Tracking to see where the chicks were.  I learned that the chicks had been shipped from Meyer Hatchery in Polk, Ohio. Here's a video that shows their chick operation:

Finally, on Wednesday afternoon, I received another text notifying me that the birds had been delivered to the Champaign post office. I rushed to the post office, only to learn that the birds were actually at a different post office, drove there, and finally was handed a loud peeping box.

Here they are in the car on the way home.

I opened up the box right away, worrying that I might find the chicks droopy and dehydrated, maybe even dead--although all that peeping told me at least some of them were doing OK. Here's what I found:

All five were very much alive, and looking remarkably peppy!  I popped them into their brooder box, and took a quick photo:

Off to do some chick care; next time I'll post some photos of each chick so you can see how much they've grown.

Sunday, January 12, 2014


Yesterday, I ordered my chicks. I had thought about buying my chicks here in town from Rural King, but really wanted to have some special heritage breeds that I didn't think they'd stock. So I ended up placing an order with My Pet Chicken, since they enable you to order just a few chicks at a time. Most of the other hatcheries require a minimum order of 25 (or more) chicks, and I just didn't want to go to the trouble of having to coordinate a large order with other people.

So here's what I ended up ordering.

First, a Buff Orpington. Aside from their English heritage and fluffy good looks, these birds are also supposed to be calm and good-natured, the "golden retrievers" of chickens.

Next up, an Australorp. As its name suggests, this breed was developed in Australia from some Black Orpingtons that were imported from England. They are heavy-duty layers and are also said to be gentle and easy-going, like their Orp cousins.

Another good layer and a staple of many backyard flocks is the Rhode Island Red. This is one of those classic American birds--they're even the state bird of Rhode Island!  How could I not have at least one of these?

Another classic American hen is the Plymouth Rock. I've loved the look of the Barred Rock ever since I saw one a few years ago, in a friend's flock.

And last but definitely not least, a Buckeye. Like me, the Buckeye originated in the great state of Ohio. In fact, they're the only breed known to have been originated by a woman, one Nettie Metcalf of Warren, Ohio. And most fascinating of all, they have a reputation for being "ferocious mousers." Who knew?

So that's the flock.  The chicks won't be delivered until April 7, so now I'll need to focus on getting my brooder ready, and my coop built.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Revising the ordinance

So, on that fateful day back in April 2013, after I concluded my remarks and sat down, City Council representative-at-large Tom Bruno spoke up.  He asked that the record show that he was willing to support a study session to revise the ordinance that kept Champaign residents from keeping a few hens. "You can have four Great Danes but you can't have one hen?  What is the logic of that?" he argued. To my surprise, he was able to persuade five of his fellow Council members to sign the request for a study session.

A study session is where the real work of the City Council takes place. In the case of the hen ordinance, the City's Planning and Development department was charged with drafting a study session report. Luckily, Planner Lacey Rains Lowe was put in charge of this task. In Fall 2012, Lacey had worked on an environmental sustainability plan for the city, Champaign Growing Greener, that advocated allowing poultry and bee keeping in the city, so she was already aware of many of the advantages of keeping backyard hens.

While Lacey worked on preparing for the study session, I met with council members individually to find out what concerns they had, and to help them understand why allowing backyard hens might be a good thing to do for the community. I also sent regular email bulletins to the people who had signed my petition or who had contacted me as a result of local news coverage.

The study session was finally scheduled for July 9, 2013. Worried that the meeting might be packed with anti-chicken forces, I emailed everyone I could think of to encourage them to attend or to contact their council member about this issue. When I showed up at the meeting, there were lots of folks in attendance, and nearly a dozen people spoke up in support of a change to the ordinance. To my amazement, the City Council voted 8-1 to have staff draft a revision to the municipal code that would allow residents to keep a few hens for egg-laying.

Naively, I had hoped it might still be possible to get chickens that summer, but soon found out that we would need at least one more study session and a Council vote before the ordinance could be revised. While Lacey put together a team of City staff to draft the revision, I focused on continuing to educate people about the issue. I sent out more emails, kept people updated on my Champaign Chickens Facebook page, and put together an information session at the Champaign Public Library with a panel of experienced chicken-keepers.

The second study session was scheduled for November 12, 2013. Lacey held a meeting the week before to unveil the proposed ordinance and coop registration process, and my friend Debbie and I both felt that it all looked pretty reasonable. The day before the meeting, the News-Gazette devoted special coverage to the issue, and once again I worried that it would bring the anti-chicken opposition to the study session. But once again, the Council voted 8-1 in favor of the proposed ordinance, suggesting just a few minor tweaks.

Finally, on December 3, the City Council gave their final approval to the ordinance. Effective December 17, Champaign residents would be able to register their coops, and chickens would once again be allowed in the City.