Saving the planet was not foremost on my mind when I decided to start keeping chickens. As I have written before, I wanted to link my rural roots to my more recently established city self. Really, though, it was about the eggs. Fresh, yummy eggs with yolks as richly yellow as new dandelions.
But I was soon to discover that urban flockkeeping is about much more. Indeed, there is a growing movement of city folk who are discovering the pleasures of keeping a few chickens. Books have been written. Documentary films have been made. I was on National Public Radio talking about my chickens. And for many of us, one of the greatest satisfactions is knowing that our food hasn’t traveled thousands of miles over land and sea, at the cost of untold quantities of fuel, to get to our tables.
Indeed, my next-door neighbors, with whom I share the costs, labor, and benefits of our birds, and I quickly saw what community can really mean in a huge metropolitan area. Our little poultry project unexpectedly tapped into the quickly expanding ranks of people who are seeking ways to connect with the origins of their food—and with one another in an often isolating and artificial urban world.
Our avian adventure is a story of identity, friendship, and flock formation, you might say. My neighbors also grew up in rural places, in West Virginia and western North Carolina, and shared my longings for something like home. When we discovered to our surprise that it was legal to keep poultry in Decatur, we decided one evening in 2004, during an across-the-backyard-fence chat, to give it a shot.
In spite of living quite congenially next door for ten years, my neighbors and I had never has any real imperative to get to know each other well. But for this project, they brought design and carpentry skills that I lacked, and I had an existing building on my property that would serve as a fine henhouse.
We began meeting for dinner to pore over poultry books, draw up plans, and research local breeders. Together we hammered, stapled, and stretched chicken wire on our new coop, most of which we built from recycled materials. One afternoon we headed north of town to pick out two Buff Orpington chicks from a breeder. I will never forget the late summer evening our first five pullets were at last happily scratching and clucking in the coop, as the three of us sat watching with our (what else?) cocktails raised to new friends—feathered and otherwise.
News of our endeavor spread quickly. Neighbors we had never met soon tapped on our doors, curious about our birds. Drawn to what amounts to an exotic animal in the midst of Georgia’s most densely populated city, they wanted their kids to understand where their scrambled eggs (and chicken dinners) came from. Neighborhood kids brought other neighborhood kids. We would often find ourselves delivering informal lectures on the requirements and benefits of keeping chickens in the city.
By the fall, we had had so many visitors that we decided to throw a party to celebrate all things chicken. The first Cluckapalooza, now an annual event, drew about seventy-five friends. We strung lights around the coop and decorated it with flowers and art. Guests admired both the “East Wing” (my side, where the family resides) and the “west wing” (my neighbors’ side, where all the power resides) of the coop. Everyone feasted on a huge potluck dinner, including deviled eggs from our hens and other treats from my garden, now enriched with copious chicken manure. Games—with prizes—included a clucking competition, a Funky Chicken dance-off, and a contest to name one of our new birds (“Delilah” was the winning entry, but “Layla” ran a close second). Musicians brought their instruments and played their favorite chicken songs (there are more than you’d think).
But the event was more than fun and games. Our guests witnessed first-hand the role of the chickens in our turn toward a more sustainable lifestyle: they provide safe, nutritious, and delicious food that didn’t get here on a refrigerated eighteen-wheeler; they are humanely kept; they reduce household waste; they fertilize my garden; and they aid in weed and pest control.
Coming up in Part the Second: Chicks in the City, and Team Chicken (whoop!)