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What I learned from a bunch of city chicks, part the second

Chicks and the City underway at the Southern Urban Homestead

The Chicks in the City class meets at the Southern Urban Homestead

We began this tale with a look at one flockkeeper’s beginnings, the growing fascination around my neighborhood as word got out that there were actual chickens in my backyard, and a brief account of the first Cluckapalooza.

In the meantime, a local environmental education nonprofit, the Oakhurst Community Garden, had asked my neighbors and me to develop a two-hour workshop for area folks interested in keeping chickens themselves. Not sure our nascent knowledge really qualified us to lead such a class, we put together a syllabus on topics ranging from local ordinances and coop design to breed selection and health issues. In October 2004, we offered the first “Chicks in the City,” a two-hour workshop for ten people. Not only did the class fill up, but it was over-enrolled and still had a waiting list. And so it has gone every time we teach it (which we did regularly until last year). We even taught it to an SRO crowd of eighty people at this year’s Georgia Organics conference.

Our students came from Atlanta’s in-town neighborhoods as well as the suburbs and exurbs. Some grew up with chickens themselves, or, more frequently, they would say, “My grandmother kept chickens. I used to love to gather eggs.” Some were trying to convince a spouse they can do this successfully; others had recently begun keeping chickens and come with specific questions.

babychx

People who take Chicks in the City learn to keep birds from hatchlings on.

Most impressive to us, however, were the experienced flock keepers who simply wanted to meet other like-minded folks. A neurosurgical nurse who took the class had been keeping chickens for several years when she enrolled one winter. She keeps thirty chickens on her three and one-half acres on the outskirts of Atlanta, but she acquired her first chick while living in an apartment complex in Decatur. “I would take her out and let her graze in the grass,” she told me, “and she was completely tame and knew where she lived and would go up the stairs to the apartment. I had lived there ten years, and people I had never spoken to who had lived there just as long ended up coming over to see the chickens.”

In hopes of encouraging workshop “alumni” to keep in touch and share ideas and inspiration, we set up a newsgroup at yahoo.com for the growing community of chicken keepers in our area. The “Citychickens” group members trade advice about local breeders, ideas for coop designs, predator updates (anyone else noticed how the hawk and owl population has boomed along with the chicken population intown?), advice about where—or where not—to acquire birds.

Another workshop alumnus, a local Waldorf School teacher, introduced his third-graders to flockkeeping. His students helped build the coop, and they are responsible for the birds’ daily care—food; water; a clean, comfortable shelter; and some free-range time each day. “Most of the children love it, but they also have learned that it takes some effort and discipline,” he said. “I think they’re learning to respect the tasks and the chickens.”

ocgpcoop

The volunteer-built coop at the Oakhurst Community Garden in Decatur

In autumn 2005, a similar desire to connect kids to their natural environment drove another expansion of Decatur’s chicken-centered community. A group of volunteers—mostly parents of young children—designed and built a chicken coop at the Oakhurst Community Garden, which owns an acre and a half of greenspace that serves as an outdoor classroom for environmental education. Soon five laying hens were installed—another demonstration of how community and sustainable living really do nourish one another. The Oakhurst Garden inaugurated “Team Chicken,” a spirited collective of six families who share in the volunteer care of the birds, from the morning and evening check and feeding to weekend coop-cleaning chores.

The team, most of whom had never been around chickens, have shared the challenges of learning to care for the birds, rejoiced together over the arrival of eggs, and even grieved together when they lost a hen to egg yolk peritonitis. One mother of two young daughters offered to coordinate Team Chicken “because I really wanted to get more involved in the community,” she said. “I’ve focused so much on my kids that I realized I’d been very disconnected. We wanted the chickens to be a part of the community landscape for our kids, because I had seen how kids interacted with them.”

She added that her early morning chicken chores at the Oakhurst Garden have also taken on a much-needed contemplative dimension for her. “Sometimes I take my older daughter with me, but I like going over alone, too. Sunday mornings are so quiet—I hear the birds as I walk over. It’s very rewarding, to feel for a moment like I’m amidst nature, or at least closer to it.”

That longing for both solitude and society caught the interest of an anthropologist friend of mine. She has pursued a study of how urban dwellers are increasingly appreciating such opportunities to reconnect with nature and one another. She began with a survey of Team Chicken, asking them to respond “yes” or “no” to statements such as, “I want to deepen my sense of connection to this place where I live,” and, “This work lets me be more connected with my family’s farming past.” For some, she found, the power of engagement with nature is very powerful. It’s restorative, as well; people see these activities as important for their mental health. It’s an ethical activity, too—some of the respondents like that they’re living more sustainably on the earth. For others, the work is fun and also connected to deep spiritual values. The fascination the children feel is often shared by their parents and neighbors—the chickens become a focus for neighborhood interaction and friendliness.

Four years into the Team Chicken experiment, the birds at the Oakhurst Garden are thriving, and so are their caregivers. A few challenges have cropped up along the way, but mostly it’s confusion about the schedule. A staff member at the Garden often fills the gaps, and the group mounted a flagpole on the coop to help signal that the birds had been let out or tucked up for the evening. Good, reliable email communication and the occasional group meeting at the coop seems to help.eggs

With the chicks we acquired for the Southern Urban Homestead this past spring, our flock is up to eleven birds. We get eggs that are cream-colored, blue, green, chocolate brown, and almost red. And later this month, a kindergarten teacher will be bringing her students over to visit. Apparently, as an urban homesteader, I’m a “community helper,” according to the Georgia state department of education.

Makes sense to me.

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Filed under Community and Citizenship, Flockkeeping

What I learned from a bunch of city chicks, part the first

Can you tell which one is our egg and which is commercial?

Which is our egg, and which is storebought?

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.

Foraday (background), Lucy (the redhead), and her sidekick, Ethel (blonde) enjoy a sun-dappled dustbath

Foraday (background), Lucy (the redhead), and her sidekick, Ethel (the blonde), enjoy a sun-dappled dustbath

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.

Scene from Cluckapalooza I

Scene from the first-ever Cluckapalooza

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).

A frittata from our "girls'" eggs I recently prepared with roasted peppers from my garden, potatoes from my CSA, and some turkey andouille sausage I got from the DeKalb Farmer's Market. Salad was arugula (my garden) and baby lettuce (CSA) with muscadines (CSA) and some Georgia pecans (Dekalb Farmer's Market).

A frittata from our "girls'" eggs I recently prepared with roasted peppers from my garden, potatoes from my CSA, and some turkey andouille sausage I got from the DeKalb Farmer's Market. Salad was arugula (my garden) and baby lettuce (CSA) with muscadines (CSA) and some Georgia pecans (Dekalb Farmer's Market).

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!)

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Filed under Feasting, Flockkeeping