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Poultry owners find an urban coop

BOISE, Idaho -- Susan Medlin remembered the day she started truly paying attention to chickens -- live ones, not those wrapped in plastic in a supermarket case.

It was 2003. Medlin and her husband were helping a friend paint her house, and the friend's half-dozen chickens were doing what chickens do: scratching around in the yard, clucking, and interacting with the world in a friendly, if wary, sort of way.

''I started really enjoying their rather complex interactions," Medlin said.

An enthusiastic cook and a proponent of sustainable agriculture, she started looking into the world of chicken-raising.

She learned that chickens can live in urban backyards, producing eggs, eating bugs, and providing pet-like companionship.

Now Medlin has gone into business producing mail-order backyard chicken coops -- raccoon-proof structures that are made in Idaho and fit almost any urban setting.

Backyard chickens are not new; Martha Stewart has extolled the benefits of keeping a few chickens for the eggs, and urban chickens have been reported in most major cities. Portland, Ore., is known as something of a hot spot for urban chickens, and owners get together there to swap tips.

''It has started to become easy to get information and support," said Kirsten Cutts of Portland, who acquired her three chickens this year. Portland has mild winters, which helps, and sustainable agriculture is nothing new there.

''There's a real strong commitment here to the organic movement," Cutts said.

Boise continues to expand, and all kinds of livestock live in the city limits. Downtown, as many as three chickens per lot are allowed.

Roosters are banned.

''Roosters have a tendency to disturb the neighborhood when they start doing their crowing," said Scott Brown, a code enforcement officer for the city.

Dan Searle keeps three red chickens in the garden of his central Boise home. Each one lays about one egg a day; he frequently gives extra eggs to neighbors.

''Anytime you know exactly where something comes from, it's better," he said. ''And the experience for the chicken is better."

Searle does not let the chickens roam his yard. Chicken proponents sometimes say the poultry are useful at removing garden pests, but Searle said his chickens would strip his vegetable garden in minutes, if they got a chance.

Chicken-keeping also teaches children about the cycle of life, Medlin said.

''It's a pretty wonderful thing for a child to understand: that other creatures make it possible for us to live well," she said. And ''as with all animals, it teaches children to try and understand behaviors that are not their own."

When they're raised by hand, chickens can be trusting and friendly, allowing children to pick them up and carry them around. They don't harm anyone; when they're scared, they dash away. And children love running to the chicken coop in the morning to see if there are fresh eggs.

As with other pets, chickens clue youngsters into another part of the cycle of life: the part that, for many chickens, includes a hatchet. When a family hatches eggs in an incubator and ends up with a rooster they cannot keep, there are few choices. Medlin recommends getting out a cookbook.

''They don't start making noise and getting rooster-y until they're about 4 months old, and at that point they're good eating," said Medlin, adding that there are facilities that will take your live rooster and make it oven-ready.

''If that's not cool with the kids, then you have to find somebody who wants roosters," she said. ''It can be difficult."

You can get around that problem by ordering pullets [female chicks], not eggs, from farm or feed stores. Chickens eventually stop laying eggs. At that point, some people keep them as pets; some people stew them.

Medlin, a former teacher and a cofounder of a private school, does not expect to get rich producing backyard chicken coops. But the business fits in with one of her goals in life: helping people find healthier, more local food.

Having your own chickens is ''a different sensibility than buying things at Albertson's that have come 2,500 miles and are packaged to death," she said.

Searle, who flies all over the world as a purser in charge of flight crews for Northwest Airlines, sees chickens as a connection to his rural past.

''My grandmother and grandfather owned the largest hatchery in South Dakota," said Searle, 42, born in California. ''I've had chickens ever since I was 7 or 8."

You probably wouldn't want more than the three chickens that Boise allows in a small backyard. Chicken coops must be cleaned frequently, and must be locked up at night to keep predators at bay.

Medlin's coops are made of quarter-inch powder-coated aluminum; they cost $600 apiece.

''You don't want some ramshackle chicken coop in your backyard; it doesn't look very nice," she said. Besides, ''the more control you have over your food, the better you will eat."

Of course, there are concerns about bird flu. Chickens can carry the virus that has infected 148 people and that has killed 79, mostly in Southeast Asia. Scientists are concerned that the virus may mutate and go to people.

Medlin said chicken keepers she knows are paying close attention to advisories from the US Department of Agriculture. ''A backyard chicken, in the company of one or two others, is an unlikely prospect for avian flu, even if this continent develops or acquires birds with the strain," she said.

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