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Cooped up in suburbia

The chicken moves up in the pecking order of desirable family pets, and fresh eggs are just a bonus

BEDFORD -- Every evening, just before former landscape designer Janet Powers, 41, puts her young daughters to bed, she ventures out of her cozy farmhouse to secure the door on her backyard chicken coop. There, the family's four hens settle in for the night in a plywood playhouse that Powers's husband, Chris Yannoni, 44, an environmental civil engineer, converted into a coop when their chickens arrived from an Iowa hatchery last Easter.

"There's something very peaceful about them; it brings you back to a feeling of home," she said. "I don't consider ours like a pet, like dogs and cats, but every night I say 'goodnight girls' and they respond with little cooing sounds. Oh, maybe I do think of them as pets."

Across town, Hans Christen, 17, brings Elsa, one of his pet chickens, to pottery class each week at Lexington Arts and Crafts Society, where Elsa wanders around while the teenagers work their clay into shapes inspired by the hen. At the end of class, Christen picks up Elsa's food and water bowl, cleans up any mess, and heads home to the 1-acre property where he lives with his mother, sister, grandmother, dog, two cats, and the chickens.

Over in Lexington, across from the Battle Green, Molly and Joseph Nye can hardly remember a time when they didn't keep chickens. Not only were chickens part of their own childhoods, but since their sons were ages 3, 4, and 5 (they're now 38, 39, and 40) they've kept chickens whenever they set down roots. Joseph, 68, a Harvard professor who recently retired as dean of the Kennedy School of Government, says they're "not like a dog where you call them and they come. They're not 'lap chickens,' but I feel charitable toward them."

Molly, 65, vice chairwoman of the Museum of Fine Arts Associates, feels differently. She insists that the five hens now residing in the 19th-century shed attached to their farmhouse, and fondly called the Hen-cock Cluck House, are pets.

Chickens as pets? You've got to be kidding!

These three families have not flown their coop, so to speak. Keeping chickens as pets is a growing trend in suburbs nationwide, and in cities like Orlando, Seattle, and Santa Cruz, Calif.

Some say they do it for the fun of it, because chickens have unique personalities. Others do it to control ticks and bugs, which chickens like to ingest. All enjoy the cooing sounds and the fresh eggs. For many, keeping chickens in the yard is reminiscent of home, either real -- a relative's farm, or childhood experiences -- or perceived, such as on the TV show "Lassie," where chickens ran about the backyard.

Paul Boutiette of Sutton sees plenty to like: "Chickens take up less room than a large dog pen, and once you eat a fresh egg, there's no comparison to a store-bought egg. [They're] easy to care for, and there's no vet needed," which is true up to a point: Vets say they don't generally schedule regular visits for their clients who keep chickens.

Boutiette has another reason to be so boosterish. He founded eggcartons.com, which sells new egg cartons to people like himself who keep a few chickens at home and need a place to keep the fresh eggs. Since opening in 2000, he said, he has sold almost 6 million of them. "We now sell almost $1 million in egg cartons each year," he added

Murry McMurray, owner of McMurray Hatchery in Iowa, an 87-year-old family business that ships chicks nationwide, said that this year, his business "is up about 5 to 10 percent of our total, which is fairly significant. We ship almost 2 million birds per year," as pets or layers.

Locally, chicken feed is the largest seller at the Chelmsford Agway store. And while most of their business used to be truckloads for big egg farms, a greater portion today is selling one or two bags at a time to individuals keeping just a few chickens. Some Agway stores sell chicks in the spring.

Dave Erikson, co-owner of Erikson's Grain in Acton, sells them every Easter. "It's been increasing every year, backyard stuff, half a dozen here and there." He said his grain sales are way up, too.

No one interviewed said they eat their chickens. When they stop laying eggs, they remain part of the family. Still, many people have memories, or recollections of family lore, from World War II, when chickens were kept for laying eggs, but when production stopped, they'd be put in the pot for dinner.

"We always had chickens, they were just a part of life," said Joseph Nye. "They were functional. We ate the eggs, then ate them."

Today, he and Molly are pleased that their family of chickens has "come full circle." Not only have their children enjoyed them, but now "the grandchildren love to come collect the eggs." He grimaces, however, when asked about the messy coop. "It's a chore," he said.

At the Christen home, Linda, son Hans, and daughter Samantha, 14, post a pecking order for the week's chicken chores on a chalkboard. The list allocates who will rake the woodchips in the shed they built from a Home Depot kit, keep track of grain, turn on the heat lamp and hotplate to keep the chicks and their water from freezing, and who will locate chickens that wander off.

"Having chickens was something I wanted to do since I was a kid," said Linda, 40, a potter and sociology graduate student at Northeastern University. When Samantha requested them last summer, Linda readily agreed. Hans, first opposed to the idea, "has turned out to be this complete nurturer," Linda said. He once sat Elsa on his lap while watching television to protect her from undesirable rooster attention.

Because rooster-keeping is against Bedford regulations -- rules vary in each town -- they sought to have theirs neutered, but he died on the operating table.

Despite the pain of this loss, Linda agrees with a friend and psychologist who told her that pet chickens help ease life transitions for children. The family purchased the chickens after the parents divorced.

Landscape designer Deb Edinger, 49, also of Bedford, purchased four chickens last Easter for her son, Will, 9, not long after her husband died. "We probably would have gotten the chickens anyway," she said, "but the chickens mean so much to Will, and he's really attached to the rooster."

Edinger found herself in the same dilemma as the Christens: one of the "hens" shipped from McMurray Hatchery was a male, a sporadic occurrence, apparently, since chickens are difficult to "sex," as chicken gender-guessing is called.

The rooster's "a very caring male role model," said Edinger. "He's very strong and powerful, but at the same time very caring. He likes to protect those chickens. If a dog comes around, he's right after him. He flops his wings and charges, attacks. He's very valiant."

Aren't the neighbors' feathers ruffled when they hear the crowing?

"Most of our neighbors like them," she said. Unfortunately, an abutter who meditates every morning complained because the rooster liked to hang out near his house and greet the sunrise with song. In good neighborly fashion, the abutter located a new home for the rooster and one companion chicken -- several towns away. Will is OK with it because they will get two baby chicks come spring.

Other neighbors like the whole scene. Sing Hanson, 62, a digital printmaker who works from home and enjoys the chickens frequenting her backyard, said, "The first time I heard the crowing, it took me right back to Grandma's house on the farm, a moment of open transit back to my past."

Mindy Pollack-Fusi may be reached at mindy@mindypollack.com.

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