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Sunday, September 14, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Metropoultry: Chickens in the city? Urban egg-layers are fun and legal

Seattle Times staff reporter

Chicken tending


Want to learn more about raising chickens? Seattle Tilth's class "City Chickens 101" will be held Saturday, Sept. 27, from 10 a.m. to noon at Good Shepherd Center, 4649 Sunnyside Ave. N. The class will cover the basics, including chicken physiology, behavior, health, nutrition and housing. Cost is $22 ($18 for Tilth members). To register, go to www.seattletilth.org and look under activities, or call 206-633-0451.

Larry and Blythe Knechtel's North Seattle home would look like any other Tudor on the block, except it's stucco, not brick. But that's not the big difference. Go around back and you'll see what truly sets the Knechtel homestead apart.

There, under a large sheltering rhododendron, pecking and putting a slender foot to work to send dirt flying, are the girls. Buffy the Insect Slayer and her two poultry pals. Dusty, so-named because she's a dusty gray, and Raven. Yes, she is indeed a beautiful shiny black, and highly entertaining, which is why Blythe talked Larry and their four kids into building a custom chicken coop beside the raised garden bed bulging with tomatoes.

"Where else can city kids see chickens and catch an egg when one comes out?" asks Blythe.

"I figure the eggs are only about $150 each," quips Larry. "I keep reminding Blythe there's no shortage of eggs in Seattle."

Nor, surprisingly, is there any shortage of families like the Knechtels, decidedly urban folk whose hobby is backyard chicken farming. The birds can be found — and sometimes heard — in yards throughout Wallingford, Phinney Ridge, Magnolia, Capitol Hill, West Seattle, Rainier Valley and elsewhere.

They're perfectly legal

But are those egg-layers legal? Indeed they are, according to the Seattle Municipal Code. Up to three "domestic fowl" may reside on any standard-size, 5,000-square-foot lot, more if the lot is bigger.

Because chickens aren't like dogs or cats — no collar-dangling license required — there's no way to accurately gauge how many folks are keeping in-city flocks, which makes it something of a stealth hobby. The number 100 has been bandied about, but that seems awfully low, considering the growing turnout for Seattle Tilth Association's two-hour "City Chickens 101" class.

Offered for about six years, "we've basically had standing-room only," says Mike Ewanciw, who coordinates fowl education for the nonprofit organic gardening organization. That means up to 60 people per class, with a real uptick in interest appearing about two years ago, he reports.

The trend continues to be fueled by the graduate-level "City Chickens 201" class, plus another in chicken-coop construction and Tilth's wildly popular annual backyard coop tour that draws several hundred attendees. General interest has even compelled Tilth to develop a fact sheet answering the most commonly asked questions. A sample:

Question: "Will they eat slugs?"

Answer: "A chicken will eat almost anything that doesn't eat it first. So, yes, they will eat slugs."

But perhaps the biggest question is why city types would be interested in these funny-looking fowl. Talk to local poultry aficionados, and their affection for their feathered friends fairly spills out.

"They're just the sweetest little things," says Blythe Knechtel, who also describes them as "incredibly stupid" yet smart enough to "kick our cats' rear ends. The chickens chase the cats out of the yard."

Jennifer Carlson, whose brood lives beside her Magnolia home, says chickens are a terrific reality check. "You can't take yourself too seriously with chickens. You can't be a snob. You can try, but it's ridiculous."

She also values "their sense of humor. The way they scratch for the eternal worm, whether there's a worm or not."

Social animals who do best in flocks, "they have distinct personalities," Carlson continues. "The more care you give them, the tamer they are."

"You can cuddle them," adds Ewanciw, "but not like a dog, not like a cat. You don't want them cuddling in bed with you."

A big part of their growing allure is certainly the food angle — up to a point.

Unlike her rural customers, city folks trading at Karen Barney's store, the Bothell Feed Center, don't buy chicks to eventually eat them. "They're raising them for eggs. They want to know what their chickens are eating," Barney says.

How many eggs they lay depends on the chickens' age, their breed, the season and other factors. But somewhere between 180 and 320 is about standard during a hen's initial egg-laying year.

Another bodily byproduct also is a plus for many backyard farmers. "Fantastic compost," chicken-raisers rave.

Another draw is their beady-eyed beauty. Where her rural customers want basic, generic-model chickens, city fowl fans pour over Barney's laminated chicken picture book before settling on what could loosely be termed the "designer varieties."

Very popular, she says, are the stunning black and white Light Brahmas because of their amusing feathered feet. Araucanas, which have iridescent black feathers, are highly sought after for their pastel blue or green eggs. (To see what these and other chicken breeds look like, go to www.ansi.okstate.edu and search "Poultry Resources.")

Also very popular with city farmers are hens, whose loudest vocalization, a short, rhythmic cluck, proudly announces the arrival of an egg. Contrary to what most people think, that blessed event is not dependent on the presence of a rooster.

Girls alone can be purchased as tiny chicks. That costs $1 or so more than just buying a random bunch of baby peepers at $2 each and taking your chances. "It takes a great deal of skill to be able to tell the sex with a one-day-old chick," observes Carlson, which is why females are pricey.

Those who buy cheaper and take potluck find they have a 50-50 chance of getting a rooster and, with one, a 100 percent chance of irritating their city neighbors.

"Roosters are pretty noisy, and you can't make noise in the city before 7 a.m.," explains Theresa Steig, Seattle Tilth's events coordinator.

It's not that they can't tell time, she says. "They do tell time. They just like 4 in the morning."

Then their owners call Tilth for help. "When they say they don't want a rooster, it's pretty indicative that a lot of people around them don't want roosters."

Steig says that can lead to dark rumblings about stew pots as a solution. Still, when Tilth tried to start a class called "Chickens and the Great Hereafter," no one signed up. Unhappy rooster owners do occasionally pepper Bothell Feed Center's bulletin board with "free to a good home" signs. Barney says rural chicken farmers usually oblige.

Noise considerations aside, "if you can raise a bird, like a parakeet, inside, then you should be able to raise a chicken outside, no problem, " says Ewanciw, who grew up on a farm and has raised over 80 different kinds.

It's true that chickens are hardy animals that rarely get sick. (When they do, they go downhill so fast there's usually nothing that can be done for them, says Carlson, so that saves a vet bill right there.) But they're not care-free.

Carlson is emphatic when she says, "If people have a real idealized view of what chickens are, I try to impress upon them that they aren't garden ornaments. They require daily care. You can't go away on vacation and just leave them a bowl of food."

Besides an occasional baby-sitter (often another chicken owner or a kindly neighbor), chickens need their own home. With nesting boxes. With a perch and a nice ladder to get to it and plenty of sunlight to keep their biological clocks set for laying eggs. A coop can run $300, and to be really effective needs to be raccoon- and rodent-proof.

The Knechtel brood, Buffy the Insect Slayer, Dusty and Raven, may be able to fend off the family cats, but the sturdy wire fencing that runs around and under their coop was all that saved them from death by burrowing raccoon. The family's children still shudder when they recollect that.

Beyond the cost of the coop, a flock of three will go through about $50 worth of feed and store-bought bedding (that would be pine shavings) every six weeks. Then there's the cost of the occasional chicken toy.

"They do get bored," Carlson reports. The amusements needn't be fancy. "A nice cantaloupe rind or a corn cob to pick clean" will pep them right up, she says. The Knechtels' brood also finds great enjoyment in lawn clippings. Another flock amused itself by eating the owner's 15-year collection of hellebore plants, but that's another story.

Regardless of the work, Carlson, like others who raise chickens for fun, finds never-ending joy in her flock.

"I have a little Adirondack chair and I sit out in the morning and watch them run around. I also love the element of the coop structure as a focal point in the garden. And it's magic to go out and find an egg that's been laid just a minute ago.

"It's like going on an Easter egg hunt everyday," Carlson concludes.

Elizabeth Rhodes: erhodes@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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