Houdini has escaped again.
No matter how carefully I staplegun the bird netting from the roofline to the fence, she finds a way out.Sometimes I’ll find her sitting on top of the clothesline, burbling contentedly, mocking me.
She is one bad chicken.
Houdini, so named for her evil habit of absconding from the secured chicken run on the side of the house, is one of our family’s five hens. Shy Henrietta is also of the Araucana breed, sharing Houdini’s pluffy feathered cheeks. Teresa, the big sharp–toed leader of the brood, is a Rhode Island Red joined by an indistinguishable pair of copper–feathered sisters known as the Feral Twins.
They came to us in different ways at various ages around four years ago, and I’ve been chasing them around the neighborhood ever since. When they’re not plotting in the sideyard, they live near the vegetable beds in a red shack built by my husband, who would have rather put a hot tub in that spot.
Once upon a time, raising chickens was far too Jed Clampett for us cityfolk. But then Martha Stewart flaunted her blue eggs and raised the bar on domestic badassery: No longer was it enough to grown your own basil or make candles from scratch.
If you wanted to keep up with Martha, you had to bake your seven–layer salted caramel cake with eggs from your own backyard. Around the same time, hipsters framed urban chicken farming as a local, organic food source.
Tending your own clutch became a sexy way to stick it to the agro–industrial complex. Plus, just like local produce, we figured out that fresh eggs taste more like themselves instead of the inside of a refrigerated truck.
Now the Internet buzzes with forums that ponder the difference between a cockerel and pullet. Weekend artisans craft custom coops with water filtrations systems and tiny porches.
But even a simple pen, some corn feed and a shovel are a small investment for such a rewarding hobby. Thus chickens have joined the pantheon of hot sustainable suburban trends, along with biodiesel Volvos and rain barrels.
(Of course, in small towns all over, old timers are rolling their eyes. “Y’all are late. We’ve only been raising chickens out here in the country since the beginning of time.”)
Chickens fit right into the postage–stamp sized farms many of us cultivate in our backyards. Savannah Urban Gardening Alliance (SUGA) founder Kelly Lockamy calls it “closing the loop:” You grow the vegetables, you feed the scraps to the chickens, you compost their poop and use it as fertilizer for more vegetables. It’s a beautiful cycle. And the eggs make it worth the big clucking mess.
If you’re interested in seeing how the other flocks live, SUGA’s annual Tour de Coop will show off of some of the city’s bird lofts this Sunday, Dec. 2. The two–trolley tour starts and ends at Southern Pine Company and is a cackling fun–raiser for the non–profit that aims to bring healthy, local food to every corner of Savannah, one garden and coop at a time.
“Some are kind of raggedy and some are so plush its ridiculous,” laughs SUGA board member Kathryn Tanner, who keeps a family of feathered friends in a modest screened abode on the eastside.
The former schoolteacher bought some gorgeous Australorps and Buff Orpingtons after riding the tour two years ago and was hooked enough to help make hen–keeping easier for others by sitting on the task force for the county’s new animal control ordinance. (Adopted this summer, the ordinance allows one hen per thousand feet of lot space, up to 30. Still no roosters allowed.)
“Chickens are some work, but not a ton once you’ve got their habitat established,” promises Tanner.
In case you’re wondering, my coop will not be featured on the tour. There are much better–behaved birds out there who deserve to be ogled. To be honest, Houdini and her ilk are rather long in the beak after four plus years. Their feathers are thinning, and I can’t even show you one of the Araucanas’ pretty blue eggs. While we once got 20–25 eggs a week from our little brood, now only one of the Feral Twins — who knows which — pops out an egg every three or four days. Everyone else appears to be irreversibly menopausal.
Which brings us to the part of urban chicken farming that no one talks about. I used to chortle “Chicken soup!” when asked what we would do with the girls when they stopped laying and earning their keep. I imagined myself a woman of frontier practicality, cleanly chopping a neck and plucking feathers in the lane next to the recycling bin.
But that was before the children discovered that our hens liked to be stroked on the back and my husband started cooing them special songs. I really cannot advise more strongly against anthropomorphizing one’s food source.
So, for now, we’ve chickened out on the fowl exit strategy. Under the city ordinance, we can’t get new birds until someone dies of natural causes. Which is why I’m not so quick to herd Houdini back into the coop so much anymore. I keep thinking the large gray hawk that stalks the street will get her and I can just chalk it up to natural selection.
Lately, though, I’ve found myself obsessed with the latest trend in sustainable gardening: Pygmy goats. Fresh milk, plus they eat grass, eliminating the need for a fossil-fueled lawnmower. Maybe it can trim the yard while we sit in the hot tub?
SUGA’s Tour de Coop is this Sunday, Dec. 2, 1–5 p.m. Buy tickets at Brighter Day, Thrive CafÉ, Victory Feed and Seed or at sugacentral.org.Houdini