Keeping backyard chickens is the plucky new urban trend

Gertrude, Zelda and Beatrice just cluck at all the media attention they've received lately. That includes an upcoming segment on The Today Show, numerous spreads in national magazines and a writeup this month in Seattle Homes & Lifestyle magazine.

But the three represent a growing phenomenon in this country. They're so-called city chickens, Buff Orpingtons living in a modular, brightly colored, two-level pied-à-terre coop in Jennifer Carlson's back yard.

Carlson, a landscape designer, is more forthcoming than her feathered friends about the popularity of city chickens, noting that she's taught Seattle Tilth classes about them at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford.

"We have standing-room-only classes of 40," Carlson said of City Chickens 101 and City Chickens 201. "Now I only teach city-chicken-coop-building classes."

Carlson waxes enthusiastic about the birds' ability to not only provide a supply of eggs, but also to help prepare compost for her expansive garden. They make great pets as well, she added.

Carlson is far from alone in her efforts to add the rural touch to an urban setting. A lot of people in Seattle raise city chickens, she said. "And it's not just the granola folks." City chickens can also be found at expensive homes with manicured lawns in the suburbs, said Carlson, who admits she's part of the granola crowd.

"I've been raising city chickens since 1979," said Carlson, who grew up on a ranch. She had 12 back then, but that proved to be too many as far as the city was concerned. The city council passed a Domestic Fowl ordinance in 1982, which limited the number of city chickens to three.

"You can have a rooster, but we always recommend you don't," she said. Those living near city chickens in Seattle can no doubt appreciate that, what with the early-morning crowing and all, but it turns out roosters aren't necessary anyway.

"They'll produce eggs without a rooster," Carlson said of the hens.

Her chickens each lay an average of one egg a day between March and October, when the declining hours of sunshine trigger a cutback in production to maybe one a day for all three, she said.

"Those eggs are incomparable in flavor," she said, describing the taste as buttery. The quality has spoiled Carlson, who hates to order eggs at a restaurant now. "They taste like cardboard," she grimaced.

The key to the superior taste of city-chicken eggs is the food they eat, according to Carlson. Her chickens eat commercial chicken feed, but they also chow down on recycled greens and fruits, and the fresh ingredients make all the difference, she said.

The birds are also fond of grass, which comes in handy for a composting project Carlson has set up in her back yard. She uses what she calls a "chicken tractor," a 2-foot-by-2-foot-by-8-foot chicken-wire cage without a bottom.

The chickens are herded into the tractor, where they graze on the grass, dig for worms, dig up roots and break up oak leaves Carlson collects from a couple nearby churches each fall. The birds' droppings break the organic material down and turn it into high-quality compost, she explained.

The result is 2-foot-by-8-foot section of loamy soil, and Carlson moves the chicken tractor around on the lawn as part of a project to get rid of the grass and replace it with gravel, she said.

Carlson said she can recognize which chicken is which. "When you raise them from day-old chicks ... you really notice their personalities." That includes a defined pecking order in the three-member flock. "You need to let that happen because it creates balance," Carlson said.

At the same time, the chickens are "social birds that really like people," she said. "They're always commenting on whatever goes on," Carlson added. "In many ways, I think they are ideal social pets."

The chickens also get along with house pets, don't roam around and prove to be no problem for neighbors called on to take care of them for a day or so, she said.

Winter is not a challenge for the chickens; their feathers provide insulation, and the birds produce enough heat to survive, Carlson said. The only thing she has to do is replace frozen water in the coop with warm water a couple times a day.

Carlson favors Buff Orpingtons, but there are other breeds that end up being city chickens, she said. Part of the choice is the kinds of eggs the birds produce. Hers lay brown eggs, but the more adventuresome pick the Araucana breed, which lays bluish-green eggs, Carlson said.

Getting the chickens - which costs $2 apiece as chicks - is only one step. The birds need someplace to live, and that's where her coop-building classes come into the picture. Carlson favors the modular approach because she's had to abandon large coops before when she moved, and she sells plans for the easily movable modular versions at her class.

But there is a wide array of other designs people use. "A lot of people spend a lot of time and money building elaborate coops," Carlson said. "Some are very pragmatic; some are very whimsical."

Seattle Tilth sponsors a self-guided tour of city-chicken coops in Seattle every summer, Carlson said. But the first thing people interested in raising city chickens need to do is take the classes, she added.

The introductory City Chickens 101 will be offered at Seattle Tilth on Nov. 12. The class costs $22 per person ($18 per person for Tilth members), and advanced payment and registration is required. Call Karen Luetjen at 632-1999 for information.

Staff reporter Russ Zabel can be reached at or 461-1309.[[In-content Ad]]