Unruffle your feathers - check out the 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 Buff Orpington hens represent a growing phenomenon in this country: They're "city chickens," living in a modular, brightly colored, two-level pied-a-terre coop in Jennifer Carlson's back yard.

Worth clucking about

Carlson, a landscape designer, notes 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, who grew up on a ranch, is far from alone in her efforts to add the rural touch to an urban setting. A lot of people throughout Seattle raise city chickens, she said, "and it's not just the granola folks."

"I've been raising city chickens since 1979," Carlson said. 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 a resident could have to three.

Grazing chickens

Her chickens each lay an average of one egg a day March through 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. "[The restaurant eggs] taste like cardboard."

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.

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-by-2-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-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.

The pecking order

Carlson said she can recognize which chicken is which. "When you raise them from day-old chicks...you really notice their personalities."

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

Carlson favors Buff Orpingtons, but other breeds of chickens 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.

Building your own coop

Getting the chickens is only one step, though. The birds - which cost $2 a piece as chicks - need someplace to live, and that's where her coop-building classes come into the picture. "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. The first thing people interested in raising city chickens need to do is take the classes, she said.

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

Staff writer-at-large Russ Zabel can be reached at rzabel@nwlink.com or 461-1309.

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