Elizabeth Lampert’s daughter, Siena, wanted a horse. “But that would have been expensive,” says
Lampert, the owner of a public-relations agency just outside San Francisco. Instead she went to a
local hay-and-feed store and bought the 10-year-old a pair of chickens. “Then Siena thought they
were getting lonely, so we got three more.” Lampert pays her daughter $2 a day to feed them, herd
them back into their coop every night, and collect their eggs, generally two or three a day.
“The eggs are amazing,” Lampert says. “They taste rich and creamy. The yolk—it’s very orange.
Siena used to ask for cereal for breakfast. Now she wants a veggie omelet.”
Lampert is among the thousands of people who have muddied the line of demarcation between
urban and rural America over the last few years, who’ve brought the cluck, cluck here and the
cluck, cluck there of Old MacDonald’s farm to their urban and suburban backyards. Municipalities
like Detroit, perhaps concerned about the possibility of noise, fowl odors, and abandoned chickens,
prohibit them. Others, including Spokane, have significant restrictions on coop construction. But
there’s a long list of cities—including Seattle, Chicago, New York, and Portland, Ore.—that are
perfectly fine about being home for the (free) range, at least for hens.
“Many people want to become more self-sufficient,” observes Rob Ludlow, founder of the
community website BackYardChickens.com. “Having a handful of egg-laying hens in a relatively small
yard allows people to participate in the grow-local movement without having to move.” Ludlow has no
precise figures on the number of backyard-chicken owners in the country, but when he created his
website three years ago it had only 50 members; now, he says, there are more than 70,000.
According to Ludlow, “There’s a growing awareness of how fun and easy it is to raise backyard
chickens, plus a growing realization that chickens are a multi-purpose pet. They eat the bugs and
weeds in your yard; they generate fantastic fertilizer.” Of course, they also provide your
breakfast. But generally not your dinner. “I would never eat one of my chickens,” Lampert says.
Tonya Langford Moyle and her husband, Thatcher, of Portland, Ore., have half a dozen
chickens, including a Rhode Island Red, a Dominique, and a Brahma, whose peak egg-laying capacity
is six a day. “It makes us feel closer to the earth. And we thought it would be nice for our
daughter,” says Tonya, the vice president of a Web-design company, referring to 5-year-old Una.
Thatcher, a financial planner, went so far as to buy some architectural plans off the Internet and
build a contemporary-looking coop with a clear roof. And his is hardly the only high-style henhouse
in town; Portland even holds an annual “Tour de Coops.”
For many backyard-chicken keepers, the desire to know where their food is coming from is a
big motivator. Kate Sharp, a preschool teacher and mother of two, has three chickens in her
Farmingdale, N.J., backyard. When she read about the recent salmonella outbreak, she didn’t have
one minute of concern. “I thought, Not our eggs.”
An equally strong reason is the hope that children will develop a sense of responsibility and
enjoy a delightful—if slightly unconventional—pet. “It’s easy to anthropomorphize chickens because
they have such different personalities,” Tonya Moyle explains. “They’re really great to watch
because they move in a funny way.”
The chickens’ interactions are a source of endless entertainment for friends when Elizabeth
Lampert has a party. “We’ll hang out on the deck and watch them. They are way more fun than any
animal I’ve ever had,” she says. And gifts of fresh eggs have proven effective in swaying those who
were, perhaps, a bit skeptical about the whole livestock-in-the-neighborhood thing.
“We’ve only had one comment from the woman next door,” recalls Linda Wrinn, a speech
pathologist in Gloucester, Mass., whose brood includes four children and seven chickens. “She
quipped, ‘Now, you’re not going to get a rooster, are you?’”