CHICAGO — Just past a busy intersection in this neighborhood on Chicago's West Side, a flock of hens softly cluck about the yard, seemingly oblivious to the stares of a nearby alley cat.
They are “like pets with eggs,” said Donna Knezek, who along with her partner, Liz Sharp, keeps five hens in a chicken coop outside her home in Chicago's East Garfield Park neighborhood. “It's important to know where your food comes from.”
Odd as it may sound, it's legal to keep chickens and roosters in Chicago (though slaughtering the animals is prohibited.) A year ago, an alderman from the southwest side failed to advance an ordinance banning the barnyard animals from their city roosts.
Since then, the idea of raising chickens has only become more attractive to urbanites, especially “locavores” who like knowing their plate of eggs came from their own backyard. The birds also eat bugs and weeds, they happily devour food scraps like wilted lettuce and carrot tops, and their manure can be composted into garden fertilizer.
Fort Wayne's city code prohibits raising livestock within city limits. It could not be determined Wednesday if that rule included chickens.
Signs of the burgeoning urban chicken movement include a bimonthly magazine called Backyard Poultry, which started publishing in 2006, as well as popular Web sites and blogs including www.BackyardChickens.com and www.urbanchickens.net.
“It's exploding all over the country,” said Martha Boyd, program director for Angelic Organics Learning Center, which offered a workshop in Chicago's Woodlawn neighborhood on basic backyard chicken care for city residents last month.
Within 48 hours, the 30-spot workshop had sold out. Angelic plans to hold another class March 21.
Tom Rosenfeld, one of the workshop instructors, said he is floored by the amount of interest.
“We've finally gone over the top in this corporate food delivery system,” he said. “It's about connecting much closer to (one's) food.”
An organic apple farmer, Rosenfeld has kept hens at his Rogers Park home for more than three years. But unlike many of the urban chicken enthusiasts he meets, Rosenfeld does not name the birds. For him, the birds are not pets.
“I wanted the eggs,” he said.
He appears to be in the minority. Diane Blaszczyk pets her chickens and lets them jump on her lap. She said her birds “beg like dogs” for scraps.
She and her husband, Mark, keep nine hens and a rooster in the Old Norwood Park neighborhood. In August, once their hens started laying, they stopped buying eggs from the grocery store.
“One of our friends jokes that we are well-prepared for the food riots that are coming,” Mark Blaszczyk said.
Tara Keating and her husband, Frank Geilen, got hooked after visiting a booth at a street festival in Chicago's Andersonville neighborhood this summer. Already committed to composting, organic gardening and commuting by bike, the idea of raising chickens just made sense.
They now keep four hens — Kippie, Poekie, Dotty and Pickles — in a coop they installed inside their condominium's garden.
Their hens eat only organic feed, about $22 for a 50-pound-bag, plus the cost of shipping, because the family does not own a car. Baby chickens themselves are cheap — often as little as a dollar and change apiece — and can be ordered online.
Keating estimated that the coop, chicken wire and feeders cost them $500. “You are not going to make money,” she said of the venture.
Non-organic feed is about a third of the price, and chicken coops can be made for less.
Shawn Peek fashioned one out of cupboards her family found in the alley, plus scrap lumber. Her family has three hens and a rooster in the Albany Park community in Chicago. Peek thought she'd bought four hens, but the birds are hard to sex as chicks. So far, Peter, their rooster, hasn't disturbed neighbors with his early-morning crowing, Peek said.
The crowing is something urban chicken advocates caution against. It can be loud and annoying, Boyd said.
The noise is in part is what motivated Chicago Alderman Lona Lane to try to prohibit chicken and roosters in Chicago last November. Lane has other concerns as well. She railed against the ritual slaughtering of chickens, which remains illegal, and she fears the birds might spread disease.
“The stench and the smell from their feathers and their bodies — and they are not clean,” she said a year ago. “Their debris and their waste are creating more rodents than there already are in neighborhoods.”
Lane lost the fight to outlaw the birds in Chicago's residential neighborhoods, but she said she is considering legislation after the holidays to ban the birds just in the slice of Chicago she represents.
“All things considered, I think chickens honestly should be raised on the farm and not in densely populated areas such as the 18th Ward,” Lane said about two weeks ago.
Elsewhere in Illinois, chicken laws vary. Residents in Evanston and Elgin are prohibited from keeping the animals. In Orland Park chickens are not allowed within 100 feet of schools, churches, public streets or other homes. Naperville, Ill., chickens must remain more than 200 feet from other homes.
Bradley counsels owners to keep chickens in secure coops and not to leave feeders out at night. Beyond that, she calls chickens “an inexpensive form of therapy” — peaceful, soothing animals that can even be trained to ride on the handlebars of a bike.