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Following the flock: Backyard chicken coops growing in popularity

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A flock of 16 chickens pecked their way across the backyard, looking for kernels of corn that might have been missed.

Liz Eblen watched over the birds. She spends hours just watching them, noting their personalities and sense of decorum.

“The rooster will usually wait until the ladies eat, then he eats. He’s very courteous,” she said.

While chickens are nothing new to farmers across the county, this isn’t a rural farm. The Greenwood family has been raising backyard chickens just outside the city limits for the past three years.

Urban chicken farming has become a hobby for those looking to reconnect with their rural roots, even if they no longer live on the farm. With immediate access to fresh eggs, enthusiasts compare it to keeping a vegetable garden to help feed their families.

The opportunity to watch the fowl socialize, fight and raise their young also makes for free entertainment.

“I wanted to be more self-sufficient. Normally, I’ve been getting five to seven eggs per day, and I can just pick them up here,” Eblen said. “They’re so much fun to watch.”

The effort to raise more small-scale chicken coops has been gaining momentum throughout the country. In central Indiana, a business called Nap Town Chickens extols the benefits of raising chickens in their backyard and helps set up sponsored coops in area schools.

The goal is a “coop in every yard and a fresh egg on every plate,” founder Andrew Brake said.

Brake, a program coordinator for Keep Indianapolis Beautiful, keeps chickens in his Indianapolis backyard. He teaches a class, “How to Raise Backyard,” for IUPUI’s Community Learning Network and organizes a tour of urban chicken coops to show off how it’s done.

Nap Town Chickens started teaming up with area businesses to sponsor coops at schools in March. As of this week, they’ve installed 18.

“It’s about teaching kids to not be wasteful. When they only eat half of their hamburger, they can go feed it to their chickens instead of throwing it away,” Brake said. “You can teach kids they don’t have to throw away their food.”

For him, the joy of chickens is being able to walk outside and get his breakfast in a few moments, rather than driving to the store or waiting at a restaurant. He also loves the sense of community that has sprouted around his coop.

“I would not know my neighbors nearly as well as I do without chickens. They love to watch the chickens. They feed them when I’m gone. They ask to come over. It’s a community builder,” he said.

An emerging group of backyard chicken raisers has formed in Indianapolis, mostly in the Broad Ripple neighborhood. Brake keeps a map of 11 flocks that he knows of on his Web page and figures there are dozens more throughout the area.

At the side and back of Joe Bryant’s Center Grove area garage, a flock of nine chickens roost in a pair of 4-foot-by-8-foot coops. Bryant built the structures himself, connecting them with a fenced-in run for the chickens to scratch around in.

The coop is a fortress against predators, with hardware cloth and farm fencing extending underground to foil burrowing animals intent on obliterating his flock.

Occasionally, he’ll allow the birds to venture out into his spacious backyard. But a recent fox attack has him rethinking that strategy.

“Nothing can get into that coop, so if they’re in there, they’re safe,” he said.

Connecting with the past

Bryant estimates he’s spent close to $10,000 on his chickens since he took up the hobby four years ago. He raises a special breed, a mix of black, blue and splash Orpingtons. He became enthralled with the chickens after searching livestock on YouTube.

With some more research, he found a breeder who was willing to sell him some eggs, so he could hatch and raise them himself. His line now supplies most of the black, blue and splash Orpingtons in Indiana.

“I don’t sell the eggs. Either I give them out to anyone who wants them or hatch them for them,” he said.

Eblen started raising her mix of red-sex links and Americanas three years ago. Her grandmother raised chickens, and the nostalgia of having her own was enticing.

“I had those memories of childhood and was trying to connect with the past,” she said. “Maybe I watched a little bit too much ‘Green Acres.’ That might have stuck with me.”

Now, with 16 birds in her flock, she enjoys fresh eggs every day. When she steps out into her open backyard just off County Line Road, the chickens flock around her expecting food.

Some nose around the grass under a stand of trees. Others stay inside the lean-to coop that has been set up in the back of her property, waiting for her to bring out the scratch grain so they can eat.

“They look so pretty in the yard. They are always sure of who they are in that the rooster knows his role as protector of the ladies, and the ladies know they are to lay the eggs and hatch out baby chicks,” Eblen said.

She or her children spend time every day taking care of the birds. Someone has to feed them and collect fresh eggs every day. That was something they didn’t realize when they started raising chickens.

“There’s no such thing as ‘chicken sitters.’ We are lucky to leave them alone for any time at all,” she said.

Besides fresh eggs, chickens also provide other advantages for urban dwellers. Free-range birds will dig up beetles, grubs and other bugs from yards and gardens.

Zoning rules vary

But bringing farm animals into developments and backyards can bring complications. Neighbors might not be excited to have the scent of chicken manure wafting into their windows, and the first 6 a.m. rooster wake-up call will cause problems.

Some towns and cities have zoning laws that make backyard chickens illegal. Ordinances in Franklin, Whiteland and Greenwood prohibit people from keeping the birds within city limits.

Franklin classifies chickens as “farm animals,” which means they could be kept only on property of 20 acres or more, associate city planner Kevin Tolloty said.

Whiteland changed its ordinance this past year to make it illegal to keep chickens within 200 feet of another house.

“We had rules against chickens before that, but this brought everything up to date,” city planner Nathan Bilger said.

But Indianapolis allows coops in the backyard, as does Johnson County in general. Much of White River Township is classified to have agricultural animals such as chickens in their backyards, county planner Desiree Calderella said. The only restriction would be individual subdivision covenants that prohibit it, she said.

Even if the law says that chickens are OK, people should talk to their neighbors before building a coop, Brake said. His neighbors have embraced the chickens, but that might not always be the case.

Bryant had a rooster a few years ago that would crow all day long. The bird would sit outside his window and make continual noise. The racket drove him crazy, so he approached his three neighbors to ask if they wanted him to get rid of it.

“I almost wanted them to say yes. But they all liked to hear it crow, as long as it wasn’t right outside their window,” he said. “I’ve never had a complaint by a neighbor.”

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