Smile Politely

Chickens, Urbana-style

A couple of weeks ago, my husband called me at the office to let me know he had just seen something I might find interesting. He was in Urbana, on his way back to his office from running an errand, he said,  when he spotted a woman walking down the street. With her chicken.

We’re hardly strangers to fowl here in Urbana, Illinois. People have legally — and quietly, for the most part — been keeping chickens within City limits for ages, and there have been a couple of mini-explosions of urban fowl activity in the last decade — in fact, I’d say we’re in the middle of one of these explosions right now. I’m sure this is due at least in part to enhanced awareness about where food comes from and, especially about how animals are raised before we eat them or their byproducts. I figured, though, that everyone who makes the decision to keep chickens — to take the step of bringing home these creatures that are way different than anything with, say, fur — has a good reason for it. There’s a story behind it.

The houses in our part of the City are quite small by current standards, but the yards are pretty generous. Some good friends of ours in the neighborhood have an awesome garden situation in their backyard — theirs is the garden that inspired me to first start growing food. This family has spent two decades filling the space with raised beds for growing vegetables, growing yet more vegetables up trellises, planting and moving perennial flowers and herbs — and the result is this incredibly ROWDY, colorful, verdant, lush space that is also totally functional.

About ten years ago, the old dog run was no longer being used, so it made sense, said one of my friends, to clean it out and add six chickens to the mix, especially since they provide food for their keepers and excellent manure for the garden, and having chickens would be a great learning experience for their then-young children. However, our friends, who still have several chickens and ducks, aren’t sentimental about it. They definitely see their birds as part of their backyard food production scenario — when they outlive their usefulness, said the other of my friends, a bird’s time on the tiny farmlet has come to an end. In this case, poultry aren’t really seen as pets.

Others see them as both agricultural contributors AND as pets. Another poultry arrangement in the neighborhood is between two households that came about suddenly when neighbors who had chickens were moving overseas.

Karen Klebbe was a reluctant chicken owner.

Karen: I was vehemently opposed to chickens. Sam wanted them right away when we got the house and I was just like, no. Just… no. They’re smelly, they’re messy… they’re messy. Like, MESSY. And, quite honestly? I didn’t want to be those people.

Sam Vandegrift (her husband):  We had had this joke in our marriage that there were only two things in our prenuptial agreement: no chickens and no minivan. We had some friends who were moving out of the country and they’d gotten birds about a year ago and we’d seen them raised from chicks up through pullets and then they started laying eggs, and it was really awesome to watch them discover what it was like to have birds and raise animals that they were going to eat something from. Typically, I’ve never really known anyone who had a pet they were going to eat. It’s always been cats and dogs, and I’ve know people who had birds, but the people I’ve known who have chickens were never going to eat them; they just wanted to have them for the eggs. It turned out our friends were leaving, and I remember my spouse surprised me by suggesting that we take the birds in, which I thought was really quite a transformation from where we were — “ABSOLUTELY, ABSOLUTELY NOT”. I wasn’t quite sure, actually. I was suspicious. I thought there was actually a gold Caravan on the way. [laughs]

Sam remembers it a bit differently, obviously.

Sam and Karen’s partners in this endeavor are their next-door neighbors, Ryan Griffis and Sarah Ross.

While Sarah, who is not really an egg-eater, was pretty interested in raising chickens, Ryan was rather indifferent to the whole idea until the chance came, he said, to inherit these “ready-made” chickens. They knew the coop would reside next door, but decided that in order to give the chickens more room to range, they would get out the boltcutters and cut a hole in the fence to enable the chickens to move between yards. It’s an arrangement that exists to this day, though they’ve had to create more fencing in order to keep the chickens from totally devouring their garden.

Ryan sees the birds as occupying this “in-between” space — not quite pets but not quite farm animals, either.

Ryan: They’re not like dogs or cats in the sense that they come into the house with you. We don’t have names for them or call them and expect for them to behave in the way that you expect pets to behave or to return any kind of affection. It’s not necessarily like that. But I think that we worry about them more than most people who are raising, you know, a larger number of chickens. If you have three or four chickens, and something happens to one of them, it has an impact on you.

Life with chickens isn’t perfect; even though they forage all day long, they do require feeding. They need structures to live in. Predators can sometimes be a problem, and occasionally they can get sick and pass away suddenly. When one of the four “ready-made” chickens died without warning, Sam was really upset; he said it made him re-think his initial desire to learn how to slaughter his own birds. A couple of months later, he’s still not sure he wants to.

And Karen appreciates them way more then she thought she would. They’re a really great cheering section when you’re out working in the yard, she says. They’re friendly. They’ll eat anything. Plus, EGGS.

It kind of makes a girl want to build a coop for a few ready-made chickens in her backyard.

Lisa is producing audio versions of theses pieces for WILL radio. You can listen to them here.

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