Words by Alissa Danckaert Skovira, photos by Tessa Skovira
Ice cream truck jingles, cicadas, lawn mowers, the droning of bees — they all weave together that sweet music of summer. But clucking? Squawking? What exactly is going on?
Urban chicken raising has grown in popularity across the nation over the last decade, and it’s catching on in Akron as well.
Since some cities outlaw raising poultry, it’s impossible to get an exact count of how many chickens live in cities across the United States. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated about .8 percent of urban homes had backyard chickens in 2010.
That means, for thousands of Americans, backyard coops provide fresh eggs and, occasionally, some clucking and squawking.
For many, chickens also become beloved pets.
“I chose mine because I wanted pretty eggs,” Nancy Murray admits with a laugh. Nancy has eight chickens in her backyard coop in Akron, an elaborate set-up called The Dragonfly Inn constructed by her husband Dave.
“They love Dave,” she says of her flock. “They follow him around like he’s a rooster.”
Nancy’s eight hens are named after the characters on the Gilmore Girls. She doesn’t own any roosters. (Many cities have banned backyard roosters due to their noisy early-morning salutations, although Akron has not.)
The chickens, Nancy says, have an innate ability to tell time. The entrance to their coop is on a timer. Each morning the door opens and the chickens are permitted to enter the yard, where they dine on insects that might otherwise decimate Nancy’s flowers. At night, they line up by the door and wait for it to open. When the clocks changed for daylight savings, the chickens patiently queued for an hour until they gained access to the coop.
The Dragonfly Inn provides shelter with a light source that keeps the fowl warm in cold weather. Chickens need 12 hours of daylight to lay eggs. Many lay sporadically in the winter, if at all.
Cleaning requires an hour of Nancy’s time each week, but the pretty eggs she collects are reward enough.
Different breeds of hen produce different colors, and Nancy’s eggs range in color from pinkish brown to a lovey, pale shade of blue. Buff orpingtons lay light tan and brown eggs. Easter eggers, a mixed breed, lay eggs that range from blue to green.
As much care goes into the breeding of chickens as in the breeding of dogs. The American Poultry Association has a list of over 50 different breeds, and lists breed standards for each.
Many hens only produce eggs for a few years, and when they stop, many end up on the dinner table. Nancy rejects this idea, insisting her brood will live out their golden years in comfort.
She has lost a few to a neighborhood hawk, though.
“It was traumatic,” she recalls. “There was nothing left but a pile of feathers in the front yard.”
To combat predators, the Murrays hung what look like giant beach balls with painted eyes from their trees. Hawks are supposed to find the inflated orbs intimidating, and so far, it’s worked.
Several streets over from Nancy Murray, another Nancy raises a smaller flock. Nancy O’Connor, an Akron veterinarian, has also suffered losses due to predators.
“This is my second group of chickens,” she says. “I had four and, sadly, eventually lost them all to predators—hawk and fox.”
Her Irish wolfhound tolerates the chickens roaming about the yard, only pausing to give them an occasional sniff.
Despite her career as a vet, it’s been 30 years since Nancy practiced any kind of poultry care. She sees her brood as “primarily pets, and a fun hobby.” The chickens provide eggs and natural pest control, and the pretty gardens surrounding the yard attest to their vigilance.
The popularity of urban chicken raising has some drawbacks. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 1,100 cases of salmonella were tied to backyard coops between January and September of 2017. Chickens carrying salmonella may appear healthy, but the virus can still linger on their feet, feathers, and droppings.
Careful hand-washing and changing shoes upon leaving the chickens’ area can minimize the risk of salmonella, according to the CDC.
Both Nancys say their chickens are easy to care for. What’s not to love about a pet that can feed its owner and take on some gardening chores as well?
Chickens can get broody, they warned. Without roosters, none of the hens’ eggs will hatch. But some hens remain over their eggs, trying to hatch them anyway
Like all pets, chickens should not be purchased on a whim. They need fresh water and a sturdy shelter. To keep neighbors happy, it’s important that owners keep coops clean. It’s also important to check your city’s poultry laws. Akron’s ordinance stipulates that no poultry may be raised within 100 feet of a dwelling.
Whether chicken raising is a fad or here to stay remains to be seen.
But it’s definitely being heard, as chickens’ squawks add their own flair to summer’s cacophony.
Check out Alissa’s recent story about Northside Cellar here.
Alissa Danckaert Skovira teaches writing and honors courses at Kent State University.