You’re walking down the street when you hear it: A low, gurgling chuckle, like a drip coffee pot at the end of its brew cycle.
Intrigued, you stop, and listen more closely. Then, you hear a squawk and an unmistakable clucking noise; is that also the sound of flapping? Closer inspection reveals that here, in your corner of suburbia, chickens have come home to roost.
Since a city ordinance changed in 2010 to allow chicken-keeping as an “accessory use” to single-family home lots, urban and suburban chicken-keeping has gained steady interest. Nowadays, there’s probably a backyard flock in every neighborhood in Greensboro, says Mike Kirkman of the city planning department.
“Some people may have rural roots they want to reconnect to, or they want to participate in the trend toward locally-produced goods,” Kirkman says. “Either way, we allow it as long as the owners follow the city rules.”
The rules are pretty simple.
No roosters; that keeps down the noise.
No free roaming, unless it’s on your lot, which must be fenced.
No selling the eggs from your home; then, you’re an urban farm and the rules change.
No more than one chicken per 2,000 square feet; that keeps the fowl-to-human ratio manageable.
For Lisa Lewis and her neighbor Teresa Dail, of Sunset Hills, it all started with a trip to Goat Lady Dairy in 2010.
“I didn’t know a thing about chickens. I didn’t even know there were different kinds,” Lewis says. “But when I saw them at the dairy, I was just fascinated by the designs on their feathers, the different colors of eggs, just watching them. I told Tere, ‘I’d love to have chickens!’ and she said, ‘Let’s do it together.’”
Lisa’s husband Buster built the coop. Lisa and Dail then picked the chicks out online, selecting them for looks and temperament, and had them delivered to a local feed store. With five chicks of various breeds and a nestful of knowledge gleaned from the internet, the Lewis-Dail chicken operation was up and running.
Now, if you ask the Lewises about their family flock, you may hear more about the adventures of the backyard girls than their own daughters. There’s Dorothy, 9, a silver-laced Wyandotte; Beatrice, 7, a brown Ameraucana; and Alice, 7, a buff Orpington. Still laying the occasional egg, even at their advanced ages, they are a source of relaxation and fun for their owners.
“They’re really just pets,” says Buster Lewis. “They’re hardy, and don’t need a lot of care. They’re only as much trouble as you want to make them.”
Greensboro photographer Lynn Hey and her neighbor, urban farmer Stephen Johnson, share a flock of nine “girls” of various breeds. They also started chicken-keeping in 2010.
“It’s relaxing to come out here after a stressful day and just watch the chickens,” Hey says. “They all rush over to see me, they know the difference in the sound of my car from Stephen’s car. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves that they’re livestock.”
Some breeds are known for personality, some for hardiness, some for size.
“Our chicken Susie was a Leghorn, and they are relentless egg layers,” Hey says. “We could find at least an egg or two every other day.”
Not that life doesn’t occasionally take a foul turn. Hawks, raccoons, opossums, and other urban predators abound.
“Everything loves a chicken dinner,” Buster Lewis says.
These threats necessitate the netting around the runs, cloth under the dirt inside the coop, and a keen eye on the girls when they’re free ranging in the backyard.
“I went to pen them up at dusk, and felt a whoosh right over the top of my head,” Hey says. “It was an owl, and he’d come by to pick up dinner. His wing span was probably 4 feet long.”
There can also be a fair amount of DIY. Veterinarians usually don’t treat chickens, and the resource of yesteryear — a family member with a farm — is scarcer than ever. At times like these, the internet and social media can be a chick’s best friend. On the local Facebook group Gate City Cluckers, chicken owners and fanciers can sell and buy merchandise, ask questions, and generally find support.
But make no mistake: the pecking order is real.
“There’s a hierarchy, and they don’t break it,” Hey says. “Who eats first, who gets a certain spot — it can turn ugly.”
Life in the Lewis-Dail coop took a traumatic turn when small, easygoing Michelle ran up the ramp in the pen, knocking Peep, the flock’s undisputed alpha, down to the ground. There was a flap, a snap, and the coop coup was accomplished. That was the end of Peep.
In the days that followed, the Lewises noticed feathers growing on the remaining hens that they’d never noticed before.
“Peep had been pecking them out,” Lisa Lewis says. “She was a bully, and we’d never realized it.”
In general, though, it’s the peace and calm — and the eggs — that attracts hobbyist fowl fanciers.
“We’ve so enjoyed having them, and when we give it up, I’ll miss them terribly,” Lisa Lewis says. “Just watching them, interacting with them — that’s the best part.”
Lydian Bernhardt Averitt is a freelance writer based in Greensboro. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.