More and more people are getting into the backyard chicken craze

Bawk. Bawk. Bawk-ca!

Did you hear? The chickens have moved in.

Yeah, they're pecking about Tampa Bay's rural regions, where you'd expect chickens to be. But they're also in St. Petersburg. Seminole Heights. Largo. Gulfport. Tarpon Springs.

They're tucked behind suburban homes with Volvos and manicured shrubs and two-car garages. They're enjoying life in cozy coops, popping out eggs for their owners and nibbling blades of backyard grass.

"Everyone wants baby chicks," said Sandi Martin, who breeds, sells and rescues chickens on a small farm in Largo with her husband, Duane. "We're getting more and more calls."

It's not necessarily a money saver — eggs at the store are, like, two dollars. It's a commitment. There's poop involved.

What's the draw?

"I think people are scared," Martin said. "I do think it's the economy. Maybe we should all get a little more natural."

When it feels like the world might end, there's comfort in a backyard friend who makes breakfast on cue.

• • •

The home in Seminole Heights is atwitter with gals.

There's Big Mama, the sturdiest bird at the peak of the pecking order. When they were fluffy babies, Big Mama sat her round chicken bum on top of the others to establish herself.

Then there's Emily, named mnemonically for her sizable ears (chickens do have ears, turns out). There's Betty, Daisy and Melissa. There was a sixth, but she made a break for it one night.

Then there are the humans. Laura Starkey and her 9-year-old daughter, Sofia, round out the population at the green house on Powhatan Avenue near a Starbucks and a bustling interstate. Starkey, 43, is the granddaughter of the late J.B. Starkey, who owned 16,000 acres in Odessa. She's now the director of conservation lands for Starkey Ranch, where she grew up.

As a child, she cared for chickens. Adult life took her to the suburbs. One day, she thought, she'd live in a place where she could have chickens again.

"Then I thought, 'Well shoot. Can I do it?' "

She bought the chicks as a gift for Sofia's birthday this year. Starkey's father built an elaborate coop, complete with a flowery window box. Sofia learned about eggs and how they get fertilized. She developed a business plan to sell extra eggs to family.

The hens each lay one egg per day. They burrow for bugs and peck at the plumbago plant. They freak out for green grapes. They don't care for cracked corn. They can't figure out how to get back in the coop, even when the door is open.

"I don't remember them being this fun," Starkey said. "I'm really enjoying them now."

Some people think they're awesome. Others think they're weird. Starkey went to a cocktail party shortly after she got the birds. An acquaintance asked what was new.

"Well," Starkey said. "I got chickens."

The woman stared.

"She just walked away," she said. "She didn't know how to respond."

• • •

Google the word "chickens."

The Wikipedia page describing the origin of the gallus domesticus (uh, chicken) is third.

First? Backyardchickens.com.

In the last 18 months, traffic to the site has shot up. It has 42,000 members, 80 more joining each day. They post to the forums 7,000 times a day — more than five posts a minute.

They talk about egg laying. Chicken predators. Coop building. Local laws. Breeds, genetics and gender.

They ask questions.

Hi everyone we are new to the whole chicken world. How often do you clean the coop?

Is anyone due to hatch the 19th or 20th of this month?

Can you find Roosters that won't crow too loud? Do they exist?

"There's a very large trend toward local sustainable living," said Rob Ludlow, who owns the site and co-wrote the book Raising Chickens for Dummies. "Chickens afford people the opportunity to be a part of these movements while living in a suburban environment. They can't have cows and hogs, but they can live on a small lot and have a handful of hens."

People are passionate about their fowl.

When a dog killed a beloved wild Ybor City bird named James E. Rooster in 1997, his "father," Tommy Stephens, produced a parade in his honor. Stephens recently had to bury another bird named Chicken Nugget.

A chicken battle raged this year in Gulfport after a noisy member of one family's flock caught police attention. In February, City Council member Michele King pleaded with the council to let chickens and people live in harmony.

"If we don't do this,'' she said, "we are not moving forward."

Now, residents there can have up to 10 chickens. While chickens typically are banned from the 'burbs under county zoning rules, cities have the final say. In Tampa, they're allowed if they are not a nuisance. Same in St. Petersburg. They must be clean, cooped and relatively quiet.

Baby chickens come from a feed store or a breeder like the Martins, who sell 30 varieties for $5 per chick. Or, you can order them online. There are occasional shipping casualties, but chicks are tough. The Martins, who keep up to 200 chicks on the farm at all times, just received a box of 65 babies from Iowa to restock.

"Day-old chicks don't need to eat for a couple days," Ludlow said. "They're still absorbing the embryonic yolk. They put them in boxes with hay and bedding material. The post office knows how to handle them."

All of the Martins' new chicks made it to Largo alive. Within a week, they sold 20 of them.

Ludlow, 34, has raised chickens since 2005 at home in California. He gets the fascination.

"People love to garden and people love to have pets. If you can have a pet that provides for you like a garden, wouldn't that be the perfect combination?"

• • •

Sofia Starkey hugs her chickens. Daisy is her favorite, because she's small. She wiggles a bell tied to a stick to herd them.

"When they were chicks, I would pick them up and cuddle with them," she said. "They were so soft."

She and her mother wouldn't dream of doing the unthinkable. Shudder. But others have taken the backyard food thing to a new level. A grandparents-from-the-old-country level. A hatchet-and-block-of-wood level.

"A good amount of our community does raise chickens for meat," Ludlow said. "The line of demarcation between a pet and a food source is if it has a name or not."

The Starkeys aren't keen on a suburban massacre. In fact, they're downright cordial to their birds.

Right after they brought the baby chicks home, they sat down for dinner. Sofia looked at her mother, hand cupped around her mouth to whisper. She didn't want her new pets to hear.

"Pass the chicken."

Stephanie Hayes can be reached | at shayes@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8857.

fast facts

Fowl know-how

Some things to consider before ordering your very own egg makers.

What you'll pay: Baby chicks are cheap — anywhere from $1 to $5. Full-sized hens cost roughly $10.

What you'll need: Coops can range from cheap wire enclosures to full-scale houses that you build yourself or purchase. Each chicken should have a few feet of space in the coop. A roof helps keep out predators.

How much time you'll need: It's not more taxing than a dog. You'll feed them, clean messes and collect eggs every day. It's good to let them wander in the yard, but you'll need to stand there and watch them.

Ick factor: Chickens aren't as smelly as most imagine, but you do have to stay on top of messes. Laura Starkey's coop is on wheels, and she moves it to sweep droppings underneath. Eggs come out amazingly clean (there's a whole biology behind that). They can get messy when it rains and the chickens roll them around.

What they eat: Chickens eat bagged feed and pellets, but also love table scraps like veggies, grapes and bread. They'll also eat your weeds, grass, bugs and plants.

The noise factor: Hens are not as loud as roosters, who crow. They tend to cluck when they're laying an egg, or when something bugs them, or when they're showing off.

More and more people are getting into the backyard chicken craze 10/25/09 [Last modified: Monday, October 26, 2009 12:43pm]

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