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'IT'S LIKE EASTER EVERY DAY'

Chickens are working their way up the pecking order of pets in America, frolicking with the kids and laying eggs for breakfast.

The leaves shiver, the branches quake and 9-year-old Sophia Genco bounds out of the bushes, clucking at the top of her lungs while sprinting after a flock of scurrying chickens.

She isn't chasing down dinner. She's just playing with one of the family pets.

The Gencos are among a growing number of urban and suburban families keeping chickens in their back yards. While the birds don't cuddle like kittens or play like puppies, owners say they offer a soothing presence in the yard and an endless supply of organic eggs.

"Nothing calms you more than sitting out in the yard watching your chickens poke around for bugs and carry on conversations with each other," said Carla Allen, who keeps chickens on her ranch in San Marcos, Texas.

Bob Vetere, president of the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, which tracks trends in the pet market, said there is evidence to suggest the organic trend is fueling a pet chicken underground, especially in middle America.

Backyard Poultry magazine was resurrected about a year and a half ago after being halted in the 1980s. Readership in the Medford, Wis., publication has skyrocketed compared with its publisher's other two animal magazines: Sheep magazine and Dairy Goat Journal.

Publisher Dave Belanger said Backyard Poultry's more than 50,000 subscribers exceeded his expectations tenfold.

Bud Wood, president of the Murray McMurray Hatchery in Webster City, Iowa, said he's amazed at the number of calls he's gotten from urban residents.

"The biggest growth I see is the organic group that want to know where their eggs are from," he said. "A lot of urban people fall into that family."

That's the case for Natalie Genco, who lives in Colleyville, a Dallas suburb. The mother of four said eggs from the family's chickens taste better than the store-bought variety and that her children have fun looking for them.

"It's like Easter every day," Sophia said.

Each of the family's nine hens lays an egg every day. The chickens eat grasshoppers and mosquitoes that thrive in the humid summer weather, an added benefit, Natalie Genco said.

Traci Torres helped start mypetchicken.com in November to capitalize on chicken hobbyists. Through the site, she sells chicks three at a time to pet owners.

"We are in the business of making it easy for people who don't know what they are doing," said Torres, who co-owns the Web site and hatchery.

The site also sells chicken paraphernalia. There's a prefabricated chicken coop and pen, the "Eglu," for $570, and high-quality chicken netting for $169. The chicks themselves go for $2 or $3.

Many urban pet owners have to deal with municipal codes that don't always welcome chickens. In New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, it's legal to own birds with limited restrictions, but they're banned in some other cities.

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