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You can learn a lot through backyard chickens

Published Nov. 16, 2012

Carol Aquilante's neighborhood, just east of U.S. 19 in Spring Hill, is about as urban as Hernando County gets.

But her back yard is surprisingly spacious and borders a narrow strip of woods.

She thinks there's plenty of room for a few chickens. So do all of the neighbors she has talked with, she said. And so do our county commissioners.

After Aquilante asked Tuesday for a change in the county's zoning laws to allow chickens in residential areas, commissioners told county planners to research the issue. They agreed to discuss it next week, and seemed ready to grant Aquilante's request.

Which would be great.

Raising chickens is allowed in urban and suburban areas all over Florida, including St. Petersburg and unincorporated Pinellas County.

If Hernando follows their lead, our suburbanites could learn about the ultimate local food, the stuff produced in their own yards. And a whole new crop of 4-H kids could get lessons in agriculture, biology and ethics, raising chickens smack in the middle of Spring Hill.

Aquilante, 63, a lifelong suburbanite, is just as fired up about the hobby as my son was a few years ago. She has done "tons of research" on the pros and cons of various types of chicken coops and breeds. (Being a native Rhode Islander, she's leaning toward handsome, brick-colored Rhode Island reds). She's looking forward to fresh eggs and hours of relaxation, watching her hens peck and cluck in the yard.

It almost made me nostalgic for those few months, about five years ago, when my then middle school son and I spent several evenings window-shopping for prefabricated coops on the Internet, before I decided this was a great opportunity to pass on some of my carpentry skills.

It didn't really matter that the coop we banged together ended up looking as rickety as Snuffy Smith's cabin. We went to a feed store to buy chicks. We suffered together — my son for the chicken, me for my son — when a hawk scooped a half-grown hen from our lawn. We savored the superior flavor of eggs from hens that were free to forage for bugs, seeds and grass. We marveled at the color of the yolks from free-range birds that former Times food critic Chris Sherman memorably compared with marigolds. I could even tell myself that, loaded with omega-3 fatty acids and beta carotene, these eggs were healthy enough to eat every day.

But just as Aquilante likes to share a handout that busts negative myths about backyard chickens — that they lower property values, for example — there are pro-chicken myths that need busting, too. People need to know what they might be getting into.

Yes, backyard eggs are more nutrient-packed than those from battery farms. But they're just as loaded with cholesterol. And if you go on an extended cheese omelet bender, as I did, you'll get blood-lipid readings similar to professional bowling scores.

And even when you think you're buying female chicks, there's always a chance that you'll get a male, which you won't know until you hear crowing that sounds like it is coming from teenage boy with a cracking voice. Then you'll either have to change the bird's name, as my son did — from Phoebe to Phil — or get rid of it.

Hernando's proposed ordinance, would likely forbid roosters — along with keeping more than a few birds and building coops too close to neighbors' property — and take away this choice.

But be prepared. There are no rooster rescue operations, and the people who take them in will wring their necks.

Which is what I'd like to do at 5 o'clock every morning, when the daily crowing wakes me and probably every one of my neighbors south of Brooksville, though they're too polite to complain.

I can't do anything about it, because, like most backyard poultry farmers, my son considers his birds pets. Names and visits to the vet are a must; plucking and eating cannot even be considered.

That's typical of amateur poultry farmers. But the problem is, chickens don't wag their tails or lick your hand. They peck and mount or get mounted and look at you with such blank and charmless eyes it's easy to believe the scientists who think chickens are the closest living relatives of dinosaurs.

So, caring for them doesn't feel like a labor of love, just labor — and it's understandable that not even a professed chicken lover like my son does quite enough to keep them from looking just a bit neglected.

Because, also, at this point they aren't much use as livestock. Egg production tapers off gradually after a couple of years and, after about five, pretty much stops altogether, though chickens can live and steadily consume feed for another five years after that.

Your cholesterol levels may shrink, but so will your bank account. Take it from someone who has definitely had his fill of Phil.