What makes a good pet, significantly adds to the quality of your food, makes little noise and is low maintenance?
It’s a chicken. Those plucky little guys (oops, gals) are becoming backyard staples in Oak Park, and enthusiasts say you don’t have to go much further than buying a real, live chicken to start enjoying the simpler life.
“I know of about 20 people [who keep chickens]” said Oak Parker Jennifer Murtoff, an urban chicken consultant who puts out a blog Home to Roost, a 24-7 site for all things chicken and advises readers on information like coop setup.
Pinning down the actual number of residential chickens in Oak Park is tough, she said, because owners don't need to buy licenses for them. Ownership is, however, limited to two fowl per yard, according to village Environmental Health Supervisor Mike Charley.
Margot McMahon said her family raises their New Hampshire Reds, Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra, to support community sustainable agriculture and eat the fresher food that comes from “growing locally."
“We wanted our kids to know where their food comes from. That’ll help them eat healthier,” said McMahon, an Oak Parker whose family got the birds as chicks shortly before last Easter. “We’d have more of them if we could.”
Other families, like the Wicklows, are simply excited about having a backyard chicken adventure.
Melissa and Paul Wicklow and their five children live in a home, built in the 1870s, with a Jack Russell terrier, a chocolate Lab, an African gray parrot and their four chickens: Baby Paula, Morellia, Sunny (named for the sunny-side up egg) and Lola, who was picked up by police while wandering on Harlem Avenue in River Forest and taken to the in Oak Park, the site of a recent "Chickens 101" seminar promoted by Root Riot.
“We realize that they are pets. They’re really social and the kids really love them,” Melissa Wicklow said.
Lynn Heald wanted her children to know the source of their food. Now, her family is the proud owners of Goldie, Dwight and Ms. McClucksky, all kept well-fed and content in a coop situated between her house and the neighbors.
The pleasures of ownership are one thing. The pleasures of fresh eggs are another.
Local chicken owners rave about their quality. During the peak of the year in the warmer months, each chicken lays an egg six days a week, with one day of rest.
Owners say the fresh eggs taste nothing like their store-bought counterparts. McMahon says they taste almost whipped.
“Why go to the store to buy eggs if you can get them like this,” she said.
The daily egg-laying ritual can be rather amusing. McMahon and Wicklow say the hens cackle each time they lay an egg.
“Mine take turns laying eggs; if the first one lays it on the bale of hay, the others will lay them in the same spot. It’s that way day in and day out. We’ve gotten a lot of humor out of it," Wicklow said.
Funny as they are to watch, chickens are also creatures of habit.
Wicklow said her birds file out from their coop, situated in a restored barn in the family's backyard, and file out single file to start their routine: take a circle tour, eat their way through the yard — to the detriment of the Wicklow's backyard garden — then scratch the ground looking for bugs.
They'll stop under the deck for part of the day, take dust baths, then wind their way back through the yard.
“The second the sunlight disappears they single file back into their coop,” she said.
They’re pretty easy to care for, owners said. They need a coop with a place to sleep, and the coop can be made out of virtually anything. (Just make sure that the coop is next to a wall to break the wind. You can cover the coop with a tarp or stack hale bales against, Murtoff said.)
So what do you feed a chicken? Well, they need loads of water and they'll eat almost anything — potato peels, grapes, blueberries, apple peels and greens.
But experts and owners recommend chicken feed and grit, which helps them digest their food. They'll also eat crushed oyster shells, which provide the calcium they need to help produce eggs. (Experts say keep the feed and shells in separate bowls.)
And what comes out the other end? Poop, of course. The chicken poop is mega-nitrogen loaded and makes incredible fertilizer for gardens.
For amateurs and experts alike, the thrill of chicken ownership is the same.
“We get the whole cycle of life in our backyard,” McMahon said.