While they might conjure up visions of preening country western stars, Buff Orpington and Silver Laced Wyandotte are actually breeds of chickens that may roost in a henhouse down the street.
What started as a clandestine group of backyard chicken farmers is budding into a growing movement in Madison. Chicken raising went legit with the passage of a city ordinance in 2004, and the number of urban poultry-raisers has been rising since.
"At the beginning we thought it would be really great to get fresh eggs," said Karen Bassler, who is raising Peep, Penny Pretty, Jemima Puddle-Chicken and Shirley with her family at their home on the east side. "But once we got into it, it was the chickens themselves."
Bassler's not alone. Madison isn't overrun with chickens yet, but coops rising like mini condos are sprinkled around the city, neighborhood pet shops report that urban chicken farmers are seeking supplies for their broods, and the movement has even attracted a couple of filmmakers who are documenting the trend.
Officially, provisional City Treasurer Jo Ann Teresa reports that the number of casual chicken farmers is growing. In 2005, 29 chicken licenses (one per household) were issued in Madison, and that number grew to 43 the following year. In the first few months of 2007, the city has already issued 37 permits, so Teresa expects that the numbers will "definitely be higher than last year."
Those who raise the birds say it's nice to know their eggs are coming from well-cared-for hens. Oftentimes the feathered friends become like family pets, delight children and are generally welcomed by curious neighbors.
Bassler describes the hens as "very Zen." She likes to come home from work and watch them putter around the yard or take dust baths. "It's very relaxing and peaceful," she says.
At the same time, the birds have no sense of humor and can be fussy, to the family's frequent amusement. "The egg production has been less than stellar, so it's good that they're providing us with entertainment as well," Bassler said. At peak laying time, the family could count on three eggs a day. Now, in total, the hens produce about four eggs a week.
Ben Anton's family has three chickens: two gold Buff Cochin varieties named Rosie and The Colonel, and a Dominique breed of hen named Princess, who has black-and-white speckled feathers.
Anton has had the chickens for about a year and likes the simplicity and self-sustainability of raising hens. Plus, he thinks the hens will help teach his 3-year-old daughter about where her food is coming from, and the care of live animals.
"City kids don't get to learn about life and death in the same way a farm kid would," Anton said.
Together, the hens provide about a dozen eggs a week, which they sometimes share with their neighbors.
Not everyone in the family is as enthusiastic, however.
"My wife blesses their presence but does not partake in their raising," Anton said with a chuckle. "She washes her hands of it."
Madison's ordinance grants citizens permission to keep up to four hens, but no roosters. The birds must be housed in a covered enclosure at least 25 feet from a neighbor's residence and cannot be slaughtered in the city. The coops are spread throughout the city and not concentrated in any particular neighborhood, Teresa said.
Anyone who wants to keep chickens must pay the $10-per-year license fee on the first of the year, or within 30 days of acquiring the birds. Chickens must be registered with the Department of Homeland Security, too, so they can be tracked in case of any disease outbreak.
CHICKENS 101: Pam Karstens, one of the veterans of the Mad City Chickens group that worked to pass the chicken ordinance, is offering a class called City Chickens 101 to help novices get started. The next class is April 21 and costs $10, which helps pay for the group's website, www.madcitychickens.com.
She says the chickens help promote a sense of community.
"In terms of bringing people together, all you need to do is get a chicken on the scene," Karstens said. She said families out for a stroll in the evening frequently stop by to see her birds.
"It's kind of an extraordinary thing in the city." The hens also proved to be a useful bartering tool: One of her neighbors did Karstens' taxes in exchange for fresh eggs.
Sonja Sullivan keeps chickens at her home in the Vilas neighborhood and took the class before getting chicks last summer. Previously, the only experience she had with chickens was also in a city, as a young child living in Manhattan.
A grocery delivery person gave her family a few chicks, and the birds lived in the family's apartment for several months.
Her hens Charlotte, Holly and Nariko are pretty self-sufficient, Sullivan said. She lets them out of their coop in the morning, and they wander around the fenced-in yard, eat bugs and worms and come when called, like a dog.
"They'll follow you around the yard," she said. "They each have their own distinct personality."
She was a little worried about them during the winter because of the extreme cold, but they managed fine. The two Cochin chickens have feathers on their legs, which helps keep them warm during the winter. The hens drink out of a heated dog dish so the water doesn't freeze.
The bitter cold weather froze the first egg the hens laid, however. "It was a little egg popsicle," Sullivan said, but was still edible when cooked.
Several weeks ago, the family's fourth chicken met a gruesome demise by a raccoon when the coop's door wasn't tightly closed. Chicken advocates say the nocturnal animals are more of a concern than cats or dogs.
NICE DIGS: Many of the urban chicken farmers build their own coops to house their hens, with models varying from converted sheds to custom-made miniature houses bedecked with flower boxes.
Karen Bassler's husband, Daniel Mortensen, used recycled building materials from the Habitat for Humanity ReStore, plus a friend's discarded door, to construct the coop. An old real estate agency signpost holds the chickens' water and food.
Ben Anton built his coop from leftover cedar siding and spare building materials, and bought tin for a roof. He had to add more wire to his chicken coop when the hens learned to fly. Sonja Sullivan custom-built her coop, tailoring it to her hilly yard, making sure it didn't interfere with a playhouse and swing for her kids.
Dennis Harrison-Noonan, a handyman by trade and part of the original "chicken underground" (before the coop law passed), has built four coops in Madison. He said materials cost around $350 and labor can run anywhere from $700 to $1,500, depending on the trim details.
He bought his chickens (he has a Buff Orpington, a Black Australorp and a Maran mixed with another breed) from a farm in Iowa, which were sent through the mail as chicks. The chicks can live for 48 hours without food or water, he said, and are shipped 25 at a time for warmth. The birds were divvied up between him and other Mad City Chicken people.
The peeps are kept inside with a heat light on them until they are old enough to go outside.
Harrison-Noonan says the chicken craze is growing globally. He created a side business for himself selling his chicken coop plans, photos and directions in a "how-to" package for $25. He's sold several hundred of his coop plans to people all over the world through eBay, and posted a short video tour of the coop on YouTube ( www.youtube.com/watch?v=ULvlZ94aZN4).
The chicken movement has been observed at neighborhood pet stores as well.
"I get a request to carry organic chicken feed and grit or gravel probably once a week," said Liz Perry, owner of Nutzy Mutz and Crazy Catz, a natural pet products store on Lakeside Street. "People say it would sure be nice to have something in the neighborhood" so they don't have to lug huge bags of feed from larger stores like Mounds.
Perry, who opened her shop in December, said she's looking into the possibility of adding chicken-related supplies to her inventory: "It sounds like there's a need for it in this neighborhood for sure."
A CHICKEN IN EVERY POT?: Still, as the chickens age and produce fewer eggs, the inevitable question arises about whether to, well, eat them.
That's Anton's plan.
"Someday we'll have them for dinner," he said. "It will be a special meal."
Others say they can't imagine eating their backyard friends.
"There's a distinction between something that's been a pet and something that's been raised for food," Sullivan said. "I think my children would have a real problem having Holly on the dinner table."