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Urban residents turn to chickens as pets

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Celeste Genco, 13, holds a chicken in June at her family's home in Colleyville, Texas. The Gencos are among a growing number of urban and suburban families keeping chickens in their back yards.

Celeste Genco, 13, holds a chicken in June at her family’s home in Colleyville, Texas. The Gencos are among a growing number of urban and suburban families keeping chickens in their back yards.

D.J. Peters, Associated Press

COLLEYVILLE, Texas — 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.

There are no firm numbers available to illustrate the growth because it's hard to define who's keeping chickens for pets and who's keeping them to eat, said Bob Vetere, president of the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association. Vetere, whose trade group 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.-based 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, providing up to 63 eggs a week. The chickens eat grasshoppers and mosquitoes that thrive in the humid summer weather, an added benefit, Natalie Genco said.

Traci Torres helped start www.mypetchicken.com in November to capitalize on chicken hobbyists. Through the site, she sells chicks three at a time to pet owners. More traditional hatcheries sell and ship the chicks 25 to a box.

"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.

At Wood's 90-year-old Iowa hatchery, business has been booming, and his clientele has shifted from the Future Farmers of America crowd toward organically inclined young professionals. His hatchery ships 2 million birds a year to owners of small farms, rural clients and urban residents.

Wood's customers have to order a minimum of 25 chicks, but he often sees urban customers teaming up and splitting the order among a few households.

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.

"I've had calls from Lexington, Ky., Vancouver, British Columbia, towns in Alaska; many places are trying to get the city to permit chickens," said Karen Luetjen, executive director of Seattle Tilth, an organization devoted to urban gardening and food production.

Sarah Hempel Irani, 29, of Frederick, Md., started a blog named the Urban Chicken Underground aimed at lifting the city's chicken ban.

"People think they're loud and smelly, but my chickens would be a lot quieter and tidier than what people think," she said.

She said after seven years living in Frederick, she wanted to return to a time when chickens were a part of her life. To make her case, she is researching the benefits of pet chickens and plans to make a bullet-point presentation before the city council.

Number five on the list? "Chickens are fun and cute!"

The Gencos don't have to worry about violating zoning laws. Their 2-acre property allows for limitless chickens, a few goats and a couple of horses.

There's only one problem: Their lone red-combed rooster crows at all hours of the day. But they have a solution.

"We buy off our neighbors with eggs," Genco said. "They love them."