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An eggs-cellent adventure
Charleston-area neighbors Bethany Britton (left) and Gretchen Sparacino joined forces to start their growing flock of chickens. The payoff? Plenty of fresh eggs and a little entertainment. “On Friday afternoon, after working all week, I’ll have a glass of wine and just watch them,” Sparacino says. “It’s like TV!”
Photo by Milton Morris
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Walking the walk
Amber Starnes, area livestock agent with Clemson University Cooperative Extension, practices what she preaches during Backyard Poultry Workshops. With her husband, Scotty, and her son—Tyler, 2, and Tanner, 5—she keeps a flock of Orpingtons and Rhode Island Reds. “Chickens are not complicated,” she says. “And they’re not hard to take care of.”
Photo by Milton Morris
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Country in the city
Tara Felder raises a flock of backyard chickens in the heart of Columbia with the enthusiastic help of her 3-year-old triplets, Max, Sadie and Ruthie. “They love the chickens,” Felder says. “It teaches the kids responsibility and shows them where their food comes from.”
Photo by Milton Morris
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Building a better coop
After losing a few chickens to a crafty fox, Lexington florist Jim Pryor got creative in the design and construction of his chicken enclosures. He’s since built his own hanging feeders to discourage rodents and a miniature swing set to keep his birds entertained.
Photo by Milton Morris
It’s a sunny September day at Legare Farms near Charleston, and underneath a pop-up tent lined with rows of colored plastic chairs, Amber Starnes is preaching the gospel of poultry.
An area livestock agent with Clemson University Cooperative Extension, Starnes is hoping for a revival—of a way of life once common to Americans who owned even a scrap of ground on which to plunk a chicken coop. At today’s Backyard Poultry Workshop, she has a crowd of 20 or more would-be chicken wranglers hanging on every word as she dispenses wisdom on the finer points of coop size, poultry mites and chick incubation.
But if you want to see where the magic happens, stroll to the back of the tent, where Charleston-area neighbors Bethany Britton and Gretchen Sparacino are showing off two of their prized hens.
“This is Sparkle,” says Britton, pointing to one chicken. “And this is Rock Star,” says Sparacino.
The hens murmuring in the pen are like magnets. People keep slipping over to take a closer look, to reach a tentative hand toward the clutch of chicks clustered near their mamas. You watch the crowd admire the hens’ fluffed-up feathers and ask about their egg-laying habits and you think: So, this is how it happens. This is how regular, otherwise-perfectly-normal city dwellers turn into backyard chicken farmers.
Striving for sustainability
Starnes, a member of Lynches River Electric Cooperative, travels across the state to conduct these workshops several times a year and finds many of the attendees are urban residents, drawn to the idea of keeping chickens as a step toward a more sustainable lifestyle. It’s a trend Starnes is happy to foster, and as more communities loosen restrictions on backyard chickens, the activity is seen less like farming and more like keeping any other kind of pet.
“Over the past few years, keeping chickens has become extremely popular,” she says.
For Britton and Sparacino, the decision to raise chickens together was driven by the desire for tastier eggs for their families and, possibly, a dearth of other entertainment options.
“On Friday afternoon, after working all week, I’ll have a glass of wine and just watch them,” Sparacino says. “It’s like TV!”
“Each chicken has its own personality,” Britton adds. The two friends care for a small but growing flock, and they’re Exhibit A for Starnes’ “M&Ms theory,” which states that, like the candy, nobody can have just one chicken.
For Tara Felder, it all started when she was a child. Her father explained that they couldn’t have a chicken, because the birds were too messy. Apparently, Felder wasn’t listening, because she now has a whole flock. Her dad must not have convinced himself, either, because he, too, now owns chickens, Felder says.
Felder and her husband, David, live in downtown Columbia, where they renovated a dilapidated playhouse into cool digs for their hens. Their Wyandottes come running for the vegetable peels and fruit scraps Felder saves for them and, in return, the chickens feed the family’s serious egg habit. The girls’ biggest fans are the Felders’ 3-year-old triplets: Sadie, Ruthie and Max.
“They love the chickens,” Felder says. “We were definitely worried one of the chicks was going to get loved to death.” The kids run to the coop to look for eggs and have christened each hen “Caroline.”
“It’s great to be able to quote-unquote farm in the city,” Felder says. “It teaches the kids responsibility and shows them where their food comes from.”
And, she says, once you get past the notion that you are acquiring, you know, livestock, chickens are really little different than any other pet, and in some ways, simpler.
“It’s not as scary as adopting a dog. You don’t walk them,” she says. “And the eggs—they taste different. They’re amazing, they’re fresh.”
Not that it’s all been omelets and egg salad. There was that rogue rooster who slipped into the first batch of chicks the Felders ordered from a hatchery. There were the casualties of their beagle’s newfound hatred of hens. And then, there’s the manure.
“If you give them the run of your yard, they are indiscriminate poopers,” Felder says. Still, she says, chicken ownership isn’t any nuttier than anything else. “Honestly,” says the mom of triplets, “in our house, they’re the easiest thing we have.”
The chicken swing
Jim Pryor has been keeping chickens for at least five years, and while the hobby may not yet qualify as an obsession, there is the little matter of the chicken swing.
The Lexington resident, who lives outside of town, has a flock headed by a rooster named Winnebago. Pryor was careful to locate their spacious coop and run on the driest ground, and he built his own hanging food dispenser to protect feed from rodents. But then he decided the chickens needed a little something extra. So he used a branch to build them their own swing set.
“They’ll jump on the swing and start swinging,” Pryor says. “They start moving their heads back and forth to make it go faster.”
Pryor, who, with his wife, Jennifer, runs White House Florist on the property where he keeps his flock, says the birds are a hit with customers. And they help him fulfill a lifelong interest in farming. He’s been asked what he’ll do with the birds when they age and their egg-laying slows. His nieces and nephews have already made it clear they do not want to hear of any aging birds heading for the soup pot. But any chicken owner deals, at some point, with death.
Fox in the henhouse
“I lost a couple a couple years ago due to a fox,” Pryor says, and it was due to an oversight with coop-building. “I dug around the entire outside of the coop and the run with what they call hardware cloth, and you have to go 6 to 8 inches around and bury it. I had not gotten one little spot around the gate, and that’s where they found the weak spot. It was a hard lesson to learn.”
The Sparacino-Britton flock in Charleston suffered losses due to sickness—from two unfortunate birds purchased at a flea market (don’t do it, cautions Britton)—and neighborhood dogs.
“It’s hard to explain to kids, but at the same time, it’s a very educational experience, because they learn about predator-prey relationships,” Britton says. “But it’s not pretty.”
In her chicken classes, Starnes makes sure to talk about these less-than-Martha-Stewart moments. “Things are going to go wrong,” she says, “but you move on.”
In the end, urban chicken farming is worth the occasional loss and the more-than-occasional manure, chicken owners agree.
“It’s some work,” says Britton. “I go out there every Sunday and clean the coop really well and hose everything down and fill their waterers with fresh water, but I love the birds. I go outside and sit on my chair, and they come up to me like, ‘Hey, what’s up?’”
Starnes isn’t a city dweller—she and her husband, Scotty, live on six acres—but even if she relocated to the center of town, she’d find a way to have her birds. For one thing, they’re a great way to introduce kids to nature and agriculture.
Starnes’ boys, Tanner, 5, and Tyler, 2, run out to the coop with baskets to gather eggs. They hoist the buff Orpingtons and Rhode Island Reds and tote them around the yard.
And, for folks interested in eating locally, you can’t get much more local than your own backyard.
Chickens “are not complicated, and they’re not hard to take care of,” Starnes says. “And they bring the country to people who live in a city setting.”
Learn more about raising backyard chickens
The next Backyard Poultry Workshop will take place Feb. 17 at the Lexington County Clemson Extension office (605 West Main St., Suite 109, Lexington). Additional workshops are planned for the spring. For updates, see the Clemson University calendar at calendar.clemson.edu.
Want the basics on choosing chickens, bringing up babies, dealing with disease and the mysteries of the molt? Clemson Extension has produced a handy download that covers the need-to-know points. See clemson.edu/public/lph/ahp/images/npip/backyardchicks.pdf.
Poultry associations offer a way to learn chicken-raising tips, find out about breeds and connect with fellow chicken enthusiasts. Clemson Extension keeps a list of national and regional poultry groups at clemson.edu/public/lph/ahp/poultry_groups.html.