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Feathers Are Flying

Chickens roam in Christina Morales's back yard in Prince William County, although zoning laws ban farm animals from most residential areas.
Chickens roam in Christina Morales's back yard in Prince William County, although zoning laws ban farm animals from most residential areas. (Photos By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)

Unhappy residents have called Supervisor John D. Jenkins (D-Neabsco) in recent months after being wakened by roosters. "We're trying our best to deal with it and let everybody know it's illegal," Jenkins said.

When authorities receive a complaint, an inspector is usually dispatched within a week, said Neighborhood Services Division chief Michelle Casciato, whose office handles 4,000 complaints a year on a broad range of quality-of-life issues. If the problem isn't resolved voluntarily, the offending party can be summoned to court and fined.

Officials say health concerns about the birds outweigh possible disruptions to a community's quiet. "You could conceivably keep a pet chicken in sanitary conditions, but more often than not, people aren't scrupulous," said county environmental health manager John Meehan. "A lot of what they eat is not digested, so it can become food for other animals. If you're feeding chickens corn, that would be a very ready source for rats."

Then there's the danger of an animal death. "Some chickens have been killed by dogs, and you don't like to see dogs killing chickens in front of kids," Jenkins said.

Last month, Cristina Morales thought such a fate had befallen her rooster. Morales and her husband grew up in rural Honduras, and when their kids noticed that another family in the neighborhood had chickens, they wanted some, too. Her husband brought home two hens and a rooster, then turned them loose to peck in the back yard. But there was one problem with this free-range experiment.

"We don't have a fence, so they got out," Morales explained in Spanish. When their neighbors complained, Morales said she and her husband gave the hens away but couldn't find the rooster. The kids clamored for replacements. "My son says, 'Mami, buy me another chicken; I want another little chicken,'" she said, shrugging. "I don't see what's wrong with it."

Last week, a rooster, hen and numerous chicks were seen in the Morales family's yard. Neighbors claim the family is keeping the birds indoors, allowing them outside on occasion to peck and scratch in the yard.

But tolerance is running low these days among jittery Prince William residents who say they see too many houses for sale, too many foreclosures, and too many unkempt yards for their liking. That's why Virginia Paris and her husband, Cavin Mooers, said they're eager to sell. "We're afraid our home will depreciate more, so now we want to make a run for it," Paris said.

They're looking for a place with a no-nonsense attitude about annoyances. "I used to think that I didn't want to be part of a homeowners association because of all the politics," Mooers said. "But I learned my lesson."

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