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Hot Chicks: Backyard Chicken Keeping Is Catching On, Legal or Not

There's rising interest in raising chickens at home in nonrural settings. Poultry is the natural next step in the sustainable back yard.

When she returns from work, she lets the hens out to roam in the garden, which includes newly planted fruit trees and raised beds with lettuce, beans and strawberries in growth.

"It's been fascinating," she said. "All my neighbors know about them, and some of the neighborhood kids love to come over and collect the eggs. They're really curious about them, and they love to feed them."

She got the hens -- named Dree, Dot and Fluffy Bottom -- in March as 1-year-old egg layers and says they are quiet and their coop is easy to keep clean. "I named them after my grandmothers. Well, not Fluffy Bottom," she said.

"I really like producing my own food," she said. "My father always had a vegetable garden."

The District's anti-chicken stance troubles activists such as Liz Falk, who ran an inner-city vegetable garden on Seventh Street NW before moving the enterprise to the former playing field of the shuttered Gage Eckington Elementary School in LeDroit Park. "Other cities are more welcoming of urban agriculture than us," she said.

To those who would say chickens should be raised only in the country, Falk would say no. "Why don't we grow food where the people are? It's so much more sustainable," she said. She'd like to keep poultry at the garden, called Common Good City Farm, but "we are unclear as to the law."

So what's it like to keep chickens? From what I gather, they are exasperating, dumb, funny, beautiful and so hopelessly ill-equipped to survive on their own that you have to love them. They also have a distinct social hierarchy. In the Capitol Hill garden, Dot rules the roost and poor Dree is last in the pecking order.

Whether in the country or city, unprotected birds will usually fall prey to an array of predators, including hawks, owls, raccoons and, of course, foxes.

Until this winter, Robin Wedewer's coop in rural Calvert County was ruled by a black feathered cock bird named Johnny Cash. The second banana was a white rooster, T. Boone Chickens. Late one afternoon, as the light was fading, she returned to her 22-acre farm in Huntingtown to see a pile of white feathers on the front lawn, another pile on the back lawn. Johnny had vanished in what may have been an eagle attack. T. Boone was gravely injured, with talon wounds on his sides. Wedewer's 18-year-old son, Benjamin, had dug a grave behind the chicken coop, not expecting him to last the night, but the plucky bird pulled through.

T. Boone still walks with a pronounced limp, but he now rules the roost. He crows a lot, but he has a lot to crow about, both as protector of his harem and as its lone lusty prince. He guards the hens while they take dust baths behind a lilac bush, and if Maude and Myrtle, two red starters, wander off, he will call to them and go racing off to retrieve them. With a limp. When he finds food, he will offer a low, repeated cluck, which is his way of telling the hens to dig in.

Wedewer gets about half a dozen eggs a day and raves about the flavor, the size and color of the yolks, and the stiffness of the whites. The chickens live in an Amish-built playhouse and a caged run that Wedewer and her husband, Harry, put together from lumber and chicken wire last year when they got the birds. "I make my own cheese, my own wine vinegar, my own wine," she said. "Why not have chickens?"

In the evening, the Wedewers like to sit in lawn chairs by the vegetable garden and watch the birds scratching around. "We call it chicken TV," she said.

For the Conrads in Takoma Park, the chickens have been a way to introduce their children to the joys and grimmer realities of the natural world. One of their birds was taken by a fox, another by a raccoon. "It's like a big science project," Mary Cush said.

For her most recent birthday, Anna Mae had friends over for a slumber party. "When we woke up, we all got to go into the coop and pick our own egg for breakfast," she said.

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