Susan feeds organic dried oats to one of her three hens in her backyard in Arlington on June 19. (Maddie Meyer/The Washington Post)

Henny Penny clucked happily as she pecked for grubs near the compost pile of an Arlington back yard. The girls from next door helped Margaret scrape nearby dirt to unearth wriggling insects, and then fed them to her, hand to beak. Florence was willing to stretch and leap a few inches to grab her fair share.

Or maybe that was Margaret. It’s hard to keep the hens separate when all three Rhode Island Reds are on the hunt for their mid­afternoon snack.

Domestic fowl like these may become more common in Washington area back yards if activists have their way. They want changes in zoning laws that would allow residents in urban areas to raise hens.

Advocates tout the animals’ health, educational and environmental benefits. Chickens help control pests; their waste can fertilize compost piles and gardens; and they provide a low-cost alternative to store-bought organic eggs.

Opponents say there’s no need to turn urban residential lots into small barnyards. It’s harder than expected to keep chickens healthy, they say, and the hens’ pungent waste can run off into streams.

Susan and her family house three hens in Arlington. The hens provide eggs for the family and are fed an organic diet of foods, including yogurt, composted fruits and vegetables, cheese and dried oats. (Maddie Meyer/The Washington Post)

Those debates have intensified as Arlington and Montgomery counties consider altering their zoning codes to include chicken-friendly rules.

“People who keep chickens clearly love those chickens,” said Francoise Carrier, who chairs the Montgomery County Planning Board. “They’re more than just sources of eggs.”

The county is revising its zoning ordinance, and one of the hot topics, according to Carrier, is whether to allow backyard hens. “We had a woman who cried because she’s so attached to her chickens and couldn’t bear the thought of them being restricted,” she said.

Arlington is looking at an urban agriculture plan, which includes proposals for expanded community gardens, improved farmers markets, agricultural education and municipal compost. The plan also advocates loosening rules that require a chicken coop to be at least 100 feet from a property line, a difficult standard to meet in the densely populated community.

One Arlington homeowner — who spoke on the condition that only her first name be used because having hens and a henhouse on her residential property violates the county’s laws — said she solicited the approval of her neighbors before adopting hens two months ago.

“My children love animals, and animals should be outside,” said Susan as she showed off the newly constructed coop near the family’s fenced-in organic vegetable garden. “If they can have cats and dogs and large rodents, why not chickens?”

Growing trend, controversy

Backyard chickens have become so mainstream that retailers from Wal-Mart to Williams-Sonoma carry coops. Cities from Portland, Ore., to Portland, Maine, have revised their laws to allow small flocks. After more than a year of study, the Richmond City Council this spring agreed to allow residents to keep up to four chickens. Rob Ludlow, the owner of, said his community forum has grown from 50 members to 200,000 in the past six years.

It’s part of a movement in which people are searching out more local, fresh foods and trying to improve their relationship with the Earth, said Hugh Bartling, an associate professor of public policy at DePaul University in Chicago. He called the phenomenon “significant, nascent and growing.”

Opponents are horrified by the idea of allowing livestock along residential lanes. Jim Pebley, a member of “Backyards, not Barnyards,” an Arlington group created to fight the chicken movement, cites “smell, noise, runoff” as likely problems.

“God help us if these guys want fresh milk,” he said.

Laws on keeping chickens vary in the Washington region. Fairfax County allows chickens as “an accessory use,” explained county spokeswoman Merni Fitzgerald. “If you have a lot of two acres or more in size . . . we tell you how many you can have, per acre. The ordinance is pretty detailed.”

In Loudoun County, anyone who lives on a property smaller than five acres must get the approval of the Soil and Water Conservation District to raise poultry. Prince William County allows chickens on agricultural lots in special districts. Prince George’s County bans the birds in residential areas and allows them in general agricultural areas only with a special exception. In the District, chickens are banned.

In a survey of two dozen cities around the country that allowed backyard poultry, Bartling and his students found that the majority were satisfied with their local ordinances, and major complaints were rare.

The fears that backyard coops could breed disease and smell were overblown; they are problems for large-scale poultry producers, not flocks of three or four hens, he said.

“Chickenkeeping, I will argue, is a modest — but important — reflection of a larger dissatisfaction with the dominant practices that frame modern metropolitan life,” Bartling wrote in a study titled “A chicken ain’t nothin’ but a bird.”

“In a world marked by the uncertainties of the global ecology and economy and the social ramifications generated by such uncertainties, these localized movements can be thought of as an effort to reassert a different and, perhaps, more sustainable mode of political, economic, and ecological action,” wrote Bartling, who raises six hens in his Evanston, Ill., back yard.

Or it might just be about getting fresh eggs. Tom Carter of the Arlington Egg Project, which is pushing for a change in the law there, noted that “a farmers market egg could be a week old.”

Cock-a-doodle concerns

Marilyn Piety of the Sligo-Branview Community Association said at a recent Montgomery County Council hearing that “raising hens is not a benign activity.”

Last spring, the New England Journal of Medicine reported that 314 people have been sickened since 2004 by an outbreak tied primarily to one mail-order hatchery. Health officials think thousands more illnesses connected to the business were probably never reported.

“I’m not sure why this is even an issue,” resident Susan Rich said at the hearing. “Is there a shortage of free-range eggs in groceries? Can people not get their goat’s milk at the store if they want it? . . . This is a move sort of backward to making this an agricultural area when I thought I lived in a residential one.”

Arlington and Montgomery plan to legalize hens only, not their male counterparts. But some say unwanted roosters will result from backyard chicken flocks.

Hessie Harris harks back to earlier days when residents had no choice but to raise their own food on whatever plot of land they could. Encouraging people to return to those practices would be “a cultural slap in the face for a number of African American citizens in this county.

“Many people grew up poor and of limited means in the South — where chickens were a source of limited sustenance, not pets,” she said. “They left behind the poverty and the stigma associated with those chickens. That will take people back to those painful days.”

Harris also worried that a chicken wandering out of its coop could cause a driver to swerve dangerously to avoid hitting it. She said, “They get out, and they cross the road,” she said. “Don’t ask me why.”