- Associated Press - Sunday, October 26, 2014

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Esmeralda stepped lightly through the grass in her backyard, pecking through pine straw while she let out a sweet, low hum of contentment.

Her new coop mates - a quartet newly arrived - were checking out their new digs, a little red shed jokingly called the Taj Mahal but comfy enough for poultry purposes, with an outdoor pen for running around and good magnolia shade.

Arden Barnett developed the backyard hobby 2½ half years ago, right after developing a taste for fresh eggs which only took, like, a second. That was at his brother-in-law’s farm in Louisiana, where there were chickens.

“It’s always intrigued me. We went out there and sure enough, she had just laid an egg,” Barnett said. He brought that egg in, poached it and “It was like, OK. Done. That was the most delicious egg I ever ate in my life.”

He came back to Jackson, researched chickens and coops and ordered 22 chicks.

“They threw in one extra, just in case,” he said.

Barnett sold some, gave some away and lost some to predators. Then, a surprise peep in that set of 23.

“It may have been four weeks or so, we started to hear a little (chick) trying to crow. And sure enough, one Sunday morning, it was just like the switch flipped, ‘Cock-a-doodle-doo.’ “

Fresh eggs, farm-to-table enthusiasm, nostalgia, curiosity and more are feeding an increasing interest in keeping chickens, even if the acreage involved is an in-town backyard.

It fits in with a nationwide trend of people wanting to know where their food comes from and how it was raised, said Tom Tabler, with the poultry science department at Mississippi State University.

“This is a way that they can do that and not have to have 100 acres to do it with or not have to spend a fortune on feed costs.

“Chickens are a little easier to take care of, they’re a little easier to manage and they’re not quite as dangerous” as other livestock, Tabler said.

Last year, the Mississippi State Fair brought back its poultry show after a 30-year absence. This year, “it was twice as big of a hit as what it was last year in the number of participants,” he said.

Local zoning ordinances vary. In Jackson, chickens are allowed as a special exception in the R-1 (single family) residential district on sites of at least an acre (maximum of two animals per acre), with certain restrictions.

In Madison, chickens are allowed in A-1 (agricultural district) zoning; “in this district, our largest one, people have at least three acres and probably most people who are zoned A-1 have much more than that,” Kianca Stringfellow with the city of Madison said.

Those who’ve signed on for the adventure praise the personalities of their pullets and the perfection of their eggs. Barnett affectionately calls his “egg production subcontractors.”

Southern Feed & Supply owner Rebecca Christian said her husband sold more than 8,000 chickens in 2009.

“That’s a lot of chickens. They just bought them like crazy. They still buy them,” she said.

And while Mississippi’s predominantly rural profile comes into play, that count includes the city set, too.

“Oh yeah, I got a lot of backyard chickens. A lot of them. And they live in nice neighborhoods, too,” Christian said. “As long as you don’t have a rooster that’s crowing, they’ll have chickens. They’ll have hens.” All the rooster does is fertilize the egg to make more chickens. Hens will lay regardless of whether a rooster’s around.

Anna Ingebretsen Hall, who lives in Jackson, usually keeps about nine chickens at a time for fresh eggs, though her flock count currently hovers at five. Blame that on a hawk and/or a raccoon. Their coop is currently under repair, with the hens overnighting in a shed.

“My chickens at the moment are not very bright. And they’ve been climbing on the compost bins and jumping the fence,” at which point a neighbor dog was quick to dispose of a wanderer.

“The problem with chickens is that the entire world is their natural predator.” And while a lot of chicken enthusiasts see their chickens as pets, “we don’t take that view here,” Hall said.

Neighbors have shuttled other wanderers back into the backyard. “Nobody’s complained to me or run over a chicken, so I think everybody’s good.”

Hall had been mulling the backyard chicken idea, when a trip to the Agriculture & Forestry Museum with her boys and hatching of baby chicks there converged into her first three-chick flock.

“When they were big enough, we moved them outside to a small enclosure and when they were 5 months old, they all began crowing, which meant they were useless to me. They all had to go,” to a rooster farmer in Madison.

She later got her layers. And the eggs? “They’re so much better. They’re amazing. Once you’ve had fresh eggs that were laid that morning, you can’t go back to buying them at the store.” When her hens go through a period of not laying, “nothing gets baked. We just wait till they’re laying again.

“Everybody thought it was a little weird when I first started.”

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Information from: The Clarion-Ledger, http://www.clarionledger.com

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