- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Lady Sussex, Lady Marmalade and Lady Chatterley are pets that produce food. Indeed, these cuddly, funny Silver Spring hens are examples of a new trend in metro areas across the nation: backyard chickens - a kind of extension of the local-food movement.

“They’re fun to watch, and they produce about three eggs a day, depending on the weather,” says Stephanie, who, along with her husband and children, keep these distinguished-sounding chickens in their backyard. “And their waste is great fertilizer for the yard.”

Sounds like a match made in heaven.

Yet Stephanie is afraid to use her last name in print.

That’s because Silver Spring, along with the District and other jurisdictions, have strict rules on where chickens can be kept in relation to human dwellings.

In Silver Spring, the chicken coop has to be 100 feet from the humans’ house, says Stephanie, who adds that her chicken coop and run - which she cleans several times a week - are much closer.

“I don’t want Animal Control to take them away,” she says, adding that she checked with neighbors before getting the hens earlier this year and that “everyone was on board, and nobody has complained.”

In the District - because of pressure from backyard-chicken-loving residents - the D.C. Council is considering dropping its 50-foot rule.

“The ordinances are antiquated,” says backyard-chicken advocate and landscape architect Cheryl Corson. “They’re based on the idea of people keeping hundreds of chickens.”

Ms. Corson, a former Capitol Hill resident, lives on 4 1/2 acres in Upper Marlboro, where she raises three chickens and tons of vegetables.

“I hope the [D.C.] Council relaxes the rules to bring Washington in line with other progressive cities,” Ms. Corson says.

But won’t relaxing the rules mean a return to the not-so-good old days when sunrises in city back alleys were greeted by a cacophony of crows, neighs and moos?

Not likely.

Cows, pigs, horses and other large livestock are not permitted within city boundaries, says Dena Iverson, spokeswoman for the District’s Department of Health.

Neither are roosters, which - because of their shrill and frequent cockadoodledooing - are banned in most urban areas.

But as it turns out, hens don’t need their male counterparts to produce eggs.

“They do just fine without a rooster,” says Robert Ludlow, owner of the Web site www.backyardchickens.com, which has about 42,000 members nationwide.

Mr. Ludlow, who lives with his wife and two young daughters just east of San Francisco, has five hens of his own and - like Stephanie in Silver Spring - never buys eggs at the grocery store.

But, while self-sustaining, he’s not saving money.

“People are not doing this in response to the recession,” Mr. Ludlow says. “This is an extension of the sustainable, growing-local movement.”

It’s a movement based on the ideas that food should be seasonal and grown locally and that you should know what goes into that food’s production, he says.

In the case of chickens, what goes into it is just about anything.

“They’re omnivores,” Mr. Ludlow says. In fact, they’ll eat bugs, weeds and food scraps in addition to store-bought nutrient-rich feed.

While applauding the “grow and raise your own food” movement, Nick Zimmerman, an associate professor in the Department of Animal and Avian Sciences at the University of Maryland at College Park, has a few words of caution.

First, make sure to keep the hens in a place that’s fenced off and out of reach for predators such as raccoons and cats.

Second, wash the eggs and cook them thoroughly because, unlike commercial eggs, homegrown ones are not tested for possible diseases, which are infrequent but can occur, he says.

Other than that, “I don’t think it’s a health hazard, he says. “I think it’s kind of nice that people are growing their own food.”

But it’s more than just food.

“It sounds corny,” Stephanie says. “But my husband and I - and I really had to talk him into [getting the chickens] - just enjoy watching them peck around. They’re funny and kind of ladylike.”

Hence the names.

Mr. Ludlow calls them the perfect pets.

“What can I say?” Mr. Ludlow asks rhetorically. “My pet makes me breakfast.”

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