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Coop Dreams

Babs, Edwina, Bunty and Ginger rise with the sun. Luci Fernandez can hear them in the backyard, cluck- cluck-clucking with the first rays. She hopes her Haymount neighbors cannot.

“Now I know what ‘up with the chickens’ means,” Fernandez said, with a cheerful cluck of her own. She’s thankful she didn’t get a rooster.

Fernandez grew up in New York City and graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Today, she’s a sustainability planner at Fort Bragg, the mother of two teenagers, the wife of a career soldier and a would-be farmer. She is cultivating the country life on a normal-sized lot in a historic neighborhood right in the center of Fayetteville. Her backyard chickens are new additions to her urban homestead, which also includes a recently acquired colony of honeybees and a vegetable patch that is slowly displacing the lawn.

Fernandez got the chickens, named by her daughter Marissa after the strutting stars of the animated movie “Chicken Run,” last fall, when her good friend and West Point classmate Debbie Davis ordered a flock of chicks through the mail. “We both got on this chicken kick,” Fernandez said. “It’s part of my overall plan of having my own food.”

Backyard chickens might not be a trend – yet – in Fayetteville, but they’re something to crow about elsewhere. Some of Raleigh’s backyard chicken flocks are open to the public each spring during the “Henside the Beltline Tour d’Coop.” That tour is a benefit for the Urban Ministries of Wake County and introduces folks to the art of raising urban chickens.

Fernandez knew nothing about raising chickens. She bought a couple of books on the subject, installed an outbuilding that is part coop, part garden shed and is, as they say, winging it. She has found herself schooling her neighbors on the finer points of laying hens. Are chickens really allowed in the city? And how can you get eggs without a rooster anyway? How many eggs do they lay? Do they make a lot of noise?

Now don’t start squawking just yet. The city does in fact have an ordinance governing poultry. Residents can keep up to 10 fowl within the city limits, said city spokeswoman Jackie Tuckey, who seemed surprised herself to learn of the law. Fowl would be chickens, roosters, ducks, geese or other domestic birds that could feasibly be raised for eggs or the roasting pot.

C.J. and Greg Malson have kept chickens in the yard of their historic home on Hillside Avenue near downtown Fayetteville for several years. For their 10th anniversary, six years back, C.J. bought a hen and a rooster for her husband. They called the pair Happy and Anna, as in Happy Anna-versary. She says the neighborhood children love the chickens and visit often.

“We’re the crazy people with the chickens,” C.J. said. “Thankfully our neighbors have accepted us as we are.”

Their little flock has dwindled to only two birds lately, and these are kept in pens because the family dogs pester them a bit. But she said it’s likely only a matter of time before the family’s backyard menagerie grows again. C.J. compared her husband, a military lawyer, to Dr. Doolittle and said he would keep more than chickens in the yard if he were able. “He’s tried to convince me numerous times to get a goat,” she said.

The Malsons’ youngest son, 10-year-old Ian, is the egg keeper, C.J. said. He collects the eggs but draws the line at eating chicken.

Fernandez has no such qualm. She’s wrung the necks of chickens before, during military survival training, so once her hens stop producing the goods, she’ll likely make them into dinner. For now, Fernandez’s girls lay their eggs mid-morning. She knows because while one’s in the coop doing her business, the others are in the yard, celebrating with a boisterous chicken dance. Typical hens, in the prime of laying life, will lay an egg a day. They don’t need a rooster to lay eggs intended only for the frying pan, Fernandez explains to curious neighbors, because fertilized eggs are only required to make chicks, not omelets.

Vickie Mullins lives in Cedar Creek. She started raising chickens again last year and has a flock of about 35. She keeps roosters, so she hatches chicks. And she wakes to the cock-a-doodle-doo, too. “I like waking up to the rooster every morning,” she said.

Mullins sells a few dozen eggs each week at the Fayetteville Farmers Market. The best part of having backyard chickens, she said, is that you have backyard eggs, of course. There’s no need to make a trip to the store before breakfast.

Deborah Byrd, who keeps chickens at her home in Linden, is a founding member of the local chicken club, the Cape Fear Feather Fanciers. She said neighbors who buy eggs from her swear that locally-produced eggs are richer and tastier than store-bought varieties. Byrd said raising chickens is therapeutic, too. She keeps a swing near their pen. “I sit out there in the middle of my chickens, and it’s just peaceful.”

They’re also good for cutting down on insect populations, without chemicals. They scratch in the dirt looking for tasty bugs to eat. Now you know the origin of that phrase “scratching out a living.”

And they’re just fun to have around, Fernandez said. They resemble miniature T-rexes when they run. They take dust baths in the heat. They eat table scraps, eliminating the need to throw them in the trash or compost them.

They’re good conversation starters, too, and could add a whole new dimension to your party banter. Fernandez visits a Web site called backyardchickens.com fairly regularly to find information. According to that site, a feather fancier can determine, in general terms, what color eggs a chicken will lay by looking at the color of the hen’s earlobes: white earlobes, white eggs; red earlobes, brown eggs.

There are some exceptions. Araucana chickens — made famous by Martha Stewart, who created paint colors based on the colors of her chickens’ eggs — will lay eggs in beautiful hues of beige, green and blue. Who knew?

And there’s no shortage of chicken sayings to brood over. Are you walking on eggshells these days, wondering if your nest egg will survive the economic recession? Did you take your flock and head to the beach this summer, or did you just come home to roost? Did you ask that special someone out on a date, or did you chicken out?

And why did the chicken cross the road anyway?