BEVERLY — Steve English is a keen observer of the behavior of the 18 chickens living in his Beverly backyard.
The pair moved to the neighborhood about six years ago and added a small backyard chicken coop in 2012. The structure has since evolved into a lavish playpen for the birds that includes a koi pond, ornamental plants and several nesting areas.
"Most of them know their names," said English, who has hens named Olivia, Agnes and Brigid to name a few. But he mostly refers to his flock simply as "the girls."
Howard Ludwig says English became a vegan after acquiring the hens:
English is part of a burgeoning community of backyard poultry enthusiasts in Beverly. He and others said having the birds creates a deep connection to the animals and a greater respect for their role in the food cycle.
For example, English nursed a hen suffering from scoliosis back to health, watched his flock mourn the death of chicken killed by a hawk and closely monitors the literal pecking order to make sure his coop is a bully-free zone.
"Meat people don't want you to know about these things," said English, who compares the intelligence and compassion he's seen from his chickens to that of dolphins and pigs.
The experience pushed English to become a vegan about 1½ years ago. And while he doesn't eat the eggs, his chickens do. In fact, it's common to feed chickens their own eggs as a source of protein. English also prepares the shells and re-feeds them to the birds as a source of calcium.
This sort of devotion is commonplace among the small but passionate group of backyard poultry farmers in the 19th Ward, according to Rashelle Strate-Hootman, of Beverly.
Strate-Hootman introduced English and Steinbach to backyard chicken farming. She has three hens in her more modest coop who produce about three eggs per day in the summer months.
"I like gardening. I like animals. And I thought this would be a good idea to show my son where food comes from," said Strate-Hootman, who has a 9-year-old son named Henry.
Strate-Hootman has had chickens in her backyard for roughly five years. Last summer, she was among 10 or so poultry enthusiasts in Beverly to participate in a "coop crawl."
Participants visited each other's backyard chicken coops, compared notes, shared drinks and networked with like-minded chicken fans, proving particularly useful when in need of someone to tend to the birds while on vacation.
As for the upkeep, Strate-Hootman said she cleans the coop about once a week. The job takes about 20 minutes. During the winter, the chickens remain outside, and the coop is insulated with heavy plastic. Neither she nor English rely on heaters.
"They are almost as much work as a dog ... unless you eat them," said Strate-Hootman, who said her egg-laying hens probably wouldn't be "good eatin'" anyhow.
Both she and English warned anyone interested in backyard chickens to be aware of predators in Beverly. Strate-Hootman's chickens are locked up at night in a sturdy coop. But she's found raccoon and possum droppings nearby, seemingly indicating that the clawed creatures have been eyeing her chickens.
English warned of the dangers of domesticated dogs as well as birds of prey. His chickens are allowed to wander free-range in the backyard both in the morning and early evening. Otherwise, they're locked up safely in his posh coop.
Abe Lentner, of Beverly, had his fill of chickens while tending to a flock of more than 100 hens in college as part of an organic farm that fed both students and staff. Instead, he bought four ducklings in the summer 2011.
"I wanted my children, who were 3- and 1-year-old at the time, to have the experience of raising poultry and understand how their food gets into the refrigerator," said Lentner, who now has seven ducks and a few ducklings.
He also chose ducks over chickens because of their rounded bills and "goofy" demeanor. He has since started a 4-H club at St. Barnabas School where his children attend and shown the ducks at the Will County Fair in Peotone.
Raising ducks and chickens is perfectly legal in Chicago. And while more people may be showing interest, Lentner doubted that the birds would ever replace dogs and cats as preferred family pets.
Still, he said Beverly-area residents seem particularly well placed in the world of urban poultry farming.
"East Beverly is kind of a haven for creative, organic food-minded people, I think. We have large yards, affordable homes, and I've met a lot of creative, interesting people and talented gardeners in our part of the neighborhood," he said.
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