Raising chickens in cities gaining popularity

Candace and Nate Zuckas live in the kind of small suburban home that begs for 2.5 kids and a family dog.

Instead, five chickens scratch in the backyard of the half-acre lot near Lake Olmstead. They groan softly, bob their heads and throw clusters of leaves in the air as they search for bugs to eat.

"I like the idea of growing our own food," Candace Zuckas said. "We eat organic, and this is a way to know where our food is coming from."

The chickens produce as many as five eggs a day. The eggs have no preservatives and taste better than store-bought ones, the couple said.

The Zuckases aren't the only city dwellers raising chickens, said Lisa Munniksma, the editor of Urban Farms , a Kentucky-based magazine about sustainable living.

Food-supply problems such as last year's egg-salmonella outbreak, a growing awareness of how far food travels and the poor living conditions of some commercial livestock have rekindled interest in homegrown food, she said.

"People are asking a whole lot of questions about backyard chickens right now," Munniksma said. "We've found it's growing a lot in interest."

A half-dozen chickens are no more difficult to raise than a medium-size dog, she said. Aside from eggs and meat, they can produce fertilizer for gardens.

Andrea Hensley, who sells baby chicks at Country Boy Farm and Yard in North Augusta, said her customers used to buy baby chicks as an Easter gift. Now, more are interested in them as an egg-producing pet.

"I think you'd be surprised as you drive by homes how many people have them," Hensley said. "A lot of times I'll ask a customer, 'Where do you live?' and they'll say Belvedere or North Augusta."

Candace Zuckas became interested in raising backyard chickens after reading about an Atlanta family that was doing so. Nate Zuckas was skeptical.

"I thought it sounded like livestock in a backyard. We're not on a farm," he said.

But today, it's Nate who coaxes a reluctant hen from under the back porch with a treat of wild bird seed, or waves his arms to corral his little bird family toward the safety of their caged run.

"I guess I've kind of bonded with them," he said.

The idea has always been to use the chickens for eggs. It's not likely they'll end up in a stew pot.

"No, they're our pets," Candace said.

"They've got names," Nate said.

And personalities. Thelma and Louise are the troublemakers who sneak into the shed where the birdseed is kept. Bella is quiet. Vanilla is the pretty one. Pearl is the boss.

When they cause trouble, Nate might threaten them with new names, such as Lemon Pepper or Barbecue.

The yard isn't any messier than it would be with a dog, the couple said.

The worst problem has been protecting the brood from predators -- raccoons, foxes and possums at night; hawks and neighborhood dogs during the day.

Candace said her neighbors know about the chickens and think they're cool. But one member of the flock quickly lost its welcome.

"He turned out to be a rooster," Nate said. "I went out on the deck one morning and he was trying to crow."

The couple donated the rooster to a farm.

"We didn't want to push our neighbors too much," Nate said.