NEW MARKET, Va. - Few things can raise the hackles on a gardener's neck like a flock of chickens methodically working their way through some well-tended flower or vegetable beds.
The pitchfork-like claws and thick, probing beaks of these colorful yard birds can make short work of low-hanging tomatoes or border-blooming begonias, among other fruiting and flowering things.
Yet a small bunch of backyard birds can be great for hunting down insects, scratching up weeds and serving as mobile lawn ornaments.
A grassland diet noticeably improves their flavor, too, when it comes time to take them from coop to soup or from garden plot to stew pot as my grandparents were known to do if they discovered a few wayward fowl shredding their treasured strawberry plants.
Poultry growing has changed a great deal since the 1950s, when it was largely a matter of keeping a few chickens around for farm fresh eggs and the occasional Southern-fried Sunday dinner. But backyard bird operations gradually gave way to huge commercial confinement pens bringing an economy of scale family flocks couldn't match.
"It was just a case of better management," said Phillip Clauer, a Penn State University poultry extension associate. "People over time learned that having free running birds was not a good practice. There was predation, you couldn't control what they were eating like chemicals and certain toxic things and then came bio-security. Avian flu is an example of that. The birds can come into contact with wildfowl carrying disease or parasites.
"Collecting eggs from birds that are free to run is another matter. It's like going on an Easter egg hunt. You don't know where to look. You can take a lot better care of the chicken and the product (under confinement)."
Yet Clauer suggested there is something of an economic resurgence in having a modest number of feathered critters running free where there is an available acre or two.
"People are raising 'pasture poultry' and niche marketing them as healthy for you," he said. "They're actually in confinement pens but on the ground and portable instead of in houses. They're eating bugs and what's in the soil."
Meat and eggs from grass-fed poultry have more nutritional value, less cholesterol and a more satisfying taste than pen-reared varieties, producers claim.
Growers labeling their eggs "cage-free" or "organic" can earn anywhere from $2 to $4 per dozen, respectively. That compares with an average 72 cents a dozen for regular eggs on grocery store shelves, according to a July report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Two or three eggs a day from his small flock is sufficient for Jay Rossier, from Vershire, Vt., author of "Living With Chickens: Everything You Need to Know to Raise Your Own Backyard Flock."
"For a family with kids, you can do a lot of baking," Rossier said in a telephone interview. And chickens, he contended, are easier to have around than cats. "I never get bored watching them. It's settling, somehow."
Raising a productive flock is primarily a matter of having the right numbers, Rossier said, adding that it isn't necessary to live on a farm to be a poultry grower provided you comply with zoning laws and local ordinances. It also doesn't hurt to occasionally give fresh eggs to your neighbors - particularly those living nearest the chicken coop.
"Bad things happen when you put too many birds together. Noise, odor and flies, primarily," Rossier said. "Three is a really good number. The best setup is a rooster and two hens, although a lot of people don't want a rooster these days. Too noisy (in a community setting), crowing all hours of the day."
You can contact Dean Fosdick at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Living With Chickens: Everything You Need to Know to Raise Your Own Backyard Flock," by Jay Rossier, The Lyons Press, list price $16.95.
On the Net:
For more about poultry raising, urban or otherwise, see this Pennsylvania State University Extension Web site: http://poultryextension.psu.edu. Click on "Topics Index" and "Resources Links."