Georgia Dempsey literally saved her pennies to buy chickens. At five years old, the Wadmalaw Island girl became enamored with her neighbor's flock. She painted pictures for them, held them in her arms, and dreamed of one day having her own.
Today, at age 7, Georgia happily introduces her hens by name — there's Ms. Frizzle, an especially fluffy Silkie, and her personal favorite, Brownie. Three roosters keep the seven hens company: Spike, Peewee, and Rudy (the bully of the bunch, claims Georgia). She shows off her chicken tractor, a mobile coop that lets chickens move to a fresh patch of grass each day. "They love greens, but they hate onions," explains the little girl, before scooping up Brownie into her arms and posing for a picture.
Georgia's chickens demonstrate both the ease and the work required to own chickens. The Dempseys ordered their chicks online and had food, water, and their coop ready to go when the post office called to say their squeaking little box had arrived. A year later, the family enjoys fresh, home-raised eggs on a daily basis (although the hens' output decreases as the days grow shorter), and Georgia has gained valuable lessons in responsibility at an early age.
Just down the street, Benjamin Tyrone Gadsdon keeps an even larger flock in a series of coops behind his home off of Bears Bluff Road. A mortician by trade, Gadsdon goes by "The Undertaker." He might also be called "The Chicken Whisperer," as he diligently answers to his roosters every time they give their telltale yodel. "Opapawaydjo," he exclaims ("Papa, where 'a John go?") before answering, "He 'a goin' to the store," when the roosters call back.
"I was born in the country. Since I was a kid, we raised chickens," explains Gadsdon, thumping his chest at a rooster who saunters up to the edge of the coop near him. "We were born close to the earth, and we live off the earth."
Gadsdon's case is a bit different from Georgia's. These are what he and his Geechee neighbors call yard chickens, and they're destined for the dinner table. With an almost equal prevalence of roosters and hens, the flock also wouldn't work too well in an urban environment.
Still, it's not unheard of to hear roosters making their dawn announcement on the peninsula. Penny Patton kept a rooster/hen pair in her Gibbes Street lawn for 14 years, just down the street from Mayor Joe Riley's house.
"He was the love of the neighborhood," recalls Patton of her rooster, explaining that potential complainers were often appeased by the promise of eggs or the adoration of their children. "But they do make a racket, let me tell you."
Patton says her chickens kept the yard free of cockroaches and termites, but also ate the baby bullfrogs living in her fountain.
"They always dig and scratch around for things. We would landscape the yard and then come home to five or six plants scattered around," she says.
Even on the peninsula, foxes, opossums, and raccoons are a threat. But despite clipped wings, the birds could still manage to get high into trees to roost.
Of course, chickens defecate freely and often. Cleaning out the chicken coop has never been a choice job on any farm. Although Patton appreciated the manure as a fertilizer, it's at the top of the "cons" column for other amateur chicken farmers. Other negatives are the inevitable holes left throughout the yard as the birds scratch, dig, and cool themselves down with dust baths.
Within the City of Charleston, it's legal to raise chickens, provided written permission is obtained from all neighbors within 150 feet. That stipulation means that most urban coops fly below the radar. City Paper spoke with three existing downtown chicken owners, none of whom wanted their names printed. All, however, love their hens. One lets hers walk around the kitchen and eat out of her hand. Another lost a hen to a hawk in broad daylight, a reminder of how the laws of nature still exist in the middle of the city.
Most downtown chicken owners stick with hens; they're quieter than roosters. "I have enough trouble with all the college kids around me without adding a rooster to the mix," says one peninsula chicken owner. Another downtown owner who has kept a rooster claims that she's heard others responding when hers called in the mornings. The Tractor Supply store in Ravenel says they've sold more chicks to Charleston residents this year than ever before.
Across the Ashley River, Sybil Fix's backyard coop may be the model of chickens raised right. Thirteen hens wander freely between a shaded, covered shed with plenty of room for nesting and an outdoor area where Fix hangs cabbages for them to munch on throughout the day. Inside her home, Fix's walls are adorned with dozens of paintings of her chickies, from tiny portraits to wall-sized hangings.
"I got them because I'm a huge animal lover. I thought it would be really interesting to develop a connection with a species so foreign to us," says Fix. "Then I started painting them to show their individuality."
Fix's flock includes the breeds most common in backyard coops, including Barred Rocks, Australorps, and Rhode Island Reds.
"The first tip for people interested in raising chickens is to learn how complicated and delicate they are," says Fix, emphasizing that the birds can die quickly if they run out of food and water, especially in Charleston's heat.
Fix estimates that she spends around $200 a month on feed, flax, calcium, greens, and other supplies. But from the moment she opened the box full of poofy little chicks, it's all been worth it.
Out on Wadmalaw, Andrew and Beth Payne once had over 2,000 chickens in an 18-room facility converted from an old field workers' dormitory. They scaled back their operation upon the arrival of their first child, paring Paynes Poultry down to about 50 hens who live in an expansive coop in the yard. Inside their house, two incubators full of hatching eggs are tucked into hallway corners and a bedroom closet.
Andrew, a manager at Blackbaud, graduated from Clemson with degrees in accounting and poultry science. His plans to farm gave way to a desk job and family, but he stays balanced through his home operation.
"It's amazing how many people have started raising chickens," says Payne, who sells hens through Craigslist. "The birds become an extension of the family. People get really attached. Sometimes, they're a reflection of the owner."
Payne recommends choosing your breed carefully. Some people prefer chickens with flair, like fuzzy feet and decorative head feathers. Payne prefers ones that produce a lot of eggs, so he and his wife compromise with the attractive, checkered Barred Rock breed.
If all this chicken bawking has you ready to rush out and fill your backyard with feathered friends, just remember: You're adding a daily responsibility to your schedule. These birds require love and care, and if you treat them properly, you'll spend more on them than you would buying eggs at the store.
Seven Tips for Raising Your Own
1. Buy your chickens from a reputable source. The flea market is cheap (and your results might be the same), but you could end up with a bunch of diseased roosters instead of healthy hens. See tip No. 4 for online sources, or go with a local supplier like Paynes Poultry on Wadmalaw Island (843-860-0163, email@example.com). They sell adult, young, and day-old laying hens to locals.
2. Take a class. Many of these tips came from Chuck Hooker, who runs a local 4-H club and raises hens in his backyard in Riverland Terrace on James Island. On Feb. 11, 2012, he'll teach a how-to on urban chicken raising at the Charleston Horticultural Society in West Ashley as part of Lowcountry Local First's Homesteading Class Series. Or sign your kids up for his 4-H class by contacting Hooker at firstname.lastname@example.org. No matter what, get started on tip No. 3 now ...
3. Build your coop first. When your chickens arrive, you want to be ready with a coop you can be proud of. Chicken wire, wood, nails, and a free Saturday are all you need.
4. Do your research. Read up on
details at mypetchicken.com, urbanchickens.org, and backyard-chickens.com for tutorials, step-by-step directions, and answers to every question you'd ever have about raising your own feathery friends. Check charlestoncitypaper.com for a list of local municipalities' rules.
5. Be sexist. Roosters make a lot of noise and might rile up your neighbors against you. Contrary to some beliefs, hens lay eggs just fine without a rooster around. If you're in the city, go female. Fresh eggs are a great way to bribe your neighbors.
6. Think about predators. Free range is great, but if you're not home during the day, you might return to an empty yard or a hawk munching on your favorite Rhode Island Red in the tree out front. Build a big, covered coop with plenty of room to run, and a safe, covered space at night that will keep out hungry critters like raccoons, opossums, and snakes.
7. You probably won't be winning any neighborhood lawn competitions. Chickens dig holes, uproot plants, and poop a lot. Make sure everyone in your house realizes the implications before bringing any birds home.