KANKAKEE, Ill. | Call them "pets with benefits" if you want, but keeping a few chickens in a backyard pen is one of the hottest new trends in small-scale, urban agriculture.
In a move toward more civilized communities, the practice of having a cluster of cluckers on the lawn was generally outlawed in local communities more than a half century ago. Bradley, for example, lumps chickens in with pet snakes and bees. None are welcome there.
Outside city limits, area ordinances tend to mandate that any small-time egg operation will have a certain minimum acreage — at least 5 acres of land is the rule in Kankakee County, with the coop at least 200 feet from the property line. Iroquois County guidelines are a little more chicken-friendly. A landowner there can have up to 100 laying hens per acre.
In the broader view, cities such as Sacramento, Calif., Madison, Wis., and Salt Lake City are among the dozens of American communities that have recently changed their laws to re-admit the bird. Closer to home, Chicago has long embraced chickens — but for egg production only, not for competing with Colonel Sanders.
The growing interest in chickens is no surprise to Michael and Sheryl Putz, who live between Martinton and Clifton. When they moved their brood of four children from Chicago Heights almost eight years ago, they knew they were going to raise chickens here.
According to Sheryl, the family enjoys having noncommercial eggs in their meals, and they benefit from selling a few dozen eggs almost every week.
"Actually, with all of the costs considered, we really don't make any money doing this," mom said, stressing that the payback comes more through nutrition value of free range eggs, and the lessons learned from being responsible for living things.
"I can tell you this: We don't order eggs when we go out for breakfast. They're never as good as at home," said Tyler, 21.
Beyond the taste and organic nature of the eggs, Beckah, 14, likes the rainbow of colors in each egg carton she fills. She likes the ribbons she wins at the county fair for "Best Eggs." And she likes the chickens themselves.
"Everybody notices Brutus," she said of the family rooster. "He's a pretty Black Cochin."
He definitely is a showstopper, but he looks a little more brown than black. And — if a chicken could wear sweatpants — that's the strange look his genes have given him.
The other chickens have their own charms, Beckah said. Some will lay on their sides and "sunbathe." That involves a weird-looking pose, with a wing held up to let the sun hit their sides. Other chickens might be taking dirt baths. Another might be chasing one of the family cats.
Back in the Kankakee area, Faith Rogenberg has a flock that helps with getting rid of food scraps and helps fertilize the yard. Closer to Aroma Park, Laurie Gilmore, explained that her eight hens and four chicks "aren't that much work" for the meals they provide. She also noted that they "seem happy" to see her.
"It seems like they each have their own personality," she said. "We think it's great having them around."
Not that far away, Amanda Culp, the mother of a 6-year-old and an 18-month-old, also looks after eight laying hens that generate about 50 eggs per week.
"We love having the fresh eggs, but maybe we're a little different," she said. "We like to be self-reliant. We do the rain barrel thing and do organic gardening too."
Getting started in the amateur egg business, involves a small coop, that will need an electrical hookup. A handy person could probably buy materials and build one for less, but coop kits cost about $500. You can even find them at Walmart.com, these days.
In case you were asking the question: Which comes first? It's the trip to the store, such as the Big R in Watseka, for the chicks. There also are local bird swap meets if you're looking for something out of the ordinary.