By Amber Veverka
Dia Steiger is used to the questions about her backyard chickens, Smokey, Lucy and Stella. Do you have a rooster? (No.) How many eggs do you get? (One a day from each hen.) Do you have any pictures?
“Do I have pictures?” said Steiger. “My husband has made stamps.”
Steiger, executive director of Wing Haven Gardens in Charlotte, is so into her chickens she’s led classes to teach others how they, too, can join the urban hen bandwagon. And she’s not alone in her interest.
If Charlotte’s not Raleigh, where backyard chickens are so popular there’s an annual Tour D’Coop so that residents can show off their hens’ fancy digs, it’s not the fault of David Blackley, owner of Renfrow Hardware in Matthews. Blackley is a virtual chicken evangelist.
“It’s actually easier than a cat or a dog once you get established and it’s cheaper,” said Blackley, who sells chicks in the spring. “A cat or dog has never laid an egg for anybody I know.”
William Morrison with Charlotte Mecklenburg Animal Control gets a lot of questions about backyard chickens – both from would-be poultry owners and wary neighbors. Mecklenburg County issued 25 permits for chickens last year, up from 5 in 2006, said Morrison, enforcement supervisor in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department’s animal control division.
We asked Steiger, Blackley and Morrison to field the questions most often raised by Charlotte-area residents curious about keeping chickens.
Q: What are the rules for keeping chickens inside Mecklenburg County?
William Morrison: Make sure, first of all, that your neighbors don’t have a problem with them. But (a neighbor’s objection) doesn’t in and of itself automatically deny a permit. There has to be proof the animals would create an issue. Just because I’m your neighbor and I don’t like chickens doesn’t mean we’ll revoke a permit.
The coop has to be 25 feet from any abutting property. Each animal has to have four square feet of floor area. And you can have no more than 20 (chickens) per acre. The ordinance doesn’t permit them to run loose. And HOA (homeowners’ association) covenants supersede our rules when it comes to chickens. You fill out the permit application and we send someone out.
Q: What should I know before chickens?
David Blackley: You don’t want just one. They are flocking animals. About predators – everything likes chicken: Raccoons, possums, hawks, owls, certain dogs and cats. Coyotes. Weasels. You need a wire cage much like a dog pen and a cover over it. You always have to bear in mind, they are $3 chickens, not $400 dogs. You don’t need a rooster – they lay eggs without roosters. Start with babies. They imprint on you and imprint on your property. And don’t over-analyze things. People get on the Internet and get more information than they can ever use.
Q: What do you like most about your backyard chickens?
Dia Steiger: I just thought it might be fun to have my own eggs. I had been gardening at my home seriously about 12 years (and) thought I should have chickens. I didn’t understand I was getting an addition to my family. What was surprising was just how much fun they are.
Q: Any problems?
Dia Steiger: For the bottom of the coop, I’ve got a fairly good space for the number of chickens that I have and the flooring…is on a nice slope so water doesn’t collect. The only time you get odor is when it’s wet. This winter we had the really cold spell and I didn’t realize that I needed to get some kind of heating device to keep (their drinking water) liquid.
Q: Anything else to know?
Dia Steiger: I keep a feeder full of chicken pellets. They love leftover rice or pasta or grapes or any cucumbers that get overgrown with seeds. They have that almost little kind of purr when you hold them. It’s so soothing it washes the cares away.
To hear some of that chicken murmuring, check out these Charlotte hens, let out of their coop to explore a Charlotte lawn: