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Raising chickens legal in Chicago, and people are crowing about it

Daniel Gratz 13 lets chicken rest his neck. The Rehkemper family raise chickens city Chicago provide tour their Old Town

Daniel Gratz, 13, lets a chicken rest on his neck. The Rehkemper family raise chickens in the city of Chicago, and provide a tour of their Old Town backyard on Thursday, June 23, 2011. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 16, 2011 1:26AM

Seven-year-old Hadari Grayer knows that cows and pigs live on farms.

He saw them there during a kindergarten class field trip.

Chickens, though, live in Little Village, next door to the apartment building he lives in.

The four neighborhood hens — all named after female revolutionaries — and one unnamed rooster are the feathered emissaries for the 2800 block of West 21st Place.

“They’re brown and they’re soft and they eat worms,” said Hadari, staring with his young friends through the black iron gate at the five chickens.

The chickens’ owner, Anna Osterbur Petersen, said the flock has sparked a lot of conversation with her neighbors, particularly the young ones.

“Can I pet the chickens? Can I feed the chickens?” she said. “We’ve met many of our neighbors this way. People have endless questions and misconceptions about chickens and chicken raising. We kind of see ourselves as these chicken ambassadors talking to people about what the deal actually is.”

Despite cramped backyards, sub-par soil and the sheer improbability of starting such a project, Chicagoans are embracing the land, bringing elements of the farm into the city. Nowhere is this more dramatic than those who raise chickens, a stable of farm living that is spreading through city neighborhoods.

It’s legal to raise chickens, both hens and roosters, in Chicago. Hens are more popular because they don’t crow, and you don’t need roosters for eggs. Unlike in some suburbs, chicken owners aren’t required to register their animals, so there’s no way to get an accurate count on how many chickens call Chicago home.

There are more than 300 chicken enthusiasts in an online local chicken rearing group that started following a failed 2007 city council effort to ban city chickens. More than 200 people have taken chicken raising classes at the Chicago Urban Initiative of Angelic Organics, a non-profit that educates city residents about agriculture, since November 2008.

Martha Boyd, Program Director at the Chicago office of Angelic Organics, calls the 300 online group members the “tip of the iceberg” in terms of the numbers raising chickens in the city.

“Those are people who are speaking English, using the computer to communicate and interested in networking around this stuff,” Boyd said. “There are an awful lot of people in addition to them who keep backyard chickens because they’ve always done it and don’t care if there’s a movement.”

City chickens are as old as Chicago itself.

“There’s been animals here for (food) production the entire time there’s been people here,” said Hugh Bartling, a DePaul associate professor who teaches a class on green urban policy. There was a movement in the early 20th century in Chicago to ban chickens, Bartling said, when the city was growing and the new residents conflicted with earlier residents and their more rural lifestyles.

Now, many newcomers to the chicken scene are naming the animals, eating the eggs but treating the animals as pets. For those who want backyard chicken meat, there are about 10 stores that will slaughter a chicken brought in for around $3.

Bartling believes motivating the hundreds of recent city chicken farmers here and in other cities is the desire to know where food comes from. Renee Rehkemper of the North Side said that’s what caused her to give the green light to a chicken request from her daughter, Camille, 11.

A book Camille read in third grade convinced her she wanted to try chicken farming.

“It was a book about a girl who lives on a farm and she saves some chickens from the butcher shop and she raised them,” Camille said, walking toward the backyard coop her father built to look like a smaller version of the family’s home, complete with a skylight. “I named two of the chickens after two of the chickens in the book.”

Those two chickens and a third, Lois, named after the mother on “Family Guy,” arrived as chicks in a cardboard box in the spring. Three months later, they were fully-grown. One chicken, Bessie, can perch on a person’s shoulder like a parrot.

In charge of the flock, Camille read books and Web sites and casually throws around phrases like “free range” and “roost.”

Her father Jeff Rehkemper said the new family pets were ideal for city spaces.

“This is the kind of pet that’s not too much of a nuisance,” he said. “It teaches them a lot of responsibility. We have learned so much about chickens and how eggs are produced.”

In Little Village, Peterson, 28, and her husband Matthew, 34, received a roll of chicken wire from friends for their 2009 wedding. A flock followed, and she described them not only as a great way to meet the neighbors but the perfect pet.

“I’ve heard people describe them as being somewhere between a dog and a cat,” she said. “They don’t have to be walked so in that sense they’re a little bit less maintenance than a dog. You just feed them once a day and put out fresh food and fresh water. Unlike a cat, they don’t clean up after themselves so you can’t have them inside. You can’t train them in the same way you can train a cat.”

Pastor Jacob Gaugert was in sixth grade when he got his first flock of chickens. Now 29, he tends two flocks — the hens in his hand built backyard coop in Gage Park and the parishioners at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Dr. Martin Luther next door to his home.

“They make excellent pets,” he said. “You really can tame them. They will learn their names.”

Gaugert raised chickens for show as a boy growing up in Wisconsin. When he accepted the Chicago assignment, he decided to build a coop next to his garage.

He started coop construction indoors in the winter. After the Feb. 2 blizzard that shut down the city, he read on a website about an order of chicks stranded at O’Hare, unable to be shipped to Arizona because of the storm. He rescued the chicks and they are now full-grown, roaming his backyard next to the zinnias, gladiolus and dahlias he grows for the church altar.

His parishioners embraced his project, buying him a subscription to “Backyard Poultry” magazine for his birthday and bringing leftover table scraps for him to mix with crack corn, oatmeal and maple syrup leftover from the church’s Easter breakfast for the chickens’ daily meal. In a diverse congregation where English, Spanish and Slovak are spoken, the chickens are a uniting force.

For Gaugert, his chickens aren’t just a nod to his rural youth. It’s a way to keep track of the rhythm of life while holding down a job that isn’t 9 to 5.

“With the ministry you’re always on call and it just seems like everything keeps going and going,” he said. “With the chickens I can see them grow, I can build the coop, something actually gets finished. There’s a beginning and an end and I think that’s actually quite therapeutic.”

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