Ava Vellotti commits 20 minutes a day to watering and feeding chickens and occasionally changing hay. For her troubles she is rewarded with fresh eggs year-round, natural fertilizer, insect eaters, plus a dozen feathered friends that serve as moving lawn ornaments with lots of personality.
Raising chickens may seem like a daunting task, especially in a city environment, but some Boise residents find keeping chickens a low-maintenance, highly rewarding project.
Boise municipal code allows chickens to be classified as pets rather than livestock when there are three or fewer hens (no roosters allowed, hens do not need roosters to lay eggs) on a property.
On lots of one acre or greater, Boise code permits livestock as long as half of the land is dedicated to keeping and raising the livestock. Property owners are allowed 12 chickens per half acre.
Vellotti, who lives off 36th and State streets, keeps chickens in addition to a full organic garden in which she and her husband Daniel raise tomatoes, corn, squash, beans, asparagus and peppers. She has two sons, ages 12 and 8, and she believes that raising her children in a more natural environment has been invaluable.
"You can show kids how the natural world works so much better than if you didn't have a live model," Vellotti said. "I think that kids who are around animals so much become more sensitive."
Vellotti has used her chickens to teach her children about adoption. If a hen is presented with an egg that isn't hers, she will nest and raise it with the rest of her brood. Vellotti also talks about how the rooster protects the hens and fertilizes the eggs.
Twelve chickens produce almost a dozen eggs a day, which is far more than Vellotti and her family can eat. However, the USDA has strict rules about how eggs must be raised and sold, including what must be printed on the package.
Someone who wants to sell eggs must also acquire liability insurance in case someone who eats them gets sick. Most people just give away or trade any extra eggs with friends because the rigmarole of selling them becomes more trouble than it's worth.
Vellotti keeps her chickens in the coop during the day but lets them out for a couple of hours in the morning and evening. They peck around the yard, eat the bugs in the garden and mostly go back in the coop without a fuss.
While they are not strong flyers, chickens are capable of flying over fences or fleeing danger. However, they are dedicated homebodies. If chickens are safe, warm and well-fed, they will rarely try to run away from home.
According to USDA regulations, chicken coops must have four square feet per bird. A chicken coop is a must, even if the birds are free-range.
Chicken coops can range from an $800 Beverly Hills version to an old camper shell propped up on cinder blocks. Chickens aren't fussy. They just need perches, grit so they can grind up their food, nests (with decoy eggs so they know where to lay) and clean water.
Free-range birds, like Vellotti's, are healthier because their diets are higher in protein from the bugs and scraps they eat around the yard. They produce eggs with darker yolks and more nutritional value. Vellotti says she could never go back to store-bought eggs. "They don't taste as good."
Boise State student Hanna Carmona-DeMoss keeps two chickens and says she can't remember the last time she bought eggs at the store. Her two children, ages 10 and 6, motivated her to seek more natural food sources.
Carmona-DeMoss likes her kids to know the source of their food. "The kids know where their breakfast comes from," she says, "and they love to go get the eggs." Carmona-DeMoss used to coop her chickens at night, but found they were safer when allowed to fend for themselves.
"I used to lock them up and just leave them out during the daylight hours, but raccoons are tricky. They got in the hen house. Chickens can fend for themselves. They roost in the trees at night and it's safer for them."
New bird owners can get everything they need for raising birds at Dunlap Hatchery on Cleveland Boulevard in Caldwell. Dunlap is the only chicken hatchery in Idaho and has been around for over three generations. They carry over 50 breeds of chicken, plus waterfowl, turkeys, guineas and gamebirds.
The most popular laying hen at Dunlap is a golden sexlink and costs about $1.80. Other common breeds, like Rhode Island reds and Anconas, run from $1.40 to $2.40 per chick. A bag of feed costs $7 and will feed three chickens for about a month, much longer if they are allowed to range free.
New chicks must be kept under a heat lamp, and an old wash-bucket will suit a couple of chicks just fine as a brooder box. They are fragile and should not be handled much for the first three weeks.
At five weeks, chicks begin to grow quickly, can play with each other in an enclosed environment and can be held. At eight weeks, chickens are feathered out and old enough to roam around outside and explore their world.
With raising new birds, the problem of roosters comes into play. Though the hatchery will guarantee that 90 percent of their birds are sexed correctly, that errant 10 percent can become problematic.
Roosters don't start crowing and acting "rooster-y" until about four months old. At that point, the owner may want to cover the kids' ears and call a poultry processing plant like Homegrown Poultry in New Plymouth.
Homegrown will slaughter and make the bird oven-ready "while you wait," and on their Web site, HomegrownPoultry.net, they guarantee that all animals are "treated with respect and humanely handled."
Neither Carmona-DeMoss nor Vellotti could imagine eating their "friends."
"When they stop laying eggs, I'll just buy another chicken," Carmona-DeMoss said. The consensus is that the chickens aren't poultry, they're family.
According to the Firefly Encyclopedia of Birds, there are as many as 24 billion chickens in the world, more than any other breed of bird. Chickens generally live 5 to 11 years depending on the breed. There are over 160 common chicken breeds ranging from plain white Anconas to black, white, buff and blue Orpingtons, friendly chickens like the Rhode Island red and aggressive chickens like speckled Sussex.
Most chickens are friendly and sociable when raised around people. They get along well with children and many other animals. Chickens and rabbits make great coop companions.
Chickens can be domesticated, trained or just left alone. They are arguably the lowest maintenance farm animals to keep and since they don't have to be confined to the farm, even urban dwellers have the privilege of raising their own food.
"I like to keep the food as close to home as possible," said Carmona-DeMoss, and for animal-loving city folks, homegrown eggs are one way to do it.