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Chicken coop tour?

Trek offers a peep into the world of backyard poultry farming

Nancy Murphy's five chickens live in a coop with adjustable electric baseboard heat. Nancy Murphy's five chickens live in a coop with adjustable electric baseboard heat. (Bill Greene/Globe Staff)
By Kathleen Burge
Globe Staff / October 28, 2010

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Other towns fling open the doors of their most illustrious and historic houses for tours up grand staircases and through fireplaced parlors.

But the homes on tour in Belmont this week are smaller than a butler’s pantry. These are simple abodes, although one is equipped with the modern miracle of electric baseboard heat. Another rises upward to a second story.

The inhabitants of these houses are chickens.

As freshly laid eggs grow increasingly popular among suburbanites, a fund-raiser in Belmont this Saturday for a new town library provides a chance to see how eight homeowners have incorporated henhouses into their backyard decor.

Belmont has 18 licensed coops around town, said John Maguranis, Belmont’s animal control officer and chicken coop inspector.

“It’s a craze,’’ said Nancy Murphy, the owner of five chickens whose coop is a stop on the tour. “Seems like people who don’t have cats or dogs have chickens.’’

Linda Atkinson, a member of the Belmont Library Foundation and the organizer of the henhouse tour, got her chickens about 3 1/2 years ago. She was inspired to create the tour, during which owners will stand by to answer questions, by all the curiosity about her own chickens.

“Everybody wants eggs,’’ she said. “When we go out now, we take a half a dozen eggs instead of a bottle of wine as a hostess gift.’’

A few years ago, as backyard chickens grew popular, Belmont drew up special bylaws for townspeople who wanted chickens. Owners must pay $25 to be certified each year, which includes a coop inspection by Maguranis. Residents can keep up to five chickens. And absolutely, positively no roosters.

“They crow,’’ Maguranis said. “We don’t need that at 5 o’clock in the morning. People would start complaining.’’

The new regulations were adopted after Maguranis, a retired veterinary technician with the US Army, realized the only bylaws that could cover backyard chickens were the antiquated farming ordinances. These required a $500 fee and a town inquiry to abutters to see if anyone objected.

“But the people in Belmont, they just wanted to have a few fresh eggs and have a fun family project,’’ he said. “We kicked it around and said, ‘Why don’t we just call these things pets?’ ’’

Even in the suburbs, chickens face natural predators: coyotes, fishers, and hawks. A year ago, Atkinson heard an eerie screeching at night and ran out to find two chickens missing. She believes the noise was the distinctive sound of a fisher, also known as a fisher cat.

Murphy sometimes lets her chickens roam the yard, and one recent afternoon, a hawk swooped down and tried to catch one. Her husband was outside and chased the hawk away as the chickens scattered.

Atkinson gets about three or four eggs a week, now that the days are shorter and the chickens lay less frequently. “I just found it romantic,’’ she said. “I love going to the nesting boxes and sticking my hand in.’’

She named her original chickens after the characters in Louisa May Alcott’s novel “Little Women.’’ Even when her chickens stop laying productively, she says, she will keep them. “Most of the chickens who are raised in backyard situations are living in Eden,’’ Atkinson said. “These chickens have lots of space and they eat wonderful leftovers.’’

Murphy, a registered nurse, began thinking about getting chickens after she tasted the fresh eggs of a friend’s chickens. She bought her chicks at Agway when they were a day old. At this tender age, the chicks required special care: For the first few months of their lives, they lived in a box in Murphy’s laundry room beneath a heat lamp.

But once the chickens grew bigger and sturdier, they moved outside into the coop Murphy’s husband, an electrician, built. This is the kind of coop chickens dream about: baseboard heat that can be adjusted, by the owners, when the temperature drops.

“In the winter, you really only have to keep the temperature above freezing so the water doesn’t freeze,’’ Murphy said. “They’re pretty hardy. But I spoil them and keep it like a sauna in there for them.’’

John Miley keeps his chickens and two beehives in the backyard of his Belmont Street home. His two-story coop, with a wooden board so the chickens can walk up to a roosting area, sits beside his garden. Miley, a carpenter, designed the coop on wheels, so he could move it around easily.

“It was built to fit over the garden beds,’’ he said, and in winter, the coop sits there as the chickens fertilize the soil.

As Atkinson planned the henhouse tour, she was surprised to find how many chickens lived in Belmont. She discovered a cluster of coops in the neighborhood called Kendall Garden, where one family started with chickens and two neighbors soon followed. Atkinson’s two boys are grown, although they both helped build her coop. Many chicken owners, she said, are families with children still at home.

“We’re just kind of far away from our food and this is one easy way to be close,’’ she said. “They’re very low maintenance and I love the burbling sound they make.’’

Kathleen Burge can be reached at kburge@globe.com.

HENHOUSE TOUR
Saturday from 1 to 5 p.m. Tickets ($20/family, $10/adult, $5/student and under age 5, free) can be bought at the Belmont Public Library, 336 Concord Ave., where participants will be given a map. For more information, go to www.belmont.lib.ma.us.

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