July 16, 2011
For urban chickens in Anchorage, bears are just one more predator. Coyotes, hawks (and maybe eagles), owls, the neighbors’ dogs – all are creatures who are just as fond of chicken dinners as the average Alaskan. The city recently passed an ordinance allowing up to five chickens as backyard pets. Many people already had little flocks roaming free range in their yards, laying eggs and providing the occasional chicken dinner. Now that they’re legal, there will likely be more, and that means one more tasty treat for bears who venture into the city.
Today, we visited friends who’ve had hens for the past year to see what they thought about the bears, and about the life of an urban chicken farmer. They are lucky, we found – the neighborhood might see a black bear every two years; coyotes and local loose dogs are of greater concern. Thus, they don’t have the high heavily-electrified fences that are recommended for bear-proofing chicken yards, but a more standard three-foot high wire fence.
In fact, bears seemed to be far from the minds of all concerned. The four plump golden-brown hens were pecking in the grass under two small cherry trees when we arrived. My pink-polished toenails got the attention of two of them – moving reddish things are apparently high on their list of desirables, and they ran over and started stabbing. That was my cue to climb back over the inner two-foot high plastic net fence, leaving them to their home on the range. The cold-hardy hens have at least 150 square feet of grass, with a feeder and a water bowl. A corner dust patch and a large spreading rhododendron with low branches that offer a hiding spot and shade are more summer amenities. When they tire of the sun or it’s time for bed they head for the coop in a corner of an old garage.
Honeydew rinds kept them well-occupied while we chatted, but the friend wanted to show us why they are, as some urban chicken fans say, more entertaining than TV. She tossed red grapes to them, one at a time, and the hens leapt into action. One would get the grape and run away, chased by the others. She’d drop it, and another would have it instantly and be running a different direction. They’d pile onto the grape and lose it in the fuss. One swallowed hers immediately; another one snatched the grape on the fly.
The chicken Eden had its downside. One hen had a large bare patch on one side of her neck – the hen or hens sitting next to her on the roost at night had pulled the feathers out. The eggs aren’t always perfect – the one egg in the box while we were there had a weak, much cracked shell that sent it to the compost heap [Chicken Lady says this is a sign of too little calcium; the usual remedy is to feed the hens crushed oyster shells.]. The chickens readily recognize danger, and freeze watchfully at any sign of it, real or imagined. But then they stay frozen rather than running for cover, relying on the owners to deal with the predators.
Rather than give them names, the friend said, “We call them Henny-Penny or Chicken Little if they’re being annoying.” They don’t come into the house, or wear diapers or crocheted jackets; the occasional grape and frequent bugs are their main toys. The Buff Orpingtons aren’t pets – their owners consider a chicken dinner a distinct possibility. But for the time being, the daily fresh eggs and their entertaining company makes the work of keeping them happy and safe from bears worth the effort.