Backyard chicken-keeping is gaining momentum in Anchorage. Partly due to increased attention to food costs and sustainability, but largely due to an ordinance passed back in April. Now that chicken owners can be more open about their lifestyle choice, we can get a peek into what it’s like to raise poultry in an urban environment. Or at least as urban as it gets in Alaska.
I’m in Peggy Wilcox and Theo Graber’s backyard in downtown Anchorage. I’m standing in front of what is called a “chicken tractor” a small chicken coop with wheels for easy mobility. To Theo, it’s not just a coop, it’s a lovingly-constructed masterpiece. The windows have custom-made trim, and the roosting box is easily cleaned because of the drawer that Theo installed. It’s time for a treat, a mix of seeds and barley called “Chicken Scratch” that the birds love to eat.
Peggy and Theo have had their chickens for two months now. They decided to embrace the chicken keeping lifestyle after the assembly passed an ordinance allowing Anchorage residents to keep up to five chickens.
“We were talking about it once the Assembly started talking about it, and then as soon as they passed it, Theo built this great chicken tractor.”
“And we went and got some chickens and it’s actually been really, really fun.”
Originally put off at the thought of naming chickens that they might end up eating, they found a compromise.
“We didn’t know what to name the chickens, we were a little nervous about naming them because we were afraid that eventually we might end up eating them. So we named them after food. The white one is the spunkiest one, so she became General Tzao. Then the three golden comets are Stewed, Fried, and Baked.”
“And you can tell them apart fairly easily?”
“No, they’re kind of collectively stewed, fried, and baked. If we spent more time with them, sure we could tell them apart. But we don’t so much. We just refer to them generally as chickens.”
They like their chickens so much that they wanted to keep an eye on their coop, even away from the house.
“We have a chicken cam. It is a remote camera so we can watch them from inside or listen to them to make sure the dog’s not going after them.”
With so many Alaskans like Peggy and Theo who want to keep chickens, the UAF Cooperative Extension Service holds workshops called “Chicken University. Stephen Brown teaches the workshops around Alaska. He covers how to house and care for chickens properly, which can be more complicated than a lot of people think.
“The big thing is making sure that people know what they’re getting into. It’s more than just buying a bird.”
But he says people shouldn’t let the potential start-up costs intimidate them.
“We jokingly say that any good Alaskan has enough stuff in their front yard to keep chickens if you’re clever enough.”
Brown got started teaching the Chicken University workshop when he noticed an increased interest in raising chickens in Alaska. But he also noticed that a lot of people didn’t have much information to start with, and some were being taken advantage of.
“What really prompted my most recent interest is we saw ‘guaranteed laying hens’ were being advertised for $100, and people were buying them.”
Certain varieties of chicken can run into the hundreds, but it’s more common to find laying hens available for $15 to $20, or even for free.
Brown says people choose to raise chickens for a variety of reasons.
“People realize that in Alaska, we’re at the end of the food chain. And if something interrupts that, we’re in trouble. So, keeping chickens is a way of having food security. Another reason is that people want to know where their food is coming from.”
Brown says that while there has been a definite increased interest in raising chickens in Anchorage, not much has changed since the ordinance passed two months ago.
“I haven’t seen a big increase since that ordinance went through, which tells me that people who wanted to keep chickens were already keeping chickens.”
While Peggy and Theo did wait until it was legal to keep their chickens, they don’t see a reason for people to wait anymore.
“And it’s what, 10-15 square feet? What, four feet tall? Takes up very little room. It’s fun, you get to have chickens around, and you get to have fresh eggs. There’s really no downside that we’ve seen.”
You can also keep an eye on Peggy and Theo’s chickens by going to www.chickenbungalow.com. To find out more about raising backyard chickens, Stephen Brown recommends an online search for “Cooperative Extension Service.” Stephen will also be teaching his “Chicken University” workshop tonight at 7 p.m. at the Alaska Zoo as part of their Summer Nights at the Zoo series.
Stephen Brown can be contacted at scbrown4(at)alaska.edu or by phone (907) 745-3639