Chicken fanciers tour area birds living high life

lbonner@newsobserver.comMay 18, 2013 

These models, covered in feathers, strutting down runways and largely ignoring their gawking admirers, were featured attractions Saturday along with their elaborate homes in the Tour D’Coop, a benefit for Urban Ministries of Wake County that capitalizes on the popularity of backyard chicken houses.

On the tour, chicken fanciers could visit birds – once known strictly as farm animals – living the high life. A coop that looked like a schoolhouse, another built with recycled materials, and another billed as a “mini atrium” were on the tour that also offered a look at urban and suburban sustainable gardening.

Children who visited one of the Raleigh coops at Greta and Gray Modlin’s home close to Capital Boulevard got to feed their chickens and ogle the orange koi fish in the backyard pond while their parents checked out the coop, the beehive and the garden.

Chickens are all-purpose pets, said owner Greta Modlin. They produce food, weed the yard, help keep snakes away and make great material for compost that’s used in the garden. She lets the chickens run around the backyard while she gardens. “They’re chuckling and cooing and very enjoyable to be around,” she said.

Gray Modlin, an engineer and professional chef, designed and built the coop, which has a big picture window in front. He used to use some of his chickens’ eggs at the Raleigh restaurant he owned.

“I still eat the eggs every day,” he said “They have become like pets almost.” Some people eat the chickens when they stop laying, he said, but “I don’t think we’ll be eating ours.”

The tour, which attracted about 1,000 people, has its origins in an event eight years ago when a group of neighbors in Raleigh’s Five Points neighborhood wanted to put their chickens and henhouses on display, said M’Liss Koopman, the Tour D’Coop chairwoman. Some years ago, Whole Foods became a sponsor. The tour has grown to 21 coops this year and included Cary coops for the first time. The town voted last year to allow backyard chickens.

Koopman first bought chickens home a year after she went on the tour. Chickens are friendly and curious, she said. When they live outside the confines of a factory, chickens are able to express a broad range of behaviors. “They’re great, low-maintenance pets,” she said.

Money from ticket sales goes to Urban Ministries. The organization runs the second-largest food pantry in Wake County, said Dr. Peter Morris, executive director. The tour helps highlight sustainability and the nonprofit’s move from processed to more fresh foods.

“You can actually do farm-to-fork in your own neighborhood,” he said. “Chickens and gardens are good urban agriculture. Folks are very proud of their coops.”

Teaching children about animals is one of the motivations for owning chickens.

Nine-year-old Caswell Choi’s parents call him “the chicken whisperer” because he can distinguish among their pet chickens that look remarkably alike and knows all their habits. He poked around the chicken enclosure in his family’s Raleigh backyard while the birds flocked at his feet. Chicken owners say the birds have distinctive personalities, and it’s easy to tell which is at the top of the pecking order.

Caswell said his favorite among the birds is Goldie, because she’s mean. “When she gets angry, she’ll hiss at you,” he said.

Caswell’s mother, Anna Choi, said the family got chicks about a year ago. She’d been on the tour and thought owning chickens might be fun for her children.

“It was kind of kooky, but not bad kooky,” she said. And the neighbors get free eggs in the summer.

Her husband, a former architecture student, designed the coop with large windows that are painted to match the house.

One of the best things about having chickens is the fresh eggs, said Lynn and Jim O’Brien, new chicken owners in Cary. Their coop wasn’t featured on the tour, but they were visiting fellow Cary residents Michael and Alissa and Manfre, who fought for four years to persuade Cary to allow backyard chickens.

Fresh eggs are richer and creamier than store-bought, said Jim O’Brien. “The eggs you get at the store taste watery,” he said.

Lynn O’Brien said she didn’t like eggs until she started eating fresh ones. And when you have chickens, there’s always food in the house.

“You know the eggs you’re going to get are from chickens that are treated well,” she said.

Bonner: 919-829-4821

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