In the ever-closing gap between fact and fiction, let one truth prevail: Chickens are fast.
In the Grande family backyard, a line of birds races toward a yellow coop, which, with a porch and upstairs window, looks more cottage than coop. Their feathers are a waddling blur of gray, orange and yellow, each patterned and distinctive as if tattooed.
“They think they’re going to be fed,” says Donna Grande, who’s carrying a lacrosse stick to fend off any surprise attack from the sometimes ornery rooster hiding out in the woods.
Even on a soggy Wednesday afternoon, the Grande backyard is a certain kind of idyllic, with chickens roaming during the day and put away at night. This flock is allowed because the Grandes live in unincorporated Johnston County, land situated between Clayton and the Cleveland community, where no one distinguishes a backyard chicken from one on a larger farm. A chicken is a chicken.
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In the towns, a chicken is still a chicken, but it’s often illegal. Smithfield and Selma have each voted down allowing backyard chickens, leaving Benson as the only Johnston County town to allow the fowl. As of last month, Clayton is latest to face the chicken question, while possibly asking another: Will the increasinly suburban town follow the peers of its past or the peers of its future?
Andria Merritt, director of the Clayton farmers’ market, suggested a backyard chicken ordinance to the town council. Drafted by former town planner Emily Beddingfield, another chicken advocate, the proposal recommends a limit of six to eight hens, no roosters, which are often a noisy nuisance, and a fence requirement. Homeowner associations could prohibit chickens in their neighborhoods if they wished.
“A lot of times when people think of having a chicken flock in the neighborhood, they’re thinking about what they’re seeing in the country, a large flock or even a commercial operation,” Merritt said. “We’re really talking about six to eight hens here, something small, with possibly some way to allow bigger flocks in instance like a community garden.”
Merritt suggested not requiring a permit for the chickens, other than a record required by the state. She favors treating them like cats or dogs, which she said is how many backyard chicken owners see them.
“I view them more as pets than livestock,” Merritt said. “They’re not smelly creatures by nature. Just like any other animal, if you don’t keep up with the waste of your dog in the yard, it can be an issue, same with a cat box. But if you maintain it properly, they’re not any more smelly than anything else.”
Cary, Durham and Garner each allow a limited number of chickens, and Raleigh has a fairly loose backyard chicken ordinance. Hens seem to have found popularity in the Triangle’s urban centers, but less so in some of the area’s smaller towns where chickens. Merritt suggests the idea of chickens as strictly livestock might be hard for some communities to shake, especially farming ones.
“I think it’s just getting over that initial perception, fearing the unknown,” Merritt said. “It could be tied to Johnston County having a more agricultural background, seeing the huge chicken house. Maybe that’s part of the resistance; that’s what comes to mind for some people.”
While some people might see them as pets, the chickens will serve a purpose if allowed in Clayton backyards, Merritt said, offering eggs and food but also lessons on the life cycle and sustainability.
“There’s a lot of increased interest from non-farming people who just want to produce some food and teach their children about sustainable living,” Merritt said.
Beddingfield said families looking to add backyard chickens aren’t trying to become farmers. Instead, they’re doing it as a hobby and possibly educational entertainment.
“They’re pretty fun to watch, but it can also be an educational opportunity for kids,” Beddingfield said. “Teaching kids about responsibility, about how to take care of animals. Some people just want to have fresh eggs in their backyards or a place to throw out some scraps and feed the chickens.”
Clayton’s planning department is now researching the idea but is unlikely to produce a recommendation for some time. The town council didn’t reveal any support or any reticence for the proposal. Councilman Art Holder thought the town should hold a chicken referendum; Councilman Bob Satterfield said he’d love to have chickens, but his wife won’t let him.
“I think we ought to put it on the ballot in November, let the town population vote to approve or disapprove the hens,” Holder said.
Councilman Butch Lawter said such a referendum would make the council seem unnecessary. “You’re talking about something that’s not a major ordinance for the town,” he said. “You’re starting to turn everything over to the citizens to vote on; we might as well not have us.”