Debra Hensley and Melissa Watt's newest back-yard pets are named Latifa, Penny, Amelia, Nellie and Pee Wee. In addition to companionship, they provide something the couple's three dogs and cat never could or will: fresh eggs for breakfast.
The five Barred Plymouth Rock hens took up residence on Transylvania Park in August after Watt designed a movable coop and hired a friend to build it. The hens started laying just before Thanksgiving, and each now produces an egg almost every day. Neighbors like the hens, too, especially when they get free eggs.
"They're surprisingly easy to care for," said Hensley, an insurance agent and former Urban County Council member. "They're very peaceful. They come running to you in a little flock when you come home. It's a real stress-reliever for me."
The Hensley-Watt coop and a dozen others in Lexington will be open for tours Sunday afternoon. The second annual Tour de Coops is sponsored by CLUCK — the Cooperative of Lexington Urban Chicken Keepers.
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Anita Courtney, a public health nutritionist, and Miki Wright, a graphic designer, started CLUCK in 2010 to create a network of local chicken keepers. The organization now has about 30 active members and provides fellowship, idea-sharing and educational resources.
Back-yard chickens are a fast-growing hobby nationwide. "We attribute a lot of the popularity to the local food movement," Courtney said. "Nothing is more local than chickens in your back yard."
Many cities have repealed laws from the early 20th century that banned back-yard chickens. Unless forbidden by neighborhood deed restrictions, chickens are allowed in Lexington back yards, provided they are properly sheltered and stay off other people's property.
Chicks can be bought for a just few dollars each, and the cost of keeping them is, well, chicken feed. Coops can be made cheaply — if you are handy and good at repurposing salvaged materials. Or you can get fancy and spend as much as you want.
The biggest issue Lexington chicken-keepers say they face is protecting their birds from predators, especially raccoons and hawks.
"I have no farming background and I'm not an animal person," said Courtney, who has had chickens in her Bell Court back yard for more than two years. "If I can do it, anybody can. It's so darn much fun!"
Another stop on the Tour de Coops is Fourth Street Farm, a 1⁄10 acre lot beside Sherry and Geoff Maddock's 1870s home in the East End neighborhood.
After the house next door burned, the Maddocks bought the lot and began a quest to see how much agriculture they could commit to in a small space. The lot and their small back yard now have raised vegetable beds, 15 fruit trees, blackberry and raspberry bushes, bee hives and seven laying hens.
In addition to helping feed themselves and son Isaac, 8, the Maddocks see their farm as an extension of their passion for community engagement. She works for the Blue Grass Community Foundation. He works for Blessed Earth, a Lexington-based group that works to inspire Christians to become better stewards of the environment.
"As people walk by and we have conversations, we'll send them home with bags of things," Sherry Maddock said, adding that she hopes to inspire others in the neighborhood to grow, buy and eat healthy food. "I see this as a part of the local economy in the future."
Montessori Middle School of Kentucky, another stop on the Tour de Coops, has incorporated chickens and other agricultural pursuits into the curriculum at its 13-acre campus on Stone Road.
Marilynn Spitz, the school's math and science teacher, started the poultry program two years ago when the 55-student campus opened. Eggs are sold to the students' parents.
"It's really fun to watch them all grow up," Anna Ison, 14, said of the school's 24 chickens, most of which the students raised from eggs.
"They say having a dog is a lot of responsibility, but having chickens is more. You have to make sure they have all the things they need and keep them safe."