In Caroline Van Slyke’s lush backyard, in the heart of Phoenix’s perennially hip Arcadia district, the chickens roam like celebrities, basking in the flash of camera phones and briskly deflecting the pats of adoring children.
“This part of the yard is for the kids, dogs, soccer balls and chickens,” says the photogenic Van Slyke, welcoming the latest group of sightseers on the third annual Tour de Coops, a self-guided tour of Phoenix-area homes where homeowners show off their backyard chickens and, of course, their coops, the new black in enviro-chic.
“Back there,” she says, waving over the low fence at the 1950s ranch-style home’s patio — a parent’s dream oasis of cushioned deck chairs, a homemade jam bar and even a spiral staircase leading up to a rooftop hideaway — “is for the adults.”
Tour de Coops visitors admire Caroline Van Slyke’s designer chicken coop which boasts a “V.I.P. area” complete with a chandelier and second level.
The chickens themselves — named, by the Van Slyke’s children: Susan, Lucy, Henrikka, Clara, Cinnamon, Charlotte and Henny Penny — live in a converted storage shed Caroline, an interior designer, and her banker husband David have fashioned into a Thomas Kinkade cottage, complete with the original shutters from the Van Slyke’s house, a natural wood picket fence and, comically, a pedestaled birdhouse within the coop’s front yard. “You can have form and function and still be creative,” she explains.
The Van Slykes built the coop before they had acquired a single chicken, but they were already into urban gardening — a bank of six raised veggie garden beds holds healthy crops of carrots, beets, radishes, rutabaga, garlic, turnips and shallots — and harvesting their own eggs just seemed like a natural progression. “You ever heard of Rent-A-Hen?” Caroline asks. “There’s a guy in Phoenix who lets you try out chickens for three months to see if they’ll work for you. Of course, I already knew I wasn’t giving them back, but David, being a banker, had to run a cost-benefit analysis on them!”
Caroline Van Slyke cradles one of her prettiest chickens, a colorful Golden Laced Wyandotte.
Van Slyke cradles one of her prettiest chickens, a colorful Golden Laced Wyandotte, in her arms as another two ascend a wooden ramp to the coop’s second floor‚ an area dubbed “The Roost,” that must be, for chickens, the equivalent of a hot club’s V.I.P. zone. There’s even a chandelier.
It is, in every imaginable way, heaven on earth for chickens except, of course, for the ones at the opposite end of the yard — one of which will be dinner tonight.
Besides raising chickens for eggs, the Van Slykes also keep a much plainer pen, made from a dog cage and some wooden pallets, for what chicken raisers call “meaties” — a breeding stock of poultry raised especially for eating. Here, the chickens — a Poulet Rouge variety rooted in Pennsylvania’s Amish country — huddle together, almost in a pile, as they watch their more colorful kin run about freely in the yard. It’s a harsh contrast: sort of like a death row for poultry.
“We don’t name them,” Van Slyke says. “We’re very emotionally connected to our laying girls. When the layers are baby chicks, they’ll sometimes be in the house, so I can keep an eye on them. But we keep some distance between ourselves and the meaties.
“I mean, we give them a good life, while they’re here,” she adds, almost defensively. “But we don’t pick them up; we just feed them. You don’t hug dinner!”
Crossing the Food Line
A few miles closer into town, in a less tony neighborhood south of Thomas Road and 28th Street, Tenacity Chadbourne displays her hens in a basic 10-foot wood-and-chicken-wire coop spread out in the driveway of her mother’s house, where she’s been living since moving from her own home in Glendale, on an HOA block where chickens weren’t allowed.
“This neighborhood is great,” says Chadbourne, adding that she’s also raised, and slaughtered, two pigs and a turkey since settling in here. “We’re probably going to do a couple lambs in the spring,” she says. “But if I do a lamb, I’ll probably have to shoot it. Luckily, in this neighborhood, a couple of shots won’t really be noticed!”
Compared to Caroline Van Slyke’s cozy chicken cottage, Chadbourne’s coop is a rough-and-tumble penitentiary. One of the chickens struts around with a severely reddened behind, her tail feathers totally pecked out by the other birds. “This one’s so genetically different from the other chickens that they don’t like it,” says Chadbourne’s mother, Kate, explaining a surprising bullying prejudice among poultry. “They pick at her, and then the sight of that bare patch disgusts them even worse. So they pick at it even more.”
Mercifully, this particular chicken’s torment will be short. Chadbourne has picked her out as tonight’s main course.
“There’s kind of two cultures on the Tour de Coops,” says Chadbourne, who was born “Nicole” but rechristened herself with the more resolute name. “There are those who think of their chickens as living beings with consciousness, and they’re very interested in their lives and what their experience is like. And then there are people like me, who think of them more as an agricultural production item.”
Chadbourne, who works by day as an EMT with the Arizona Burn Unit, is unflinching in her description of how she prepares her own chicken dinners.
“The way I do it is to wring the neck, Kentucky classic style: you just spin the bird’s head in a circle, and the weight of the body will snap the spine and sever the spinal cord,” she says. “Chickens don’t die well. The nervous system from the brain will continue to flash the bird for about three minutes. So there’s that horrible chicken-with-its-head-cut-off thing.”
From there, it’s on to the processing: “Pluck ’em, gut ’em, throw the guts away or give them to the dog. And then just let the meat sit overnight, and cook it as you normally would a store-bought chicken.”
So how did this self-described city girl get into all this rough stuff? “I’ve always enjoyed animals,” she says, smiling over the obvious incongruity in the comment. “When you’re close to an animal — especially when you kill it, in a weird way — you can actually understand their consciousness, in a very intimate way. Plus, I really like good food — food that’s better than what I can afford to buy. And when you raise it yourself, you can do a better job and have healthier meat for yourself and your family. If you’re willing to take that final step.”
Not every chicken-keeper on the tour is willing, or able, to cross the line from raising chickens for their eggs and manure (their poop makes for excellent composting, practitioners say) to making like Col. Sanders.
“That really is the next step, right?” says Jay Headley, whose picturesque coop, made from recycled materials including an old porch awning, an iron screen door and a pair of 90-year-old wooden pillars, looks almost as inviting as the Headley’s own 1930s home in the Cheery Lynn historic district. “But there’s that hurdle of actually butchering the birds. Because these certainly are pets for us,” he says, pointing to his brood, which includes a gorgeous Ameraucana, a Welsummer, a French Black Copper Marans and two Plymouth Barred Rocks, which he’s named Lucy and Ethel.
“I’ve had three or four that died, that were probably ok to eat,” Headley says. “But instead, they’re buried here in the backyard.”
Heather Taylor, who along with her husband and three kids, has only been raising chickens since last February, says she’s thinking about crossing that line — mostly because she’s not keen on just keeping nonproductive hens as pets.
“I’ve heard that people can get good egg production out of the chickens for about four years,” she says. “But after that, it really drops off, and you’ve still got to feed them the same amount.”
Taylor, whose most unusually named chicken is called St. Alfonso’s Pancake Breakfast, says she’s planning to take classes this year from some fellow chicken people on how to raise the birds for meat.
“I’ll see if I have the stomach for it,” she says. “I figure I’ll either come home a butcher or a vegetarian!”
Birds of a Feather
In between the polar extremes of Caroline Van Slyke and Tenacity Chadbourne, it turns out there are as many varieties of backyard chicken ranchers in Phoenix as there are breeds of chickens themselves.
Zach Cook became interested in chickens after moving into an old house with a spacious backyard not far from Chadbourne’s and waking up to roosters crowing in the morning.
Zach Cook poses with some of his chickens in front of his coop that he constructed from all found materials.
“I knew there were chickens around here, and I had all this space, then one day I was driving down the street and saw all this scrap wood and discarded ceramic roof tiles,” he says. In a true case of “If you build it, they will come,” Cook, a natural handyman, built the coop first out of 100 percent found materials, then started looking for chickens to fill his own field of dreams. Fittingly, one of his first just wandered over from his next-door neighbor’s yard.
“It came over here, and I threw it over the fence. Twice,” he says. “The third time, it was mine. So I owed my neighbor a chicken!
“I didn’t know anything about raising chickens, so I did some research on the Internet and found a lot of chickens on Craigslist,” says Cook, who adds that he wanted to give his young daughter an experience beyond just raising a puppy.
“I pretty much learned by doing, and I was really shocked by how easy it is. They’re really not hard to take care of. Just give them fresh water and access to feed every day, and them let them be chickens!”
Thane McWhorter got into chickens as a way to bring some down-home community back to his neighborhood, which he found lacking after returning to the very same street he grew up on.
“I was actually raised in that house next door,” says McWhorter, who spent years as a commercial fisherman on the coasts of California and Oregon before moving back to Phoenix and into the house he inherited from his grandmother. She too used to raise chickens. “I’ve found people aren’t really as friendly around here as they used to be. I’d like to change that.”
Besides his 10 hens, McWhorter also tends to a rich 15-by-30-foot garden filled with bell peppers, jalapenos, cucumbers, cauliflower, radishes and broccoli. “There’s some Spanish people next door who don’t speak a lot of English, and I’ll take some food over to them, and they’ll bring some to me,” he says. “I’m thinking of getting a weekly neighborhood cookout going in this vacant lot down the street. Food is a great way of bringing people together.”
Aside from the eggs, the manure, the meat and the pest control — chickens, it turns out, will eat up any backyard crawlers short of ants — the birds are also great for bringing together humans of a certain feather.
“One thing we all have in common is that we want to be more connected to our food source,” says Headley, who’s spent some recent months traveling from Albuquerque to Portland meeting fellow chicken lovers for a book he’s authoring on the subject.
“But there’s also a quirky side to people who keep chickens,” he says. “They’re fun-loving people with a quirky sense of humor. I guess you could say they’re in touch with a different side of themselves than most people.
“They can be weird,” he adds, with a laugh. “But it’s a good weird.”