Carol Bartram does little coaxing to get "the girls" to come running.
"Wonder where my girls are?" she says, looking around the back yard of her home in York County.
"Come on girls."
When the hens — Chicory, Poppy, Phoebe, Phiona, Rose and Rue — hear Carol's soft, beckoning voice, they also realize she's holding a small butter tub, hopefully filled with something good for them.
Suddenly, six sets of chicken feet scurry, their bodies in a slight waddle as they race to see what Carol has in store for them.
Carol removes the tub's lid and there are the treats — black soldier fly larvae — that husband Scott and she cultivate just for the hens in a special composter.
Rose and Rue, 3-month-old Golden Comets named for the "Golden Girls" TV series, reach Carol first.
"It was going to be Rose and Blanche, but Blanche sounded too much like a cooking term, so we went with the actress' name instead," says Carol, stroking the hens like you would any pet.
"They're really friendly. They lived with a family with kids for the first two weeks, and we've been handling them a lot.
"Now, they are learning their place in the pecking order. They are the new girls so the other girls chase them away from food."
Carol, 47, and Scott, 49, became interested in raising chickens after reading the article "City Chicks" in Natural Home and Garden magazine in 2006. Both are avid outdoors people — gardening, sailing, running, beekeeping and biking — so the chickens fit right into their lifestyle, especially their naturalistic-planted yard. She's a former occupational therapist with public schools, as well as a master gardener in York County; he's an engineering technician at NASA Langley Research Center.
"We are interested in trying to buy more of our food locally, growing our own food, and humane treatment of animals, so keeping chickens seemed to fit in well," she says.
The Bartrams started with four day-old chicks through a mail-order hatchery; the minimum order was 25 so they shared the purchase with other hen enthusiasts. Their original four included two Barred Plymouth Rocks called Violet and Chicory, a Buff Orpington named Poppy and a Rhode Island Red named Iris.
"We chose these breeds because they were reported to be good layers with friendly personalities," says Carol.
Sadly, Violet died last fall for unknown reasons; Iris died this past spring from an ovarian tumor.
Chicory is having her own health problems, laying eggs internally and unable to absorb egg yolk, which is causing her some discomfort. During hot weather, Chicory sleeps indoors in a cat carrier in air-conditioning — and loving it.
"She seems to like it because it only took her a couple of days before she started waiting at the back door at chicken bedtime instead of going to the hen house," says Carol.
"I've been using my occupational therapy skills to accommodate her mobility problems."
The Bartrams' girls also live in a fashionable chicken coop, which looks more like an oversized dollhouse with a Scott-engineered bamboo roof. When dusk arrives, the chickens automatically line up to go in and roost, and the Bartrams lock it up tight so no predators can bother them.
"We've made the latches so raccoons can't figure them out, and we've expanded the hedge rows around the property to give the hens good cover from hawks," says Carol.
"Chickens are amazing at identifying birds in the sky, and then finding cover if needed. So far, we've had no problems with predators."
While the Bartrams do relish the fresh eggs they get, they also value the hens' companionship, and find the fowl teaches them more about the balance of nature.
"They are good company in the yard, which motivates me to be out there more," says Carol.
"Having chickens has increased our awareness of our yard as an ecosystem, of which chickens are now a part. We've identified many of the plants in our lawn we previously thought as weeds as edible to chickens and/or people, so we've begun to encourage more plant variety, such as clover and chickweed, as well as slowly getting rid of lawn in lieu of native plants and more shrubs, providing safe cover and food for the chickens and wildlife.
"We have a pair of box turtles that have started coming out to visit when we put our melons for the hens."
In return, the hens also do their fair share of yard work, even though they don't realize it. When Scott starts turning compost in a corner of the yard, Poppy is on the job. She hops in and starts pecking around, looking for insects.
"Good girl," says Scott, watching with amusement.
In the fall, the girls go in the garden to "till" and fertilize the soil and look for grubs. Recently, Phiona "helped" apply a new coat of white paint on the chicken coop — and has white specks of paint in her feathers to prove it.
"I think most people, like we did, discover that when you take the time to get to know some chickens, they definitely have individual personalities and preferences," says Carol.
"Chickens are routine oriented, so they have helped me establish a daily routine, which is a challenge when I'm not working. I'm more tuned into sunrise and sunset and light levels in general, since chickens rise and go to bed with daylight.
"We'll keep the girls for as long as they live, which can be up to 14 years, so we've read, because they are primarily our pets."
•Research zoning requirements in your city or county.
•Research chickens and how to keep them before you get birds; they are not high maintenance, but they require care that is different from other backyard pets. Backyardchickens.com is a helpful website.
•Start with at least 3 birds; chickens are flock animals and are more content and secure in a group.
•Chickens are omnivores. For the healthiest chickens and eggs, provide them with a variety of greens, fruits, vegetables and insects.
•Have your brooder box ready when you get baby chicks, and have your coop ready or close to it — they grow up really fast.
•If you think you'll use a vet, find one that will see chickens ahead of time, before an emergency happens because not all vets see chickens.
•Prepare for the heat. In this area with its hot summers, make sure your henhouse is well-ventilated, and make sure your chickens have access to shade.
•Know what predators are in your area and how to protect your chickens from them.
•Don't expect to produce eggs cheaper than you can buy in the store.
•Make friends and share eggs with your neighbors, and ask questions of other chicken-keepers. — Carol Bartram
Join the flock
Peninsula Chicken Keepers. 7 p.m. fourth Thursdays, St. Luke's United Methodist Church, 300 Ella Taylor Road in Yorktown. PeCK is a local resource, education and social group for people who have backyard chickens or who are interested in learning about humanely keeping small flocks. For more information, call founder Carol Bartram: 867-8547.
Pets that give back
"Watching chickens graze is somehow wonderful … and hard to describe," says Anna Drake, who has a mixed flock of 11 hens in Gloucester.
"Maybe it's like watching a fire or watching snow fall — calming and settling.
"I do buy chicken feed and cracked corn but what they really relish is table scraps and green grass. I let them out almost every day after work and they run out of their enclosure with zeal — hunting for tender grass, weeds and bugs. I keep a Japanese beetle trap in their run and empty it daily for them. It's very satisfying to see them snap up Japanese beetles like M&M's.
"Mine will hide under the chicken coop in the cool dirt until they hear me come out of the house and then they run to see what I've brought them to eat...bits out of tomatoes, seeds from the old cucumbers, watermelon rind, leftover pasta, whatever! They attack it with gusto. I have eliminated a compost pile entirely. I add straw, leaf litter, grass clippings and lime into the run and it stays dry and odor free. They eat the bugs and other tasty bits and I get a great potting soil mix.
"They like a dust bath to keep mites at bay, but really their needs are few - water, feed and safety from predators. And for that, they give back the best eggs ever. I wouldn't think of not keeping chickens."
"Our chickens came to be because our neighbors had some and our daughter wanted some," says Michelle Fitzgerald, 38, of Williamsburg. She home schools three children, ages 12, 14, and 17.
"I told her to write a persuasive essay. Well, it was pretty persuasive, and now I can safely say that chickens are better than dogs.
"The persuasive essay showed how chickens create good compost, eat ticks and lay eggs —and it's a bonus that they come when I call them."
The Fitzgeralds never have more than 15 chickens, keeping them in a coop her architect-husband designed and made with reclaimed wood, an old bike wheel as a door pull and chain from ship, as well as pallet wood.
"The coop is pleasing to look at all of the time," she says.
" You'd never know there were chickens in it and we like that.
"Our chickens give us constant entertainment. They are a hoot to watch — kind of like toddlers."
•See a video of black soldier fly larvae composting kitchen scraps at http://youtu.be/eex3bvJBCDA.
•See more pictures of the chicken coops at roomandyard.com.Copyright © 2015, CT Now