Free-range hens give food and friendship
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.