Funky Chicken Coop Tour

On April 11, Austin adds yet another unique tour to a calendar already brimming with curious annual sights and events. In this case, folks who’ve come to know and love the many joys and benefits of fowl play present the first Funky Chicken Coop Tour—a chance for urban chicken wranglers to show off their beloved birds and, more specifically, the coops in which they’re kept.

Like human domiciles, chicken coops run the gamut from slapdash mash-ups of found supplies to carefully planned architectural masterpieces. The common denominator, though, regardless of form, is that a good coop keeps out the endless army of predators unfazed by decorative touches and driven by an appetite for that which “tastes like chicken.”

Tracie Downing, an active member of the local AusTex Poultry Group listserv, has been instrumental in planning the tour. She’s looking forward to introducing coop tourists to her personal flock that includes five “slow-laying” Cochins (about one egg every three days) and one “accidental” rooster mistaken for a female as a chick.

As far as digs, her flock alternates time between an elaborate henhouse and a chicken tractor (a mobile coop placed directly over grass), both of which Downing made with the help of a neighbor. The spacious house has room for adults to stand in, a lovely peaked tin roof, a separate “bedroom” and wonderful flourishes like a hanging planter. The tractor fits over Downing’s raised gardens, protecting the birds as they happily till the soil, hunt bugs, fertilize and eat crop remnants between plantings.

“I designed the coop myself,” Downing says. “I only bought the two-by-fours new. Everything else came from Craigslist or Habitat for Humanity, so my total expense was less than 300 dollars.”

For the uninitiated, that price might seem a little high. But considering the design and sturdiness of the structure, as well as all that the birds give back in the form of compost, entertainment and eggs, it’s a bargain.

Carol Ann Sayle, who, along with husband Larry Butler, owns and runs Boggy Creek Farm, might deserve the sash and scepter as Austin’s preeminent Chicken Lady. She’s not only written a book dedicated to a few of her favorite hens, but has kept flocks ranging from a dozen birds to over 100 since 1982. Currently, she has around 40.

The coop at Boggy Creek definitely falls into the rambling category—lovingly sprawled across a good stretch of the farm, it looks like a home remodeling project gone awry. It will be part of the tour in order to, as Sayle puts it, “show the tourists how bad a henhouse can look and still do the job.”

For Sayle, doing that job ensures countless hours of enlightenment and inspiration. Her philosophical waxing on the topic of chickens is nothing short of poetic.

“To me they are the ideal pets,” she says, “generally meeting their feed costs with eggs, donating their poop for the compost pile, affording many hours of salubrious entertainment, and finally, at day’s end, they go to bed early and don’t covet your second pillow.”

And Sayle loves how the birds mirror humans. “They form relationships, groom each other, fight each other, show greed, look you in the eye, mourn the loss of a partner and generally take care of their chicks for a couple of months and then send them off—with a little tough love—to be adults on their own,” Sayle says.

Michelle Hernandez will be on the tour, too, showing off a flock that includes both chickens and guineas—a distant cousin of the pheasant that are less domesticated and louder than chickens and make excellent “watchdogs” against predator danger. They also produce smaller eggs with stronger-tasting yolks, Hernandez points out, and are more careful gardeners than chickens, scratching less.

Hernandez keeps her birds in a chicken tractor she bought premade from Rick Hathaway in Burnet. “We’ve been happy with it,” she says. “It’s a smart design and I can move it by myself. It’s 4 feet by 10, and cost around 500 dollars.”

Within the safe confines, the flock wanders happily around Hernandez’s large garden, not worrying their pretty little heads about predators, the sky falling or the economy—scratching and pooping to their hearts’ content.

We should all be so lucky.

The Funky Chicken Coop Tour April 11, 2009
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