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Every day around 7 a.m., Marie Meysenburg lets her seven heritage hens out of their coop into her backyard.
She feeds and waters the flock, collects their speckled tan eggs in a red basket lined with a soft cloth and goes to the house.
She always looks back out the window at the black, orange and rusty brown birds once they're pecking and scratching and strutting through the yard.
“I feel connected to them,” she said. “They're my yoga.”
Whether it's for fresh eggs, as outdoor pets or to get back to pastoral roots, more Omahans are raising backyard urban chickens. The eggs from these hand-raised birds look and taste different, and many think they're better. The city allows residents to have the birds with a free permit. And the chickens, in most cases, become part of the family.
Brian Smith, who ran the now-closed Black Sheep Farms, keeps 10 chickens in his Omaha yard and taught a class at Black Sheep for beginning chicken farmers called “Chicken Academy.”
He said most of the people who attended the Chicken Academy — Meysenburg was one — wanted to know what they would be getting into before they bought animals.
“The major hurdle is uncertainty,” Smith said.
Omaha blogger and urban chicken farmer Christopher Van Buskirk said he and his wife shop at farmers markets and try to eat locally and seasonally. They garden, and he said raising chickens seemed like the next logical step.
The couple's three Rhode Island Red hens — Salt, Pepa and Spindarella, named after the singers in the '90s hip-hop trio Salt-n-Pepa — roam around his midtown backyard on the weekends.
He brought them home in July. Once a day, he goes out to the coop, settled in a back corner of his yard next to his garden. He harvests eggs from the nesting box, feeds them a combination of commercial chicken feed and kitchen scraps, changes their bedding, sweeps out the coop if it's dirty and gives them fresh water.
Ryan Kingkade's 4-year-old son, Owen, loves harvesting the eggs from the six hens the family keeps in their Benson backyard.
Kingkade, the sous chef at the Holland Center for Performing Arts, has three hens, Sarah, Rosie and Zoe, in one coop, and three more, Primrose, Rue and Katniss (named by his children after “Hunger Games” characters) in another.
“I grew up around agriculture,” he said. “I guess I just wanted to do something simple and sustainable. I wanted to go back to the land.”
He talked to his wife about whether keeping chickens was feasible before he did it.
“It was a short conversation,” he said.
Meysenburg, who works in the cafeteria at Morton Magnet Middle School, said she took a class at Metropolitan Community College about tractor farming and that got her interested in chickens. Now her seven chickens have taken over the bulk of her backyard in the Keystone neighborhood. She said they eat grass and love snacking on plants, particularly hostas.
“It's like a big salad bowl for them,” she said.
All three of these urban farmers are raising heritage breed hens. After World War II, heritage breeds began to go out of style in favor of more modern crossbreeds designed to meet production goals. Hobby farmers are bringing many of the older breeds back into rotation, especially Rhode Island Reds, a breed each of these families has.
The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy describes the Rhode Island Red as America's best-known breed. It's a hearty bird that can handle rough weather and still lay eggs — perfect for Nebraska.
Meysenburg, who doesn't name her birds, said they made it through last year's mild winter without a problem. She pampered them through the unusually hot summer, setting up a low sprinkler in the backyard, giving them ice water to drink and placing a fan in their coop to make sure they kept cool.
Kingkade's hens proved the animal's easygoing nature: On a cold, rainy, windy fall afternoon, they went about their business in his backyard seeming not to notice the inclement weather.
“They aren't bothered by much,” he said.
Most city chickens get out of their coops only when someone's home to watch them. Their main predators are raccoons and neighborhood dogs. Meysenburg said she lost two hens to a dog after the birds flew over a fence, which she's since reinforced. Kingkade and Van Buskirk both keep family dogs inside the house when the chickens are roaming.
Neighbors, for the most part, are agreeable.
Meysenburg said before she and her husband brought the animals home, he walked around the neighborhood and asked homeowners if they would be OK with the pets. After everyone signed off, he built a deluxe coop the size of a small shed, with a sliding door and lots of perches for hens.
The chickens can get noisy, especially in the morning, but the Meysenburgs try to let them out promptly so they don't bother neighbors.
“They are really proud when they lay an egg,” Meysenburg said. “As soon as the sun comes up, they start squawking. They want out.”
Reid Steinkraus, supervisor of sanitation control at the Douglas County Health Department, said he recommends that people talk to their neighbors and neighborhood association or homeowner's associations before they bring home chickens.
All of the chicken owners in this story have registered their birds with the Douglas County Health Department and have the required permit. Permits have been issued all over Omaha, Steinkraus said, in all sorts of neighborhoods.
“In the past few years, requests for permits have really gone nuts,” he said, though exact numbers aren't available.
Eggs are the main reason most people in the city keep chickens, and most owners share the wealth with family, friends and neighbors. Chickens lay, on average, an egg a day.
Meysenburg said she doesn't sell any of her eggs, instead choosing to give them away.
“I first wanted to have fresh eggs after my grandson was born, for him,” she said, laughing. “But he doesn't even eat them. Everyone else does.”
Kingkade said he thinks the eggs from heritage birds are higher quality, with darker yolks and more flavor. His family easily goes through the six eggs he brings inside each day. He uses many of them for baking, and the rest he gives to his neighbors and friends.
Meysenburg uses the eggs she keeps for baking and more recently to make homemade ice cream. She said she is looking forward to using some for homemade pasta this fall.
What the owners feed the chickens determines what the eggs taste like, and this is a hobby that rests on the flavor of the eggs.
Nancy Bertolino, a dietitian at Hy-Vee, said commercially fed hens are eating a controlled diet, and what the birds eat changes the nutrition levels of eggs. For instance, she said, grocery store eggs marked with “Omega 3” come from birds that are fed flaxseed.
The backyard producers feed their eggs with food from their kitchens.
Once, Kingkade accidentally fed his chickens some scraps that included onion and garlic peels, and the flavors went straight into the eggs.
“Not good,” he said, laughing.
Chickens love fruit and vegetable scraps. Especially popular are watermelon, cherries, vegetables, herbs, grass and other plants. Cornbread and popcorn are treats in the Meysenburg coops.
It turns out chickens don't like basil. Besides that, Meysenburg said, the only thing her chickens haven't liked is pumpkin.
Chickens lay eggs for the first two years of their lives. Meysenburg said she hadn't decided what to do with her birds after they stop laying. Smith, the former Black Sheeps Farm owner, has butchered his birds to use for soup or stock, and blogger Van Buskirk said he would do the same thing.
Meysenburg said her favorite thing about chickens, eggs aside, is watching them. They're friendly and entertaining.
“Chickens are quieter and easier to care for than dogs,” he said. “You get lots of enjoyment from watching them. They can be really social.”
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