On a warm afternoon in Kenwood, a neighborhood of breezy bungalows and lush gardens west of downtown, Lee Holbert, 94, feeds peanuts to the chickens roaming her backyard.
There are four in all — two Plymouth Barred Rocks, a Rhode Island Red and an Australian Austrolorp. All are hens, and all are well fed. They belong to next-door neighbor Paul Dickens.
“They’re just fun to look at,” Hobert says.
In recent years, as cities and counties have lifted restrictions on owning backyard fowl, chickens have been showing up in residential areas in the Tampa Bay region. Their popularity has grown so rapidly in Pinellas that the county extension office has workshops to show people the ins and outs of raising the birds. A session — already fully booked — takes place today at Weedon Island Preserve.
“We started developing the programs for Chickens 101 when we realized the really great interest in chickens among residents of Pinellas County,” says Mary Campbell of the county’s extension office, one of the workshop’s organizers.
She says more than 160 people attended a similar workshop last year. This time, county officials capped the sign-up list at 75, and they plan to hold another session.
“I would say our sales of strictly chicken feed and supplies have probably gone up by about 1,000 percent,” says Brad Gentile, owner of Park Feed in Pinellas Park.
Since Pinellas County and many of its municipalities in recent years made urban chickens legal, Gentile said, his business went from selling 10 bags of feed in an average week to selling more than 100.
The same goes for Mary Ellen James, who sells hen chicks at her Pinellas Park ranch. She also keeps goats and horses.
“There’s been a huge spike,” she says.
Ken Kluson, the Sarasota County extension agent leading today’s workshop, said owners of urban chickens are demographically diverse, and they do it for different reasons. Some are recent immigrants from rural countries. Others are middle-class families who see backyard chickens as a way to restore their connection to their food.
“I think it has a lot to do with smart growth, trying to look at where we live as multifunctional,” Kluson says.
To Dickens and his neighbors, chickens were a no-brainer — no St. Petersburg law prevents having the birds as long as neighbors within a 100-foot radius give permission.
“I said, ‘You know what? I’ve been kicking around this idea. I’m just going to jump in,’
About two years and one coop made from a recycled gazebo later, his four hens each deliver about one egg a day. The eggs have light-brown shells. They are richer in flavor and denser in nutrient content than the average store-bought variety. Their shells are so thick you don’t have to refrigerate them; it’s recommended that you don’t.
“They love to eat weeds, so we don’t have to pull the weeds,” he said.
They also can be good pets.
“Some of them will wait for you by the door just like a cat or dog does,” Kluson said. “They’ll jump up on you and sit on your lap.”
But having urban chickens can be complex, which is where the workshop comes in.
“We really want to make sure people get to ask their questions,” Campbell says. “There’s a lot to it.”
There’s sanitation, for one thing. Chickens can spread salmonella and avian flu, though Kluson said the latter is extremely rare, and good hygiene for birds and their owners is an effective preventative measure.
Instructors also review ordinances for Pinellas County’s 24 municipalities, as well as its unincorporated areas. Gulfport, for example, allows a resident to have up to 10 chickens, while unincorporated Pinellas allows four. They’re illegal in Clearwater, but not in Largo, where their numbers are not explicitly limited. They’re allowed in Belleair, but not Belleair Bluffs. Neither the county nor any of its municipalities allow roosters — they’re too loud.
Dickens says people interested in keeping chickens should attend a class before buying one so they can decide if it’s too much work.
“I think the course talks more people out of it than it talks people into it, which is what it should do,” he says.