By Nara Schoenberg Chicago Tribune
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) From "Urban Chicken Rentals" in Wauconda, Ill., to Pennsylvania based "Rent the Chicken", the sharing economy has taken an interesting turn. Some renters are determined to eat local and live green, others just like doing something a little different. Chicken rentals cost roughly $110 a month, and typically include two or three chickens, feed, dishes, bedding, and a sturdy wood and wire coop, as well as email, phone or text support.
Kelin Petersen knew she wanted a chicken.
The Logan Park mother of three had confided in her best friend, also an admirer of the fluffy barnyard bird. She'd tracked down a good book on chicken care and read it to her kids, who had responded enthusiastically. But it wasn't until a casual conversation with a farm-savvy friend at church that Petersen finally saw a clear path to her goal.
"You can rent chickens, you know," her friend said. "We don't have enough land to do it, but you could totally do it."
Determined to eat local, live green or just do something a little different, Chicagoans such as Petersen are increasingly renting egg-laying hens for the summer.
The local queen of no-commitment chickens, Kellie Burke of Urban Chicken Rentals in Wauconda, Ill., said she's renting hens to 11 families in the city and its suburbs this season, up from about four in 2014. Pennsylvania-based Rent the Chicken has one local renter, in Oak Park, and rents thousands of chickens nationwide, according to co-founder Jenn "Homestead Jenn" Tompkins.
Another national provider with local suppliers, Rent-a-Chicken, has six Chicagoland customers.
"It's brilliant for us, in our season of life," said Petersen, who is renting three hens from Burke, including a white Easter Egger that lays green eggs.
"We just want to know if we can handle chickens someday, but we're not ready to fully commit. We live in the city, we have kids that are young. I love animals, but I wasn't ready to go fully, 100 percent, into owning chickens."
No-commitment chickens come at a time when Americans are increasingly turning to rental as a way to save money and reduce clutter and waste. We're renting toys from Pley, clothing from Le Tote, even caskets from suppliers such as Chicago Cremation Supplies.
We're also seeking out locally produced foods, for both their flavor and their reduced environmental impact.
"(Chicken rental) appeals to the people who garden, and support farmers markets, and send their kids to Montessori schools," Burke said. You can know exactly where your hen is, what she eats and when she laid her egg.
Chicken rental costs roughly $110 a month, and typically includes two or three chickens, feed, dishes, bedding, and a sturdy wood and wire coop, as well as email, phone or text support. Petersen said her husband, Carl, who works at an internet marketing agency, has calculated that they're paying about $1 per egg. But for that, she said, you get the entertainment value of backyard chickens and the flavor of fresh eggs.
"To me, it's a more natural way of living," she said. "I love fresh herbs. I love fresh tomatoes. With eggs, I do believe there's a difference (in taste). It's like a fresh herb. You know when you get an herb from the store, and it's a little watered down? This is fresher."
On the downside, chickens produce a lot of droppings, renters say, so you may have to do some hosing or raking if you let the birds roam the yard. And there is a small chance your feathered guest will be attacked by a fox or raccoon. Urban Chicken Rentals and Rent the Chicken offer free replacement chickens; Rent-a-Chicken offers replacements for a fee.
Michael Marchi, 39, of Old Irving Park, said he and his girlfriend, Stephanie Tomakowski, recently moved to a house with a large raspberry patch and room to satisfy his frustrated inner farmer. Initially, they just joked about chicken rental. But Lucy and Ethel, the two chickens they rented from Rent-a-Chicken in May, won them over with their fresh eggs and amusing antics.
"(Chickens) are hilarious, and I appreciate what they do," said Marchi, who built a deluxe roosting station from ladders and is making chicken paths in his raspberry patch to facilitate natural fertilizing.
"They clean up all the grubs, mow a bit of the grass down."
Lucy, the white Leghorn, was the more sociable one. When Marchi and Tomakowski had guests over for an outdoor dinner, Lucy hopped up on the patio and then proceeded to walk across the table. Tomakowski's friend reached out to touch Lucy and Lucy froze in place, a classic response that added a dash of drama to the proceedings.
In a follow-up interview Tomakowski reported bad news: A raccoon had staged a late-night raid on the coop in mid-June and killed Lucy; the couple were able to save Ethel by holding off the raccoon with a hose and a flashlight. The loss was devastating, Tomakowski said, but she and Marchi, who had already converted from chicken rental to ownership, weren't ready to give up. They strengthened the coop, and Marchi played the radio for Ethel to keep her company while she waited for two new hens to join her.
On a recent weekday morning, Petersen's rental hens, one white, one red, one an intricately striped black-and-white, pecked for grubs in her fenced-in yard, ducked into their spacious open-concept coop and circled the Japanese maple where Petersen's son Emmett, 6, perched on a low branch.
Owen, 2, called out, "Chicks! Chicks!" as he fed the birds from bags labeled "Happy Hen Treats" and "Mealworm Frenzy." Audrey, 4, managed to fit herself inside the coop with at least one brother and one chicken.
"They love it. They own it," said Petersen, who has assigned each child a chicken to take care of. "They clean up the poop with the hose; it's a good daily chore for them. And finding the eggs! You'd think they'd laid those eggs themselves, they're so proud of them."
Urban chicken rental has come with some challenges. The coop is in the Petersens' front yard, right under a street light. Chickens need darkness at night, so Petersen had her mother sew custom curtains to shut out the urban glare. When Cooper, the fluffy auburn New Hampshire Red, tore a nail shortly after arriving, Petersen contacted Burke, who advised her to rinse off the injury, and apply pressure and a little antibiotic ointment.
"I wasn't really sure I could hold a chicken on the second day on the job," Petersen said, but Cooper was a star.
"She literally fell asleep in my arms. Oh my gosh, it was so sweet! I didn't want to wake her up, she was so content."