While Marblehead, with its rocky shores and close-together neighborhoods, has long been known for its fishing and sailing, the raising of chickens is not typically high on the list of residents’ pastimes. But according to the town’s Board of Health, more families are erecting henhouses.

Patty Pless bakes a lot of cakes, pies and, on this morning, even some freshly churned ice cream. And it just so happens that she doesn’t have to go very far to get her ingredients, or at least one of them.


Behind her house, in a residential neighborhood, in a backyard that’s as large as it is well kept, sits a blue, wooden kids’ playhouse, inconspicuously surrounded by other lawn toys and children’s play things. Like detectives investigating a crime scene, Pless, along with two of her four children, are peering into the structure to see just what the morning’s activities will bring.


And then, amid the clucking and beating of wings, with the fanfare you’d expect to be associated with a major sporting win — voila — an egg, produced by one of the family’s five hens.


Holding the small food item in her hand, still warm to the touch, Pless explains that perhaps she’ll use it in an omelet.


“There is nothing better than having an omelet than having it with a fresh egg,” she said proudly. “It’s so nice; I love it.”


Minus the straw hat and the overalls, Pless has yet become a backyard farmer, athletic wear and all (she recently started her own large vegetable garden). She’s even been called on to talk about her experiences raising the chickens.


“Everyone who is interested in chickens — we all help each other out,” she said cheerfully.


She explained that the idea for the coop was generated last winter from a desire to give her children a chance to understand where food comes from.


Having grown up in Switzerland, where farms are ubiquitous, that was important to her.


“I would love to be on a farm — but that’s not a reality,” Pless said. “So I bring it closer to home.”


Home, for the Pless family, is Marblehead.


While the small town by the sea, with its rocky shores and close-together neighborhoods, has long been known for its fishing and sailing, the raising of chickens is not typically high on the list of residents’ pastimes.


But according to the town’s Board of Health, more families are erecting henhouses. Each year, the number of fowl permits the board has issued — the license residents need to keep the animals — has inched up, turning some homes into farm-like sanctuaries.


“People have had them for years — but now there is definitely an influx of interest,” said Health Director Wayne Attridge.


 


So why are those residents going to all the trouble of obtaining the permits and keeping the animals? Some say they make good pets. Others say they think homegrown eggs are better for their families nutrition wise. Still others, like Pless, said they like the idea of bringing food back to the basics.


“It’s more than just having local food,” Pless explained. “When my kids grow up, they’ll have a different view of food. They’ll understand that you don’t simply go to the supermarket and buy it and not give it a second thought.”


There is ample evidence that backyard chicken coops have, in fact, become quite the fad in recent years nationwide. People have been blogging about it (keepingchickensblogspot.com), writing about it in magazines (Backyard Poultry magazine) and sending messages about it on sites like backyardchickens.com, where one can find tips on everything from coop designs to breeds.


Armed with such popular books as “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” which dissects where food, including fast-food chicken nuggets, comes from, some have developed a strong desire to keep their food “natural.”


Like resident Laura Plunkett, who has a handful of her own hens tucked away in a backyard coop. Plunkett said she likes the idea of “local sustainability”; instead of going to a big supermarket to buy her eggs, she has them in her yard, where she can control the output. For instance, she feeds her chickens organic feed that she buys specifically for that reason.


Some scientific reports have pointed the finger at certain mass poultry farmers who allegedly give their animals poultry feed that could contain higher levels of arsenic than is allowable by the Food and Drug Administration. However, those reports have been contested. Plunkett isn’t taking the chance.


“I really like knowing where my food is coming from in general,” Plunkett said.


Remembering a time in Marblehead when there were more animals being locally raised, like horses, Plunkett said it was also important for her to keep that tradition in town.


Since getting her hens in May, Plunkett’s backyard has become a neighborhood attraction of sorts. Local children have been known to stop by to take a peek at the birds, and some even come to collect the eggs, which Plunkett offers willingly.


“It’s really cool,” Plunkett said of her backyard. “I spend a lot more time out here.”


 


She also spends more time baking. Fresh zucchini bread, anyone?


Plunkett, who is a nutrition writer, said her teenage children, who were skeptics at first, have even turned onto the idea, including daughter Jess Plunkett, 18, who said she was definitely not a “fan” of the chicken coop idea when her mother first posited it.


“It’s not a common occurrence to have a mini-farm in your backyard,” Jess explained, adding that she didn’t want her house to take on that “farm smell.”  


But the teen has since decided that the animals are, as she’ll admit, kind of fun, and don’t smell as much as she thought they would. That, and the kids for whom she baby-sits love observing the birds.


“That’s the first thing they do when the come over,” Jess said, adding that she’s “good with it” now, and that the homegrown eggs, in fact, taste good.


Meanwhile, the Pless brothers, Noam, 10, and Yoni, 8, have grown attached to their animals.


Pointing to their plump clucking birds, they explained, in detail, who each bird is. There is Gina, Nutmeg, Zaza, Lola and Shelly. Each family member, in fact, got a chance to name one.


“I like chickens a lot,” Noam said affectionately, before darting back into the coop to continue to observe the animals, which puttered around their fortress in a flurry of squawks and flying feathers.


Board of Health member Michelle Gottlieb advised that although raising chickens might not be for everyone, as it takes both time and commitment, she thinks it’s a good thing for town residents to be pursuing.


“I think that this is kind of a response to a food system that is in crisis,” Gottlieb explained. “People are really seeking this local food supply.”


That said, the number of registered fowl permits remains low. According to Board of Health records, in 2009, only seven families were registered to keep fowl (defined by the town as chickens, pigeons, roosters, capons, hens, turkeys, pheasants, guinea fowl, ducks and geese.)


Those residents who have the permits are keeping mostly hens.


One sticking point is that all residents seeking the permits must get signatures from their neighbors before submitting their application to the Board of Health. While Attridge said no permit seeker has yet been denied, complaints have surfaced about the animals, from noise problems to vermin complaints (foxes have been known to attack coops in town).


“There have been some people that have been opposed to it,” Attridge said. “But people usually work it out.”


Most recently, resident Ariana Selby appeared before the board requesting a fowl permit, having already garnered the support of all of her abutters. Before attending the meeting, she had also gone through the process of submitting to the board a map of her housing area, as well as a plan for keeping the animals, which included pictures of the coop she had picked out. After a public hearing on the matter, which no objectors attended, Selby was approved to house three to four hens.


As for the board’s priorities in issuing the permits, a town by-law relating to fowl permits outlines the rules for keeping the animals.


“It’s more about sanitation than about nuisance — we want to make sure people are educated,” Attridge said. “We want to make sure they know what they’re doing before they get into it.”


As for potential vermin problems, Animal Control Officer Betsy Tufts said that in her experience, chickens are not necessarily an added risk for predators like foxes.


“I get calls about those animals regardless, and no more than I get other fox calls… Has one gotten into a hen house? Yeah, but they’ve also gotten everywhere — they chase cats, dogs, they go after everything they can,” Tufts explained. “It’s just like owning any animal.”


Despite such potential problems, residents who do have the permits are not deterred.


For the Pless family, the process of raising chickens has certainly done one thing; call it a backyard education of sorts. 


“It’s a different connection of thankfulness for your food,” Pless explained with conviction.


Looking with affection at her coop, she added, “Those chickens live for us — literally.”


She’s hoping that as more people learn about the fowl opportunity in town, more people will start raising their own birds.


“I’m completely happy to speak to people about it. … The goal is for every house to have their own chickens,” Pless said.


Contact Nikki Gamer at ngamer@cnc.com.


How to apply for a fowl permit


To apply for a fowl permit, the payment of a $25 license fee, renewable every two years, must be submitted to the Board of Health, which then reviews the application. Questions are then asked, like where the animals are to be housed (fowl can’t live with you!) to what type shelter will be provided for the animals (all fowl must be kept in “sanitary” conditions, with vermin-proof storage containers for feed) to where the residence is located (if you want a rooster, chances are nil if you live in close proximity to your neighbor). Board of Health officials also inquire about what types of plans are in place if you happen to go away on vacation (it’s preferable if there is someone to check on the birds). Before signing off on the permit, the Board of Health also requires signatures from neighbors. See the town bylaw on fowl permitting for more information on the regulation.


Building a backyard farm


Patty Pless said that the idea for her coop came to her over the winter. So she spent some time looking through books and researching the idea before reconstructing her children's playhouse. With the help of her husband and a family friend, the project was done just in time for spring. Pless bought her hens through a chicken auctioneer for the area of eastern Massachusetts, as well as through a seller who had advertised on Craigslist, paying about $10 to $20 per chicken. As for Plunkett, she said she bought her “heritage” hens through a specialty chicken breeder for $7.50 each, per the advice of a friend.