I know enough about birds to be dangerous.

Seeing that first robin tugging on an earthworm has long been a harbinger of spring. Since the vernal equinox occurred at 4:37 this morning, the robins are now legit.

Migratory geese in the agronomy fields north of campus. Ducks flying in a V formation high overhead, southbound in the winter, dodging à l’Orange.

We’ll hike the Linear Trail with the two Australian Shepherds from Casement to points east by southeast, and occasionally re-route through the Cecil Best birding trail. I’ve yet to see any birds. Not because they’re not there, more likely because I skew more toward hiking versus birding. No doubt, if I stopped hiking and started watching for birds, they would be visible, in all their splendor. Priorities.

In recent months, I’ve been greeted by the morning call of roosters. Not one, but two adjacent neighbors are raising backyard chickens. Each neighbor has at least one rooster, for what I suspect are obvious reasons. I lodge no complaints about their morning greetings, I’m an early riser, anyway.

But it does seem like a pretty clear indicator of the evolution of city living. Not that long ago, backyards in cities were reserved for swing sets and gardens. Chickens were relegated to farm living, pecking around the barnyard. The clear line of drumstick demarcation was the city limits.

When I lived on a farm as a kid, there seemed to be an equally clear distinction between farm life and town life. The values were the same, we loved our neighbors and respected their freedom of choice. The only difference was the physical space in which the values were practiced. There was more of it on the farm. Wide open spaces, more room for chickens.

In Manhattan, like most cities these days, chickens are allowed in the city limits. There are no statutory limits on the number of chickens, nor are there any undue regulatory burdens, chicken raising licenses or fees required.

The rules only state that the chickens must be confined on your property and cannot become a nuisance.

My neighbors follow all these rules. Their chickens are, in fact, very well-behaved. No indications of aberrant or anti-social behavior and they hew close to the straight and narrow. It’s almost as though they know they’re on the cutting edge of urban neighborhood societal evolution, pioneers who seek to peck a trail that subsequent generations of city chicks can look back on with pride and admiration.

If they harbor free range ambitions, they hide them well.

I do wonder what the owls and woodpeckers think. Who do these aviary interlopers think they are, disrupting the natural order? Why, until these flightless birds showed up, in their man-made coops and henhouses, our hoots and staccato tree/utility pole drilling framed up the feathered auditory pecking order around here.

Cock-a-doodle-doo, my talon.

Our two dogs, separated from the south fowl only by a wooden fence, have adopted a lassez-faire approach, establishing their own hierarchy, barking only at similarly situated species, domestic and foreign, i.e., leashed neighborhood dogs on walks and encroaching coyotes, answerable only to the call of the wild.

Over the course of my career, I have seen the poultry-specific systems in which pheasants, turkeys and chickens are raised in economies of scale. Grounded in the time-honored economic principle of supply and demand, the business model is efficient and evolved over the decades to keep up with growing consumer demand.

The neighborhood backyard model is a throwback, grounded in new frames of reference and ideas related to food production. No doubt, my neighbors’ chickens keep them in eggs, scrambled, hard-boiled and sunny side up. They may even get plucked and become fryers or satay. Pretty sure the neighbors don’t have a contract with Tyson.

In a vast and diverse economy driven by equally vast individual tastes and choices, there’s plenty of space – on the farm, in city backyards and in the way we love and respect our neighbors – for a whole host of chicken and egg variations.

Meantime, my homegrown Kansas breakfast is almost complete. Hash browns from the potatoes growing deep in the Harney silt loam. Eggs from the neighbors’ backyard chicken coop. All we lack is the bacon.


Mike Matson’s column appears every other weekend in The Mercury. Follow his blog at mikematson.com.

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