Backyard Chicken Movement / Education
6:35 am
Wed June 1, 2011

Backyard chicken movement moves to schoolyard

Raising chickens has become a bit of a trend in urban and suburban areas.

But one St. Louis area school is embracing the so-called backyard chicken movement as a teaching tool.

The Maplewood Richmond Heights School District has 16 chickens, and the group of students who care for them has now written a guide to help others raise hens.

They’ll be signing "Chickenology: The Art & Science of Keeping Chickens" at 2 p.m. Sunday at Left Bank Books’ Downtown.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Maria Altman met the school’s “chickenologists” just before the school year draws to a close Thursday.

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High school junior Kaila Nong doesn’t strike you as someone who would take up an extra-curricular activity focused on chickens.

Like a typical teen in the city the petite brunette wears big sunglasses, pink fingernail polish, and flip flops.

“Really, I was just looking for a job,” Nong said. “So I thought this was a fun, easy job and then I ended up falling in love with the chickens and falling in love with all of the staff and it turned into us writing a book.”

Nong is among a group of 10 Maplewood Richmond Heights students, ranging from seventh to twelfth grade, who wrote “Chickenology: The Art & Science of Keeping Chickens.” The book is a how-to filled with their photos and artwork.

Nong is also among three stewards who each get paid $50 a month to look after the school’s brood on a rotating schedule, including one weekend a month.

She unlocks the chicken coop and explains the nesting boxes and roost.

“Here’s where the some of the chickens actually stay. That is a roost where the chickens sleep at night, and there are the nesting boxes where the chickens go and lay their eggs,” she said.

Their eggs are used by the school, but these chickens will never become lunch.

Each of the school’s chickens has a name, including Pearl, Butterscotch, and Dominique.

Chickens Have Personality

The hens are a variety of breeds and colors from reddish brown to snowy white with black spots, and the students say they have distinct personalities.

Eighth-grader Noah Snyder has been a steward for about a month, and it’s clear he enjoys the work.

“There’s definitely bonding going on when take care of them day-in and day-out,” he said. “I mean, they have amazing personalities, and you get to know each one as an individual chicken.”

The chickens like to dart in and out of a small door from their coop to the chick run, an outdoor area that is protected from predators with chain-link fencing and a roof.

Snyder says when it’s warm enough and someone can keep an eye on them, the chickens get to peck for bugs in a grassy area known as the school’s orchard.

The Chicken Project

The MRH Chicken Project is part of a district-wide effort to teach and practice food sustainability.

For instance, about 30 percent of the school cafeterias’ food comes from local farmers.

The idea for chickens was hatched at a sustainability conference, according to Maplewood Richmond Heights Superintendent Linda Henke.

“We were in the middle of the Bronx a couple of years looking at these great chickens thriving underneath skyscrapers and my students said ‘Dr. Henke, we need chickens!’” Henke recalled. “And so I thought there probably is a great place, because in a small flock of chickens you can learn all kinds of things about the environment, about the food system, and about how to take care of the world.”

Changing Food Perspectives

The MRH Chickenologists describe the taste of eggs from their chickens as fresher and richer than what you get at the grocery.

They’re quick to explain THOSE eggs can be as old as 45 days.

Sophomore Curtis BoClair says working with chickens even has changed how he views fast food.

“I don’t think of it as healthy and as good-tasting as I used to, and I definitely don’t eat McDonald’s chicken nuggets anymore,” BoClair said with a laugh.

If the MRH Chicken Project succeeds, there will be more chickens in the neighborhood.

The goal is to help 50 families in Maplewood and Richmond Heights start raising chickens in their backyards.

As the Chickenologists write in their book, they’re hoping to change the world one chicken at a time.