From the sidewalk, Pam Gronbeck's quaint yard fits perfectly into the eclectic Fremont neighborhood: an elaborate garden, fruit trees, and a winding brick pathway surround a cozy house. Around back you find the proper dose of Fremont funkiness: three softly clucking chickens scratch and peck in a homemade chicken coop.
Gronbeck's elaborate—no, make that palatial—chicken coop is my first stop on the Seattle Tilth Association's annual City Chicken Coop Tour. As her Rhode Island Reds and Black Osprey chickens contentedly bustle about, Gronbeck shows off the 100-square-foot coop to a steady stream of potential coop builders. Complete with multihinged doors, three platforms, and an open-air turret, this lavish coop certainly doesn't inspire any birdbrained thoughts of a chicken run.
"I'm a utilitarian person," Gronbeck laughs. "I garden, I've got fruit trees, and now chickens. I had rabbits before, but the chickens really are utilitarian animals. They're like little garbage disposals with legs. And they lay eggs every day!"
The image of dirty chickens fenced in by cheap wire is hard to break until you've seen an earnest urban farmer. Some coops belong in Architectural Digest, and the birds are a far cry from dusty farm chickens. From zebra-striped Barred Rocks to Halloween black-and-orange-spotted West Totelegers, these ornamental chickens—available for less than $10 each—look as though they belong in the aviary house at the zoo instead of a coop.
Coop number two on the tour, also in Fremont, is built around a tree, with a big heated henhouse. Its half-dozen residents scoot around looking happy. Also on offer are three free chickens to "a good home."
It's easy; there's only one thing you've got to worry about with chickens, says Phil Megenhardt, owner of the freebies, who teaches a class in raising chickens for Seattle Tilth: "It all comes down to your neighbors, so no roosters."
Besides, it's the eggs, in hues from brown to blue, that are the primary reason people raise chickens. My buddy Jeremy, who recently got into the backyard chicken business, puts it simply: "The first egg was bursting with flavor."
The tour's third stop is a spacious walk-in model that sits under a sculpted holly tree. Gardener extraordinaire Britta Duval-Hemmen plays with her five chickens every three days, hand feeds them corn, and offers them fried potatoes—their favorite treat—while they sit on her shoulder. "I let them run free in the yard—they're my organic pest control," Duval-Hemmen says with pride. If there is a chicken heaven, this must be it.
For more info, see www.seattletilth.org.