Karen Waldrip knew something was wrong when she entered the coop and found all the chickens roosting on the top shelf.
"It's like, 'Mom, help!' " she said. "Every time there's been a death in the family, egg production drops to six instead of 22."
Something was killing her chickens, starting with the littlest ones, the bantam Frizzles, whose feathers are on backward.
The unknown predator took many more eggs and chickens before she solved the crime.
That kind of drama is typical for the Dancing Chick Inn, as Waldrip's coop is labeled. She's been keeping chickens since they came with her Cohen Drive house eight years ago, and she's still learning.
The University of Fairbanks cooperative extension, which educates 4-H students and burgeoning farmers and horticulturists, has wise words for any potential Alaska chicken keepers: They're not going to save you any money.
After the April 16 avalanche that cut off the Snettisham hydroelectric power plant and forced the city onto expensive diesel power, Waldrip, like other Juneauites, avoided laundry and light to conserve electricity for weeks. The chickens, meanwhile, received the usual royal treatment."
"Tom and Karen are sitting in the dark wearing crunchy clothes, but by gosh her rabbits have full-spectrum lighting, and her little baby chicks have infrared, and her plants have blue lights," Waldrip said.
With chickens also come a pile of chicken drama. Waldrip said eagles, goshawks, minks and martens have preyed on the birds. She recently worked through a neighborly dispute over her chickens, and now has a permit from the city to keep as many as 40 at a time.
Chickens also require a fair amount of work that goes beyond keeping watch for predators. Waldrip and her husband, Tom Waldrip, built a sloping coop with a drainage system. Each day requires daily scraping of chicken muck, collecting eggs, examining and scrubbing chickens and maintaining the compost.
Waldrip sells the eggs, but her choice of chickens belies the fact that it's not all business for her. She has the good layers, like Buff Orpingtons, Rhode Island Reds and Bardrocks. But the white-crested Polish chickens have some very silly-looking feathers atop their heads or on their feet.
"They're just fun to have around," she said.
A fresh egg is a poem on a plate. But how many of us eat truly fresh eggs?
A package of a dozen eggs from the Dancing Chick Inn bears nine eggs in varying colors of brown, two light green, and one brown egg that is half the size of the others. The green come from the Araucana breed, who also have green legs. The wee egg comes from the last remaining Frizzle. Waldrip calls these "low-cholesterol" eggs.
The eggs are pert in the pan and brighter than most store-bought eggs. They cost $5, on the pricey side of eggs in Juneau. Waldrip sells about five dozen a week.
Waldrip doesn't keep roosters, the noisy sex. In a batch delivery of chicks, there are always a few males. It's very hard to sex them until the tail feathers come out and they start acting more like roosters - that is, obnoxious.
But Waldrip has a purpose for the roosters that do appear. She butchers them young and sells the feathers on eBay to fly fishermen.
Keeping the roosters out has kept many urban chicken-keepers on good terms with their neighbors. But it's uncommon for people to have chickens these days, and neighbors often disapprove. A couple of Juneau chicken owners said they'd rather not be interviewed, for fear of ramping up tension with their neighbors or attracting city enforcers.
Waldrip said she'd asked the city in the past about permits, and had been told she didn't need one. That changed after her next-door neighbor complained. He said the coop's lights, noise and smell were a nuisance. He was expecting a baby, and worried there might be toxic runoff to his property downhill. The Juneau Planning Commission intervened. Neighbors testified in her support.
A city planner stopped by and examined the lights, the drainage and the cleanliness of the property. She counted the chickens and measured the space in which they were kept. The chickens were found to be well-kept. But Waldrip, it seemed, needed a permit for more than three farm animals.
Planning commissioners approved it, but required that she focus the lights away from the neighbors (the chickens need night-lights, or they get scared), not have more than 40 chickens, and, rather vaguely, "relocate" any roosters that appear in the mix.
So far, no more complaints. Waldrip doesn't want trouble.
How to catch a chicken: Fake it out.
You don't have to be a brainiac. One hand distracts the chicken while the other neatly scoops it up. Hold it firmly and close to you, and keep those flap-happy wings under control. Bonus tip: The Brahmas, or the blondes in Waldrip's bunch, are a calmer breed than some others.
Waldrip has pictures tacked to her door of children with chickens. They often visit the Dancing Chick Inn to pet the chickens and learn life lessons. They ask roughly the same questions as an urban reporter, plus others: How does the chicken get that big egg out?
"I always have to take the parents aside: 'How honest do you want me to be?'" Waldrip said.
She maintains her own curiosity.
After a recent marten attack, Waldrip entered the coop to find a chicken whose neck had been mangled beyond decency. In killing and butchering it she found something she hadn't seen before: the chicken's internal egg assembly-line. Inside were nine eggs, from the size of the tip of a person's pinkie to full size. They pass through as yolks until the very end, when they acquire a white and shell. Waldrip saved them in a Ziploc bag, neatly lined up by size, and occasionally shows them off to a more intrepid young naturalist.
Joy Lyon, a smaller-scale chicken keeper, concurs that chickens are educational. She asked her children whether they wanted a dog or a cat, and they replied that they'd like a cow and chickens. Sensing a teachable moment, Lyon, the executive director of the Association for the Education of Young Children in Southeast, called city officials on speakerphone with the kids present, and asked them about cows and chickens.
Cows were out, but they could have up to three chickens at their downtown home, the official answered.
The kids were dancing. Lyon was obliged, she said, to get chickens. She has come to love them and their eggs, though.
"They are the best pet ever," she said.
Waldrip has lost 12 chickens to predators in the past month. The survivors are still shy about entering their chicken yard and scratching in the snow for cracked corn.
They have good reason: It turns out the terror of the chicken yard was a mink, who neatly solved the electric fence problem by setting up house in the chicken yard, under a tree. It had done serious damage to a couple of chickens, carried at least one other off completely, and stolen countless eggs.
Waldrip discovered its on-site residence with the help of a motion-sensing camera, a Christmas predator-tracking present.
The mink, she learned, was stealing into the coop not at night, when she was keeping vigil, but around afternoon tea time. It was exploiting one tiny hole in the thin chicken wire around the coop.
Waldrip trapped it live and drove it to the end of the road, she said.
One drama down. The chickens, at least, rarely fight amongst themselves, except over who gets the favorite nest boxes. In that arena, Waldrip has come to understand the original intent of the term "pecking order."
Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or email@example.com.
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