After a hard day's work, Monique Watts likes to sit down and relax with a plate of dinner, watching her favorite diversion:
"It's like TV, I'm telling you," said Watts. "It's entertainment. In summer we eat dinner out here every night. We just watch the dogs and the chickens."
Last year, Watts led the fight to reverse a ban on backyard chickens in Buffalo. Today she has her chicken permit and cares for four birds in a tidy coop behind her Rhode Island Street home.
At the supermarket, Watts said, she'll walk by the egg case and just smile. "It's such a great sense of satisfaction," said Watts, development director of the WNY Women's Fund.
"It comes from feeling good about having done something yourself, having control over something. The fact that I can come cut chives out of my herb garden and put them in my eggs -- pretty much create an omelet right out of my yard."
Whether the draw is entertainment, eggs, or chicken soup, Watts is only one of a flock of chicken fanciers across the nation who are bringing chickens back home. "The urban chicken movement is alive and well," said Michael Perry.
A magazine writer and book author who also raises chickens, pigs and oats on his Minnesota farm, Perry has met many backyard chicken boosters while touring in support of his book "Coop: A Family, a Farm and the Pursuit of One Good Egg."
The book follows Perry, his seriously pregnant wife, Anneliese, and daughter, Amy, as they raise "chickens, pigs and babies," as he puts it, on their 37-acre spread, a former dairy farm that he says they're bringing back to life little by little.
Perry will read from "Coop" at Talking Leaves Books, 3158 Main St., at 5 p.m. Saturday.
He was a farm boy in the 1970s when the "back to the land" movement saw hippies moving into the countryside, buying farms and planning for a communal agricultural future. Three neighboring farms were bought by bright-eyed young people, Perry remembers.
"They found out that farming is hard work," Perry said. Of the three farms, one remains in the same hands. The guy is a truck driver for the county now.
Today's version of the back-to-the-land movement seems more pragmatic, Perry said. People are willing to take baby steps.
"The people who are getting five chickens for their backyard aren't looking to drastically reduce their food bill. They're interested in having some little tangible part of the process of feeding themselves in their own backyard. And I think good things come of that."
Their goals seem more modest too, Perry said. "They're not looking for Shangri-La, they're looking for ways to integrate this in their daily lives."
For Watts, backyard chickens are an effort to take responsibility for part of her food supply and quell her qualms about factory-farming practices. Others are more interested in the gourmet allure of the freshest eggs in town and a supply of soup chickens once the birds pass their egg-laying years.
In March, a surprisingly large crowd attended "From Chicks to Market," a Cornell University conference aimed at covering the basics of chicken raising. "The numbers in attendance reinforced that interest in poultry production, for all size operations, is once again on the rise across New York State," said Sharon Bachman, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Erie County's agriculture educator.
While many conference participants were interested in the business side of raising chickens, Watts said she knows she's not saving money raising her own eggs. "It's never going to be cheaper to have your own hens. You're feeding them, you're building a coop for them, you're spending your time and energy," Watts said. The reward is paid in another currency: "It's a sense of satisfaction."
As a little girl in Little Rock, Ark., Watts had neighbors who raised bantam hens, pint-sized egg layers. "My mother would not let me bring one home," Watts said. So she went to the chickens. "I would walk down the street and help them take care of their banty hens," she remembered, "and they would give me an egg to take home."
One recent afternoon, Watts watched in her backyard as her hens bobbled around looking for insects, flinging up dirt from former vegetable beds. Watts said they require less effort than her two dogs, considering walking duties and other pooch tasks.
"I am a terrible chicken mother," she said. "As soon as the sun comes up they want to get out. I like to sleep."
So it's perhaps 7:30 a.m. when Watts lets them out of their protective coop. She brings them a dish of any kitchen scraps on hand, augmented with chicken feed. "Give them fresh water, that's the most important thing, and a shady spot," she said. "That's all they need."
On Saturdays Watts spends a half-hour cleaning their coop. She collects their eggs, about a dozen a week, and watches her birds in the afternoon as they quietly peck away.
She's learned a lot in a season. She's started growing her lettuce in pouches on the fence, out of chicken range. "They've already eaten all my zucchini and squash out of that little bed, so I have to replant and put a serious fence up," she said. The rest of her gardening is behind fences or in a plot across the street.
She also has learned that her birds probably won't become soup. All hens stop laying after a few years, which is when they typically become meat. When that happens, Watts is planning to swap them back to the farmer she got them from.
When her Rhode Island Red died recently, she couldn't make soup out of Nutmeg, the bird she'd raised from a chick. Nutmeg was buried instead, becoming garden fertilizer, Watts explained. That seemed like the right thing to do. "She had a name," Watts said.