Karen Maloney of Largo poses with one of 12 hens in her flock. To the right is the chicken coop she and a friend built in her backyard.
LARGO – Karen Maloney always wanted to raise chickens.
Her flock of 12 hens have free range over half of her backyard, live in a homemade coop and enjoy a diet of organic grain, mostly organic vegetables and whatever other food is taking up space in Maloney’s refrigerator. Owning chickens was an item on her bucket list, she explained.
“I knew I was going to like this. It’s been like 100 times more fun than I thought,” she said. “These girls are lucky. They’ve got it made.”
Maloney works in a high-stress job, as a psychiatric nurse at Bay Pines VA Medical Center. Often, she comes home, pulls up a chair in her backyard and just watches the flock meander about, interact with each other and bury themselves in the dirt to clean their feathers in what’s called a dust bath. Sometimes her friends ask to join her for “chicken therapy,” she said.
“They’re fascinating. There is something relaxing about them,” Maloney explained. “They’re like your blood pressure medication and your antidepressant all wrapped in one.”
Maloney’s flock has grown since she first began raising chickens, starting with six chicks four years ago. Four of the six grew up to be roosters and had to be given away to avoid noise complaints from her neighbors. One has since died. Only a hen named Wilma is from the original flock.
Most of her flock she bought as chicks, some from a local seller, some ordered and sent through the mail. Maloney started her flock all wrong, buying the chicks before she had a coop and in the heat of summer, she said. It took three to four months for Maloney and her friend – the chicks’ godfather, she explained – to finish the coop, while the chicks grew bigger and began making a mess of the garage.
“We had a lot of mishaps, but we had a lot of fun too,” she said.
Maloney has hatched chicks as well, including Olive, named for her breed. Olive eggers are more unusual chickens and lay, predictably, olive-colored eggs. After hatching, Olive imprinted on Maloney and even now will follow her around the yard.
“In the morning when I leave for work, she’ll run after me, ‘Don’t leave me!’” she said, adding in a lowered voice, so as not to rouse jealousy in her flock. “She’s my favorite too.”
Maloney has several breeds: Rhode Island reds, New Hampshire reds, a Dutch Welsummer named Kip and a white leghorn named Pearl, the smallest of her flock, who lays the most consistent and biggest eggs.
“She’s all business,” she said.
Most stereotypes about chickens prove to be true, she said. They’re easily spooked, they come home to roost at dusk without fail – they can’t see in the dark – and they have a pecking order. New additions to the flock get picked on, mostly by a brown chicken named Poppy.
“She’s large and in charge,” Maloney said.
The chickens stay within their fenced area and make less noise than many dogs, she said. She’s never had any complaints from her neighbors. In fact, one of her neighbors on Ridge Road, Largo Commissioner Woody Brown, said he never smells and rarely hears Maloney’s flock.
“After much research” with his wife Jenny, the family decided to begin a flock of three chickens last year, Brown said.
“They provide for fresh eggs, and a cool learning experience for the boys,” the commissioner wrote in an email. “We really enjoy it, and we know what the chickens that give us eggs are eating.”
The city of Largo has allowed backyard chicken coops for some time, though the city ordinance on the issue is a bit vague. Specifically, the city prohibits “chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese and guinea fowl” from running at large within the city and requires that the birds “are securely fenced and confined” within the owner’s property. Coops are to be “kept clean and free from offensive odors,” the ordinance states.
The city also has a noise ordinance, which does not look kindly upon roosters, who crow all day, not just to announce the morning, Maloney explained. But roosters aren’t expressly banned and the ordinance does limit the size of residents’ flock. Maloney said 12 is plenty for her.
“I think there are many more backyard chicken coops in Largo than most realize,” Brown said.
Recently, a Largo resident emailed commissioners to ask them to prohibit chickens from the city.
“The sound of roosters should not be in the landscape of a very dense, congested city,” wrote Bruce Dennis.
To violate the noise ordinance, a code enforcement officer “must be present with a noise meter to make the determination,” building official Bill Ondulich wrote in response.
Roosters do crow regularly at Martin’s Farm, a residential property in Largo run by Sandi Martin LaRoche and her husband, Dawn. In fact, the farm serves as a rescue facility for chickens and various other farm animals. The local SPCA, Animal Control, Humane Society and even city of Largo code enforcement officials bring stray fowl to her farm, LaRoche said. She finds homes for the unwanted farm animals and purchases and sells chicks as a regular part of her business.
“We get 100 (chick) babies brought in every month, and they go like little hotcakes,” LaRoche said. “People come every weekend.”
She said she couldn’t guess how many residents in Largo and Pinellas County own chickens, but it’s a growing trend.
“There sure are a lot more since we started selling,” she said. “People are a lot more self-sufficient. They want to grow their own eggs.”
Outside of Largo, chickens are allowed in the cities of Belleair, Dunedin, Gulfport and St. Petersburg, as well as in unincorporated Pinellas County, according to an online tally by Pinellas County Citizens for Backyard Poultry.
Martin’s Farm started taking in rescued chickens about 15 years ago. Then people started asking for chicks, wanting to buy only two or three, not 25 at a time as they usually sold. LaRoche realized she could be choosy in what chickens she kept for herself and sell the rest.
She now can offer up to 50 different breeds that lay eggs from chocolate brown to green, all purebred. Along with baby chicks, the LaRoches keep and sell geese, pheasant, quail and peacocks.
“I only buy (chickens) for pets and eggs. No meat birds,” she clarified, adding that she’s had requests for butchered chickens. “I just can’t. We tell people, ‘If you name it, you don’t eat it.’”
Martin’s Farm also furnishes schools with fertilized eggs to hatch in the classroom, taking the chicks back after the lesson is over so they can find permanent homes for them. She provides about 40 to 50 dozen eggs a year to different schools in Pinellas County and Tampa throughout the school year.
“There’s nothing more precious than watching a baby hatch. And kids don’t get to see that anymore,” LaRoche said.
Like the school-hatched chicks, Maloney’s chickens that proved to be roosters ended up back at Martin’s Farm. LaRoche said she pays to determine the sex of the chicks she sells, so her customers are guaranteed hens. After all, it’s the hens that lay eggs; the roosters only become a noise violation.
Business picks up in the spring, especially around Easter, up until school lets out, LaRoche said.
Martin’s Farm, at 990 Donegan Road, is open Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Call 585-1110.