Foraging ahead

Some time ago, chickens came to live outside the apartments at 85 Starnes Ave., located off Flint Street two blocks north of the Asheville Civic Center. Several generations later, and against long odds, chickens persist at the address. By day they forage in the soil beneath a row of hemlocks, occasionally stepping out for some tender weeds or cat food. At night they roost in the trees. They are tough. They are wily. And they seem determined to stay.

Props to their peeps: The Starnes Avenue flock grew by eight this spring, but only three chicks remain. photo by Kent Priestley

“Back in the spring, two women from Animal Control came out to get them,” says Kat Hilmo, whose boyfriend, James Richardson, lives in a ground-floor apartment nearby. A neighbor had called to complain about a crowing rooster, and the officers showed up to try to snare the birds with a net. They failed, and fell back on Plan B, which involved setting up a wire trap. The chickens, who numbered two at the time, were having none of it.

“They put a little dish of corn in there for bait,” says Allison Williams, another tenant. “I was like, ‘Those chickens eat bugs and worms and and cat food and compost. They are not interested in your little dish of corn.’”

The flock’s numbers rise and fall according to the demands of the feral life and the appetites of predators such as opossums, hawks, raccoons and cats. Currently, a rooster Richardson calls “Big Bro” appears to be in charge. His mate is a hen with auburn plumage who Richardson calls “Little Sis.” Between them they recently had eight offspring, fleet yellow chicks who were first spotted in Williams’ compost pile near the end of May. “You can see that they’ve pretty much destroyed the thing,” Williams says, gesturing to a nearby heap of wood and wire.

To be sure, the chickens are nuisances; most recently they uprooted Williams’ basil plants, and Big Bro is more vocal than any city chicken ought to be, often crowing from four in the morning until late in the day. “Every time he starts up in the morning, my boyfriend talks about having some chicken and dumplings,” Williams says.

But despite the noise and the occasional act of chicken vandalism, the Starnes residents seem to delight in their feathered neighbors. On an afternoon not long ago, Richardson looked out from his apartment to see his cat, a squirrel and Big Bro all standing together.

“I tried to take a picture with a little disposable camera but it didn’t come out,” he says.

Still, life is cruel for an urban chicken, and of last month’s brood, only three remain. The most recent casualty “was trying to get up in the tree last night but couldn’t,” Richardson says. “He just chirped and chirped and chirped. We were going to try to help him, but we just let nature take its course.”

And as long as nature insists on taking its course, the Starnes flock seems to be avoiding any unnecessary hazards.

“They used to cross the street,” says Williams. “But since they had those chicks, they’ve taken to staying right here.”

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