Esther King keeps her eye on an egg-making machine. Photo: Simone Egger
IS IT the chicken or the egg that's motivating the resurgence in keeping backyard chooks?
According to the Australian Egg Corporation, eggs produced by hens in suburban backyards represent around 10 per cent of total egg production in Australia. That's 393 million dozen eggs Australia-wide. But quantifying the other myriad motivators for keeping chooks is a little trickier.
In Melbourne, local business Book-A-Chook is flat-out ferrying a dozen rental coops and pairs of chooks around town to first-timers who want to try before they buy and short-termers such as childcare centres and kindergartens. It's part of a national revival in keeping chooks in suburban backyards.
Chickens roam free, mixing with other family pets in a suburban backyard. Photo: Simone Egger
''I think it has a lot to do with people wanting to know where their food comes from,'' says Book-A-Chook owner Fleur Baker. ''People want more control over the food cycle.''
In Australia, there is no federal legislation governing the conditions that constitute ''free-range''. The egg industry is self-regulated, operating under a code of practice that varies between states. Last November, the ACCC handed down an interim decision against supporting a proposal by the egg corporation to trademark ''free-range'' as a stock density up to 20,000 birds per hectare. Phil Westwood, from Freeranger farm in Grantville, Victoria, says 1500 birds per hectare (just 7.5 per cent of the proposal's figure) is a more reasonable number and better represents the public's perception of free-ranging birds having the space to actually forage in grass.
Sarah McKenzie keeps two chooks in her Brunswick backyard. ''We want to ensure our eggs come from happy chooks,'' she says. ''And the children love the ritual of collecting eggs, and they love having the chooks sit on their laps.
''It's also interesting to watch the birds interact: to develop their hierarchy and to want to always be together.''
As for the supposed benefit of chooks eating kitchen scraps? ''We've found they really don't eat much,'' says Ms McKenzie. ''We actually make them bowls of warmed Weet-Bix in winter.''
Ms Baker from Book-A-Chook says the fussiness for food scraps is particular to city chooks. ''They're quite pampered. They all have names and individual personalities, many are allowed inside the house and, because there are just two or three, owners watch them very closely.
''I get some pretty interesting questions,'' she says. ''I often direct people to the Backyard Poultry website [an Australia and New Zealand-wide chook fanciers' site, with forums and articles] and its six pages of chook poo photos.''
And the cost? It's cheaper to buy eggs than to keep chooks for their eggs alone, say both Ms Baker and Mr Westwood, who advises people who want ''true'' free-range eggs to look for the Humane Choice logo or buy from stalls accredited by the Victorian Farmers Markets Association or talk to the farmer.
''With more people living in cities, there are more people wanting a bit of the country in their backyards,'' says Ms Baker. ''Many remember their parents or grandparents having chooks running around in the backyard.''
And, it seems, a growing number of the next generation of city dwellers will have similar fond memories.