For Chicago's urban chicken entrepreneur, success means laying an egg
True, Murtoff grew up something of a farm girl in south central Pennsylvania, raising chicks with names like Hot Stuff and Baby Jitterbug in her grandpa's barnyard. But Murtoff, 35, had no real intention of turning her lifelong poultry passion into an entrepreneurial pursuit. A fan of Monty Python and practical jokes, she just thought the cards would look funny when she designed them two years ago.
But as these fine feathered tales go, Murtoff soon found that one woman's yuck is another person's yolk. And once the chicken flew the coop, so to speak, there was no stopping it.
"I was just being goofy with the cards," Murtoff recalled. "And then my accountant said, 'I want to get chickens in my back yard.'" That was in March 2009, a time when the French horn player with a master's degree in Hispanic linguistics could've used some spare cash.
Thus a new sideline wasn't so much born as hatched.
For little did Murtoff know that among pent-up city slickers -- those who disdain smelly cats and slobbering dogs -- chickens represent the ideal compromise: a pet you can keep in the backyard without too much fuss. Turns out that beyond the Chicago prairie, urban chicken coops are catching on from Albuquerque to Portland, Ore. (See Marc Acito's WalletPop story.)
"There's a move toward urban agriculture and people want to have chickens in their backyard," said Murtoff, who records her exploits on a blog, Home to Roost. "I had a really busy spring because that's when people are getting their chickens."
Murtoff might well forgive them, too, if they refer to her as the Chicken Gal (though she might ask them to instead use "chickenwoman," her online handle). She carries around a rubber chicken pocketbook, which carries inside it a rubber chicken change purse. Chicken pans and paintings adorn her apartment. And if she has a quizzical look on her bespectacled face, it's no doubt because she's puzzling exactly how to commune with beaked creatures, Doolittle-style.
"You sort of have to think the way a chicken thinks," Murtoff said. "It's not mammalian. When you have to catch a bird, you have to be able to think like a bird and know what's going on in that little bird brain. You have to be in charge."
It also helps to know the local laws. Chicago officials have mulled putting the kibosh on domesticated chickens from time to time, but it's still legal. Not so just north of the city in suburban Evanston, though, where municipal codes prohibit chickens (along with horses, mules, swines and poisonous reptiles).
So what does one need to start a roost, anyway? Aside from the coop itself (which Murtoff notes can be fashioned from converted dresser drawers), you'll need to buy some chicks, which cost about $2 a piece. Murtoff cautions customers against trying to figure out the sex of baby birds, which is quite difficult, even for an expert. (Everyone, it seems, wants hens that will lay eggs.) "About 75% of the cost is the feed," which goes for about 50 cents a pound. She recommends keeping it in a 55-gallon tub with a spring-loaded lid. (Keeps the rats and vermin out, ya know.)
She cautions her clients to also watch for any veterinary problems the birds might have. A very common problem is yolk peritonitis, where a portion of an unlaid egg becomes trapped inside a hen. "If a bird is sick, it will hide it for as long as possible," Murtoff said. "Birds are part of a flock, and they show any signs of illness, they get kicked out."
For most of her services, Murtoff charges between $60 and $75. Yes, she makes house calls for sick birds, and if you pay her $300, she'll pretty much see you through all the chick-to-chicken consultations you need.
Has it paid off? Murtoff's been busy as a mother hen through most of the spring and summer, with lots of paid presentations to church and school groups on the docket as well. She expects things to calm down once the winter weather sets in -- not that her ardor for her business will follow suit.
"It's a lot of fun for me to see a kid hold a chicken, or feed a chicken," she said. "They're unusual and they're the only pets that give back, unless you have a goat or a cow. And chickens really do have a personality. You figure out who they are after awhile."
Now then: As for which should come first in your homespun hen house -- the chicken or the egg -- that's entirely up to you.