Kelly McKaig inspecting a beehive
Gage Park resident Kelly McKaig first became interested in bees for ecological reasons, but now she finds the honey to be unbeatable. “Everyone wants it as a present.” launch the photo gallery »

Around sunrise every day in West Ridge, five urban chicks wake up and parade out of their Swiss-chalet-style coop into the attached run. The hens make a stunningly beautiful group: a beige Buff Orpington, two black-and-gold Easter Eggers (who lay stylishly blue-green eggs), a fluffy blue Cochin with feather-covered feet, and a Red Star named Eggberta, who serves as a watchdog, squawking an alarm if a wayward cat tries to jump the fence. Across town, thousands of honeybees—nature’s nonaggressive pollinators—are already hard at work in various backyard and rooftop apiaries.

The West Ridge coop, started in May 2010, is truly a co-op, organized and run by three women: Jenn Ron, 44, whose backyard houses the flock; Maribeth Brewer, 52; and Lynette D’Amico, 55. They wanted eggs, compost, and the fun of having pet chickens. When the hen house and run were first delivered, neighbors came out and helped with lifting and assembly, turning the event into a modern barn raising. “You know, I’ve never met a neighbor in the egg aisle of Whole Foods,” says D’Amico, “but I’ve met over half the neighborhood here when they come to visit the girls.”

Backyard chicken keeping is a rapidly growing interest in Chicago, spurred on by the local food movement and an unquenchable desire, even in the most urban of settings and no matter how small the scale, for some sense of returning to the land. “Our backyard-chicken-care classes sell out every time,” says Martha Boyd, program director for Angelic Organics Learning Center and moderator of Chicago Chicken Enthusiasts, an online group with hundreds of members. “You don’t need a rooster to get eggs, so hen keeping is perfect for urban settings.” It is legal in Chicago and many of the suburbs; Evanston just dropped its 36-year ban on backyard hens.

Beekeeping is a less cuddly but equally popular city interest, fueled by a love of homemade honey and a desire to restore honeybees to the ecology. Biannual classes at Chicago Honey Co-op, a 60-hive apiary in the North Lawndale neighborhood, always sell out. “Honeybees are the best pollinators we have,” says Richard McGinnis, publisher of Mindful Metropolis, an eco-conscious magazine. McGinnis jumped at the chance five years ago to inherit four beehives. His apiary is now located on a rooftop on West Chicago Avenue, with clear views of the city in all directions.


Photography: Joe Wigdahl