PERRY -- Tina Turner is indignant.
No, not because this rooster has a girlie name.
Or because his long head feathers cascade over his eyes like some middle-aged rock star, half blinding his view.
And no, not because he's dumber than an average cluck. "He's a ditz," says owner Josh Felix. "I think he forgets who we are. It's like: 'There's brand-new people every day!' "
"Tina Turner-slash-Tito Turner," as 10-year-old Madeleine Felix calls him, scuttles back and forth in the chicken wire run, his feathery topknot jerking furiously in surprised little robot chops.
Outside the run, in contrast to the frantic Tito, Sarah Palehen pecks peacefully at invisible bugs in the grass. Sarah Palehen is a fluffy, golden-colored buff Orpington hen, a grown-up version of the classic yellow Easter-morning chick.
Tito, a white-crested black Polish, is indignant this evening because he's left to strut behind chicken wire, like some frustrated groupie. "He's like, 'That's my girl out there'," says Josh Felix. He shakes his head in wonder, "Chickens are the true machismo of the world."
Tito, Sarah and their six chicken companions are giving the Felix family a close-up look at the dynamics of chicken relationships.
The chickens are just a few months old, still "teenagers" to the Felixes. The fact that Tina Turner the chick grew into the rooster Tito Turner is just one of the learning curves greeting the Felixes in their new venture of raising a backyard chicken flock. Not every chick, they discovered, turns out to be a docile egg-laying mama.
"You know what they say about a pecking order?" asks Josh Felix, as he watches Tito Turner muscle his way to the front. "It definitely exists."
Throughout the country, thousands of Americans like the Felixes are turning to backyard chickens for both recreation and some sense of food independence. "Believe it or not, this is a growing thing," says Felix. "People are really getting into this whole backyard chicken thing now."
David Frame sees it every day. The Utah State Extension poultry specialist says up to 70 percent of the Utahns who take his introductory poultry classes in early spring are newcomers to the world of chickens.
"Basically, most of the folks I talk with want chickens for eggs. They want a good source of fresh eggs -- the fresher the egg, the better it is," says Frame. And chickens as pets? "That's becoming more prevalent," he agrees.
James Barnhill, Weber County's extension agent, has found that saving money is not the motivation pushing most urban and suburban chicken farmers. Eggs are definitely cheaper when they come from the supermarket. "Knowing how to take care of yourself and raise your own food has a lot of value -- the sense of being self-sufficient," he said.
Looking for adventure
And then there are plenty of people, like the Felixes, who are looking for an adventure. Hard numbers are hard to scratch up, but there seems to be a general trend across the country to raise chickens for pets.
"Eggs are a nice byproduct," says Josh Felix, "But we didn't get into it to raise chickens for production value. We wanted boutique chickens -- something that looked good in the backyard."
He pauses, adding: "And I didn't want a coop that looked like your average chicken coop."
The resulting Murgi Mahal -- that's Hindi for Chicken Palace -- is a petite cottage with window boxes sprouting flowers. When the hens start laying, the eggs will roll down a little ramp with its own decorative door accessible from the outside.
The coop even has a porch. For all his head-tossing umbrage, Tito is definitely among the fowl population's 1 percent.
So far, the kids agree that chickens are "better than puppies," said Josh Felix. "They're just little balls of chirping fun."
The Felixes began the process months before they acquired any actual birds. First, there was the necessity of convincing his wife, Sharmila, that the family needed chickens. "This is a city girl," he explains.
Josh clinched the deal by playing it sneaky: He raised the chicken idea in front of their two children, 10-year-old Madeleine and 7-year-old Ian. Sharmila finally went along, she says. "But I think there's a spa day in it."
Building a palace
A project manager for an architectural firm, Josh Felix began designing and building the coop in February. He and Sharmila decided the coop would be a good cover to obscure an unsightly storage shed in their backyard.
From the beginning, said Josh, he didn't want a utilitarian, boxy coop. "I didn't want someone to come into the yard and say, 'Oh, you have a chicken coop,'" he said. "I want people to say, 'That's your chicken coop?' "
He found research that indicated each chicken should have 4 square feet of space. "So I took the bare minimum and upped it by four times," he grins. The 100-square-foot coop and nearly as large run were finished some three months later. "Of course, every chicken coop needs shutters and windows and window boxes," said Josh, "and that takes time."
The clear plastic roof allows lots of warm sun through to the run below. Seeing this, the Felixes realized only the lower half of the run would get any action. So, Josh and the kids built finch nests and roosts. They now have four zebra finches flitting over the chickens' heads and, at last count, three eggs.
"So when you're on the back patio, it's kind of like being at Tracy Aviary," Josh says. Then he adds, "We're thinking of upgrading the outside of our house to match the coop."
A growing family
Choosing the chickens took even more brainstorming. Josh wanted breeds that withstood Utah's hard winters and would be gentle family companions. "We thought that if we were around them enough, they could be like pets -- which has kind of worked out," says Josh.
Sharmila was still hesitant when she went on a reconnaissance trip to the feed store with Josh, sans children. "I went in with my arms folded, grouchy, reluctantly prepared to go along," she remembers. But as soon as she saw the downy chicks, "I was totally in love."
The family decided to get three hens. "We had a little checklist," Josh said. Then the total climbed to five. Come shopping day, their goal was hovering at seven -- "the absolute maximum," said Josh. The family walked out of the feed store with eight chicks.
All of their hens are big and docile. There's Sarah Palehen, the sweet-tempered buff Orpington. She's joined by Sasha, a Russian Orloff whose feathers are speckled brown like a game bird and whose bearded face resembles a hawk.
Chicken Korma is a dark Brahma, her pencil-lead-colored feathers growing all the way down her legs; "it looks like she's wearing pants," says Madeleine. Korma is the largest of the birds. Also named after Indian dishes are two Wyandottes, a silver-laced and a golden-laced; these two birds are named Tica and Tandoori.
Rounding out the bunch is Chucacabra, a name made up by Ian that belongs to a big bluish-tinted Cochin. Like Chicken Korma, she has feathers all the way to her toes.
"Half the fun of having chickens is naming them," said Josh.
The rooster factor
Two roosters were the luck of the draw. Unless you buy "sex-link" chicks specifically cross-bred to show their gender through traits such as feather color, you have a 50-50 chance of getting a rooster or a hen.
Tito Turner, the flighty and nervous Polish rooster, was Sharmila's choice. "He didn't really fit into the scheme of things, but I liked him," she says.
Their other rooster is a bantam Gray Japanese. The small Gigi, who was named after Sharmila's great-grandmother, is at the top of the pecking order, despite his small size and feminine name. Gigi, says Josh, "just struts around a lot - it's who he is."
But carry Gigi on his back, with his claws in the air, and he falls asleep, says Madeleine.
Because Josh had raised chickens as a teenager, he understood they would be time-consuming. Especially when they're chicks, he said, "they just constantly need your attention." The chicks quickly learned the layout of the food and water dish, but it took them quite a bit longer to figure out the roosting.
Chickens, explains poultry expert Frame, need a ledge without sharp edges to roost. A surprise to new chicken owners is that chickens may need to be trained. "I get more comments from people on having to bring them in to roost," Frame said. "You may have to train one or two who are slow learners."
The Felixes ended up with some particularly slow learners. Now, the Felix birds line up every night, eight in a row. "Of course, I had to teach them to do that. My chickens haven't learned anything on their own," said Josh. "They were all huddled in the corner. So every night for a week and a half, I had to go out there at dark, pick them up out of their pile and line them up on their roost."
Now, like all good chickens, the members of the Felix flock put themselves to bed every night. "They go to bed early, just like us," says Josh. "The moment that sun starts to go down, they're heading in to go to bed."
At times, the chickens are allowed out to roam the yard. "They love the lawn for some reason," says Josh. The family augments the chickens' feed-store diet with some fresh greens and leftover oatmeal.
He's already thinking ahead to winter when "we may have to give them some cod liver oil, to give them a boost."
But for now, kids chase, Sarah Palehen inspects the flower bed, and Tito watches from the run.
"We took an area of the yard that we really did not like at all," said Josh, "and turned it into our favorite corner of the yard."