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Suburbia eager for poultry-raising tips

JOHNS CREEK, Ga. (AP) - Andy and Jennifer Schneider's yellow ranch-style house looks like any other you might expect in Johns Creek: The grass is clipped and flower beds are groomed. An American flag hangs in front.

But walk inside the immaculate home and you'll likely hear a sound more befitting a barnyard than suburbia. A cacophony of peeps. A chorus of chirps. A choir of chicks.

On this day, Andy Schneider - self-dubbed "the Chicken Whisperer" - has returned from the post office with two cardboard boxes carrying 125 newborn chicks. Seventy are already promised to Atlanta residents through the Schneiders' company, Atlanta Pet Chickens, just one sign that chickens are increasingly afoot in the city.

More people are interested in "going green" and use the chicken waste for compost, he said, and view chickens as helping them become more self-sufficient. Others still like to know the source of their food and that it can be chemical- and hormone-free. And some simply keep fluffy varieties such as Silkies as unusual pets, he explained.

One by one, Andy Schneider takes the creamy Buff Orpingtons, black Barred Rocks, Silver Laced Wyandottes, Rhode Island Reds and striped Ameraucanas and dips their beaks into water and seed to introduce them to their new home, a brooder he's built with a Rubbermaid plastic bin. The chicks he doesn't sell will stay there for six weeks before joining the midsize chickens he keeps in a 12-by-6-foot straw-bottomed brooder in his garage.

Due to his meetup.com group, many Atlantans know Schneider as their go-to-guy to get in the "game," even if the game is played, er, raised in an urban backyard or garage. He created the online Atlanta Pet Chicken Meetup Group to find others who share his plucky passion; membership has grown to 285 in less than nine months, he said.

The Chicken Whisperer, 39, got his start peddling pet poultry about five years ago when on a whim, he purchased some chicks as a gift to his wife Jennifer. He had raised poultry before, but this time, wanted them for fresh eggs.

About a year ago, he placed an ad on craigslist.com to sell a few chicks. The calls came pouring in, but not from farmers.

"The majority of people pulling in my driveway were soccer moms with minivans," said Schneider. "I knew something was going on."

It might be a chicken revolution. Oakhurst Community Garden director Stephanie Van Parys said that just two years ago, the Decatur garden couldn't fill a single "Chicks in the City" class on raising backyard chickens, but now offers four a year with long wait lists.

Jenna Eddy-Loving credits the Chicken Whisperer for helping her family start a backyard brood at their Alpharetta home. More importantly, Schneider encouraged the stay-at-home mother to try again when her first half-dozen baby chicks died from too much, well, loving.

"I kind of overdid it with the heat lamp in an attempt to keep them from getting cold," she confided. "He definitely talked me down from a ledge on that one. He's so helpful and patient with people who are looking to learn."

Schneider and those who share his interest use the Meetup group to share advice, such as ways to deter predators. He also advertises events like his Chickenstock and Eggtober Fest.

Most importantly, he helps enthusiasts navigate local chicken ordinances. Cities such as Atlanta, Decatur and East Point allow people to raise up to 25 backyard chickens within certain space parameters.

"It's an absolute lack of understanding from all sorts," he said of governments that ban backyard flocks for city-dwellers and suburbanites. "A lot of people have images of rural chicken farms that have hundreds of thousands of chickens. They think whether it's six chickens or 600,000, they're going to stink and be loud."

Schneider said chickens are like any animal: If the owner doesn't regularly clean the pen, odor and unsightly appearance is inevitable.

While he keeps his chickens legally, he says he had them for nearly two years before neighbors knew. The Schneiders raise about 30 chickens in backyard coops. He brings noisy roosters indoors at night and shares fresh eggs with neighbors to keep the peace.

For now, helping people with hens is merely a hobby; the former emergency medical technician sells defibrillators as his real job.

But that could change, he said, once the chicken revolution goes mainstream.

"All it's going to take is Paris Hilton showing up on 'Extra' with a Silkie, and the bubble is going to fly away."