Gwenne Baile, the mother hen of South Jersey’s thriving backyard chicken scene, knows her flock by more than just their names.
“Sandie, extra large brown eggs; Nellie, pale beigey-pink; Susie, baby blue; Emmie, slight greenish-blue; and Lizzie … same as Nellie," Baile said, describing the rainbow of egg hues her pets-with-benefits regularly produce.
As for Iris, who’s 5 1/2: "She doesn’t lay eggs any more. We call that ‘hen-a-pause.’ But she’s still a very valued member of the flock,” said Baile — who isn’t called The Chicken Lady for nothing.
A 71-year-old retired nurse and midwife, Baile (“like a bale of chicken straw”) lives in Haddon Township with her husband, Ron, a retired technician, and their six hens. The couple has been married for half a century, and they have a grown son.
Baile and her Camden County Chickens group have helped residents of the township and a dozen other South Jersey suburbs successfully organize campaigns for backyard hens. Thanks largely to Baile’s efforts, about 150 households in Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester Counties now have hens; no noisy, randy roosters are allowed.
“Gwenne was my mentor,” said Emily Morgan, who attended one of Baile’s Raising Backyard Chickens in the Suburbs classes and led the grassroots campaign to implement a program in Voorhees. “Gwenne is passionate and knowledgeable, and I think it brings her great joy to teach other people how to raise chickens. We couldn’t have done it without her.”
Jaclyn Ricci called Baile “a driving force behind us getting chickens in Merchantville." And Katherine Blinn, a lawyer who named her hens after female Supreme Court justices, said Baile showed residents and officials in densely populated Mount Ephraim that chickens could be good neighbors.
“A lot of people for some reason have the idea backyard chickens are like a large-scale poultry farm or something," Blinn said. “A small group of hens in the backyard couldn’t be more the opposite of that. And it’s nice to be able to share fresh eggs with other people.”
Baile said the idea to explore the feasibility of backyard chickens in Haddon Township “popped into my head” during a local Green Team meeting in 2010. An online curriculum and certification program, Chickens + You, offered by a nonprofit educational organization called the Gossamer Foundation, has proven to be rigorous and invaluable, she added.
Long a feature of life in rural and small-town America, backyard chickens have become more common in other parts of the country in the last 10 to 15 years. Public interest in sustainable living and locally sourced food have helped make the notion of chickens in the suburbs seem less outlandish and more feasible; the availability of attractive, architecturally imaginative coops and organic feed adds to the appeal.
Meanwhile, online resources such as BackYardChickens.com promote having a flock of one’s own as a form of stylish fun for the whole family. Chicken rental companies provide coops, flocks, and feed for a fee for those who aren’t ready to buy. And social media — “Voorhees Chicken Nation” is among a number of local pages about the subject on Facebook — connects fans and enables advocates to spread the word.
"I’m working with people up and down the state of New Jersey now,” said Baile, noting that public education encourages backyard chicken policies that protect the interests of all — including neighbors with no desire to tend a flock. She also emphasizes that a serious commitment on the part of individuals, and communities, is needed for backyard chickens to work.
While a basic coop, run, and start-up flock of six might cost less than $1,000, properly caring for the birds and maintaining their home and health can be time-consuming. But the rewards are many and can go well beyond an abundance of fresh eggs, she said.
Stereotypes about bird brains and dumb clucks notwithstanding, those who know chickens say they’re smart — even if most aren’t able to “play” a keyboard (as a chicken named Jokgu did in 2017 on America’s Got Talent). Chickens are sociable and even affectionate creatures who recognize people, have amusing quirks (they like to look at themselves in the mirror) and only bawk-bawk-BAWK after laying an egg. The birds also are voracious consumers of insect pests and table scraps; their poop is compostable, and it makes excellent fertilizer. “I love my girls,” said Baile.
Not everyone does, and NIMBY-ism is not the only reason. An otherwise cheery backyard poultry page on the Centers for Disease Control website warns that domestic fowl can be a source of bacterial infections such as salmonella, which is often spread by contaminated produce. The CDC reports 10 cases in New Jersey from a variety of transmission sources so far this year. “I’m not aware of any cases involving chickens in South Jersey," said Baile, adding that frequent handwashing and other commonsense sanitary precautions for those with backyard flocks generally prevent transmission to humans.
Concerns about noise, odors, and aesthetics are among the reasons Collingswood, in Camden County, has been squabbling about backyard chickens for years; opponents so far have kept the birds at bay. Having hens is allowed in all five boroughs of New York City but remains illegal in Philadelphia. This is despite eight years of diligent lobbying by Maureen Breen and her Philadelphia Backyard Chickens group.
“I call Gwenne the ‘chicken goddess,’” said Breen, who’s optimistic that Philly will someday see the light. “Gwenne mobilizes people, she works hard, and she just keeps going."
Indeed: Baile completed 60 hours of online Chickens + You instruction to become a teacher (her classes are now available by Zoom only). She completed another 30 hours for certification as a handler of therapy chickens: She also teaches others how to select and train the best candidates for the purpose of bringing joy to dementia patients, nursing home residents, people with special needs, and younger folks on the autism spectrum.
Since 2016, Baile and a therapy chicken — currently, it’s Sandie — have made 85 visits to nursing homes or other facilities, as well as to events by organizations, and presentations at local libraries. A Croatian documentary film crew working on a project about domesticated animals shot footage of Baile during her appearance with a therapy chicken at a facility in Philly earlier this year.
Baile said working with therapy chickens is a link between her long nursing career and her last decade as a force to be reckoned with in the world of backyard hens.
“I also enjoy the whole thing of getting legislation passed locally. It’s important that it be done right,” she said, adding, "you could say backyard chickens have become one of the most important and enjoyable parts of my life.”
And in any case, said Baile, who ought to know: "Chickens are wonderful.”