The stretch of New Lane just north of Pond View Farm Road in West Tisbury has its very own ornithological sound track. Songbirds warble as they dip and dive between feeders, crows squawk from their tall-branch perches, and every now and then the dense shrubs rustle as a procession of wild turkey hens emerges, the portly gals clucking and purring as they shake their tail feathers. It’s an avian symphony of free improvisation. But as you round the bend where the Small family mailbox is staked at the edge of the rough-cut grass, the tune becomes distinctly barnyard-like: a faint cooing and fluttery murmur, which, as anyone who ventures up their driveway can see, comes from Alix deSeife Small’s flock of chickens, chattering away.

It’s a fairly common occurrence these days to happen upon a few chickens – or, at Alix’s house, forty-three as of last count – pecking and scratching in the yard. More and more people are latching onto the idea of eating ultra-fresh, Island-sourced food, and an egg (which by nature appeals to a locavore’s purist sensibilities) isn’t going to come from anywhere closer than your own backyard. And word is getting out that poultry rearing is a very doable home-grown project that requires little to no agricultural training.

That’s what Alix figured back in the late nineties when she and her husband, Dan, bought their West Tisbury vacation home and at the same time moved from Miami to a rented house in Newton that happened to be outfitted with an “incredible” chicken coop. The couple’s professional careers couldn’t have kept them any further from farm life. Alix is a former Democratic political consultant and press secretary for John Kerry’s senatorial campaign who’s turned into a textile designer and recently converted her family’s guest house into a yarn shop called Vineyard Knitworks; Dan is a Boston-based attorney. But Alix says they “always wanted to get back to the land” and thought these two new venues offered them the perfect opportunity to give it a try.

“We went to an agricultural auction in Cape May, New Jersey, and bought guinea hens,” she recalls of their first venture. “One escaped, and then we bought more of them through the mail. Then, as an evolution of that, we got chickens.”

Heavenly henhouses

That initial flock of birds, which spent their first winter under lights in the Newton coop, turned out to be very stable travelers; as Alix, Dan, and their now-teenaged children, Bailey, Gabrielle, and Schuyler, shuttled between homes, the chickens came too.

“We just packed them right up into the car,” Alix says, laughing.

Naturally, birds have come and gone over the years. An entire flock of twenty-four, quite tragically, went to a hungry raccoon back in 2000, and one particularly vociferous rooster’s late-night crowing in Miami irritated Dan so much that he charged out of bed at 1:30 a.m., drove the bird (and a supply of food) to a nearby marina, and sped away back to bed. But over time the Smalls have brought more and more birds home to roost and have set up runs at all three of their houses to accommodate them. The family currently has other residences in Manchester-by-the-Sea and Miami.

“My chickens have second and third homes,” Alix admits sheepishly. “When we moved into the Manchester house, the chickens lived in the pool house for a while. One day, I found out that a men’s club was getting rid of an old tool shed, so I paid a friend to convert the shed into a coop. It turned out really nice. Now we have the Taj Mahal of chicken coops [in Manchester].”

As coops go, the Vineyard digs are hardly Spartan. A squat henhouse for nighttime dwelling has recently been joined by what Alix calls a palace, which can accommodate forty more chickens (arriving this fall); there’s also a tall fence and sweeping, panoramic views of the six-acre property. And the chickens aren’t cooped up all the time, though Alix doesn’t let them free-range far from the pen because a family of red-tailed hawks lives in the lower field. But visitors to the adjacent yarn shop are likely to be met by at least one hen meandering around the yard. On my visit, a plump, plumy bird with soft, charcoal-gray feathers and a dazzling coral-red coxcomb waddled over to me and affectionately grazed my leg as if it were a dog hankering for a behind-the-ears scratch.

“Our chickens are like house pets,” Alix says, confirming my anecdote. “We name them: There’s Stella, from A Streetcar Named Desire. Then there’s Duchess, Cecily, and Marigold. They come when they’re called, and they run to greet you.”

Alix likes to mix chicken breeds. After she recovered from the raccoon incident (the trauma of which discouraged her from raising chickens for a few years), she replenished the flock gradually. Four chicks came home from a birthday party with Dan and their daughters, followed by eight Rhode Island Reds – auburn-feathered fowl with spiky, bright red combs and matching wattles – that Alix bought from a hatchery in Ipswich, and then another surprise from her husband and children.

“I remember the day,” she says. “It was December 19, 2008, and there was a knock on the door from the mailman. He handed me twenty-four chicks in a box, which my husband and kids had apparently ordered.”

Four of them didn’t make it, but the others – a mixture that included tufted Araucanas and Barred Rocks – were happily cohabiting, not to mention producing more eggs than Alix knew what to do with.

“I was getting thirty-six to forty eggs a day, so I had to store them in two refrigerators. I was giving eggs to the senior center, to the House at New Lane bed and breakfast, to friends – anyone who would take them,” she says. “I never sold the eggs.”

Hatching a new venture

The beauty of her motley crew – with their varied personalities and polychromatic feathers – extends to the many shades of eggs they produce. On any given day, Alix will collect tan-colored eggs tinged with pink from her Barred Rocks, pale green-blue specimens from the Araucanas, and classic New England brown eggs from the Rhode Island Reds. The production became so regular and reliable a few years ago, she thought she’d try selling some.

“I brought a few cartons into the Vineyard Haven Yacht Club, where I work as the office manager in the summer. I couldn’t keep them there for more than half an hour.”

Since then, she’s started selling to the Tisbury Farm Market under the label Vineyard Eggworks (to match the yarn shop brand). Demand has been high enough that she usually replenishes the stock twice a week. Plus, she wants people to experience her eggs – always organic – at their best.

“With a fresh egg,” she explains, “the yolk sits up; with an older egg, it spreads out.”

What’s more, Alix won’t sell eggs from her own shop refrigerator that are more than two weeks out of the nest. (Though they never remain that long anyway, she notes.) She also doesn’t believe in price-gouging fellow egg enthusiasts.

“I sell them for $3 per dozen,” she says, noting her prices rival those of non-organic commercial eggs in some markets, both on- and off-Island. “Whether you have money or not, you have the right to high quality, fresh food.”

With any luck, Alix’s next step will be breeding her own chicks. Her first coop may become a brooding coop (where mother hens will roost on the eggs until they hatch). She also began another grass-roots initiative last winter to ramp up her own vegetable patch, thanks to some organic farming guidance she’s received from Mitch Posin at Allen Farm in Chilmark. She probably won’t be selling much of the produce, but, just as with the eggs, she’s enjoying the quality and unparalleled convenience of walking out her back door to pick vegetables like mini Japanese eggplants and baby Brussels sprouts.

“You do it because you love it,” she says, “and because you want to know where your food comes from. I think we’re getting back to a point in civilization where people will have to have backyard gardens and three to four chickens. The quality of the food is so unbelievably superior to what’s in the supermarket. And there’s something incredibly satisfying about doing it from scratch.”

The following egg recipes were originally published along with this article:

ArtCliff Crêpes with Prosciutto, Parmigiano Reggiano, and Poached Eggs

Cutty’s Egg Salad Sandwiches

Lavender Crème brûlée from the Sweet Life Café