“You’re going to raise WHAT????” Tami sputtered, laughing so hard I thought about getting out the defibrillator.
“Chickens,” I said, with a great deal of dignity, “What’s so funny about a few chickens in the backyard?”
“Maybe the fact that I’m not even sure you know where your backyard IS?” she asked.
This is all Brenda’s fault.
Ernie’s mom Brenda, out in Atlanta, somehow acquired a gift certificate for three exotic chickens, so posted a Facebook query wondering which kind she should get. Since I actually work with a real live chicken farmer, Mike (by day a brilliant and sweet-natured developer, by night a crusading locavore egg manager), I asked him for advice.
Mike doesn’t say much…but he will wax eloquent on the subject of chickens. I got chapter, book and verse on the virtues of several chicken varieties–who knew there were that many?–and we discussed flightiness, egg production and the ins and outs of broodiness (when a hen objects to egg donations, which is bad; what you want are chickens who gleefully throw their eggs into your skillet). He ended by sending me to a website for urban chicken farmers.
“They’re the best if you want to learn more about chickens,” Mike assured me, and, intrigued, I browsed the site.
Hmmmm. There appears to be a whole subculture of humans addicted to chicken, and I don’t mean fried drumsticks. This site is full of information about true chicken love and the many varied virtues of chicken ownership.
Chicken poop is apparently such a fabulous fertilizer that neighbors and garden centers line up in droves (and pay small fortunes) to get it. Chickens scratch around your flowerbeds and revitalize your plants, they gorge on weed seeds and obnoxious insects but leave the good bugs alone. They like to cuddle, they can be taught to play the piano, they have glorious, peacock-like feathers that sell for serious money to hatmakers and Las Vegas costumers, they’re hypoallergenic, and at night their melodious chuckles soothe you to sleep.
Besides, if a hen is underperforming, she makes a great bowl of soup.
Try making soup out of Fluffy the cat. The chicken is a pet that MAKES money instead of costing it, and they feed you, to boot.
I found myself seriously considering the whole chicken rancher thing. Drifting out onto the back deck every morning and greeting my cheerful biddies, slipping my hand under the cozy-warm derriere of a purring hen, retrieving a fresh blue egg (YES, chicken eggs come in BLUE!!!) for my breakfast. Eggs on the hoof, as it were, for French toast and omelets (I make a MEAN basil-and-feta omelet) and souffles and custards and egg salad sandwiches.
Me, sunning myself out back as my hens industriously pull weeds, trim the grass and fertilize the rhododendrons. I corner the market on chicken poo–er, fertilizer–sales, trade eggs for the neighbors’ backyard bounty, and get rid of the gardener.
I started designing chicken coops and planning Easter egg hunts. I did worry about how my neighbors would regard living with a rooster; we’re friends and I’d like to keep it that way, which might be difficult with 5AM cock-a-doodle-doos. Fortunately, a short and revealing conversation with Mom, who grew up on a chicken farm, solved that problem:
Hens don’t need a rooster to lay eggs. Whoa–did you know this? I’m still a little murky on the details but it appears that roosters are superfluous to my breakfast.
“You are (XX) years old and you STILL don’t know how hens make eggs?” Mom asked incredulously, “We should have taken you to the country more when you were a little girl. You are NOT ready to have chickens.”
In fact, Mom was thumbs-down on the whole chicken thing. Her opinion of chickens was somewhat lower than the folks at BackyardChickens.com: “…noisy, filthy, and they stink to high heaven,” she said emphatically, “They are dumb as dirt, mean as can be, and far too much work, especially when you can get a fryer and a dozen eggs at Winco for about five dollars.” (I may be paraphrasing a bit but she definitely was against the whole project)
Still, Google says that Portland ranks highest in searching on terms such as “backyard chickens,” and “chicken coops,” so at least I’m in good company. And fresh eggs from the farmers’ market have about as much in common with grocery store eggs as a Ferrari does to roller skates.
I started monitoring egg auctions and thumbing through breed descriptions to find MY chickens. I’d just about settled on Easter Eggers and Rhode Island Reds, and was going with the tractor coop for enhanced portability. I couldn’t get over how cheap chickens are–I could buy 25 chickens for less than 50 bucks–and mentioned this to a chicken-owning buddy.
“Sure,” he nodded, “That’s for fertile eggs. You’ve got to hatch them, so you’ll need an incubator and all that, and you’re going to lose a few. And then there’s usually a pretty high mortality rate until you get rid of all the predators.”
“Yeah, like raccoons. If there’s a raccoon within ten miles it’ll find your chickens. Bite the heads right off.”
I froze. “As a matter of fact,” I said cautiously, “There’s a raccoon family living under my deck…”
“Well, get rid of them now or your chickens will last about ten minutes,” he warned, “And the same goes for foxes and coyotes. Nothing they like better than a nice, fat hen. You’d better get the reinforced chicken coop, you can lock down every night.”
My happy backyardful of chickens morphed into a prison fortress surrounded by concertina wire, with me on 24×7 patrol, shotgun and guard dogs at the ready.
“And you’re going to need a truck for hauling off the manure,” he continued.
“No, I’m going to sell whatever I don’t use as fertilizer in the yard,” I contradicted confidently, and he snorted.
“Good luck with that,” he said, “You can fertilize your yard for a year on a month’s worth of chicken manure, after you dig it out of the coop. And it has to compost for at least six months first or you’ll burn your plants. And no,” he said, holding up a hand as I started to protest, “You can’t train chickens to use the litter box. I pay a guy to take mine and he’s not cheap.”
Prison fortress surrounded by concertina wire and smelly mountains of chicken poop. The neighbors were gonna love this…not.
“And you need to check the size of your backyard,” he warned, “You gotta get a permit if you’re going to have more than three chickens in Portland, and there’s a rule that they can’t come within 25 feet of your neighbors’ property, or a boundary line, or your house.”
OK, this was getting complicated. I started adding numbers…$2,500 for a reinforced chicken coop, another grand or so for permits, an incubator, warming lights, food, lice dust, hauling manure and such, gotta buy the chickens. Then there’s vet bills, losses to predators, visits from the exterminator, neighborhood lawsuits… I figured my new chicken venture would cost maybe $5 per egg.
“You know,” said my boss Shelby, thoughtfully, the next day, “Mike sells fresh eggs from his chickens, brings them right to the office. Couple bucks a dozen…”