“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. 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), so I asked him for advice.

Mike never says much about most things; ask him about chickens and he’ll talk your ear off. He poured chapter, book and verse into my ear: The virtues of several chicken varieties–really? there are varieties?

His lecture touched on flightiness, egg production and the ins and outs of broodiness. That’s when a hen objects to donating her eggs and 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.

“That’s the best place to learn more about raising chickens,” Mike assured me, and, intrigued, I browsed the site.

Hmmmm. This site caters to a heretofore undiscovered subculture of humans addicted to chicken, and I don’t mean the fried drumsticks variety. Backyardchickens.com is all about true chicken love and the many varied virtues of chicken ownership. For example:

  • 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 (how the hell do you cuddle a chicken?).
  • 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.
  • At night, their melodious chuckles will soothe you to sleep.

Besides, if a hen is underperforming, she makes a great bowl of soup. (MY words, not theirs) OK, I’m all for multipurpose pets and will freely admit that there, a chicken has it all over making soup out of Fluffy the cat.

Bottom line: 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. Picture this:

I drift out of bed, onto my back deck every morning to greet my cheerful biddies, who nuzzle my hand as I slip under their cozy-warm derrieres, seeking my breakfast. I retrieve factory-fresh (as it were) eggs in blue, green pink, and gold (YES, chickens make colored Easter eggs naturally!). Eggs on the hoof, as it were, for French toast and omelets and souffles and custards and egg salad sandwiches.

Did I ever mention that I make a mean herb-and-cheese omelet?

Or this: I’m sunning myself out back as my hens industriously pull weeds, trim the grass and fertilize the rhododendrons. Thanks to my chicken children, I corner the market on chicken poo–er, fertilizer–sales and make a bloody fortune. I trade eggs for the neighbors’ backyard bounty, and get rid of the gardener.

Sold.

I started designing chicken coops and planning Easter egg hunts. The only hitch in my plans was the rooster: Like many males, roosters appear to be loudly squawking and obnoxious, and I had some concerns about how my neighbors would regard living with a backyard alarm clock set for sunrise.

Fortunately, Mom grew up on a chicken farm, and a short and astonishing conversation led to a revelation: Hens don’t need a rooster to lay eggs.

Whoa–did you know this? I’m still a little murky on the details but according to my mother, 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’m paraphrasing a bit but she definitely was against the whole project)

Like many glasslanders, I ignored this. 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. They have a point: 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 had decided on a “tractor coop” for enhanced portability. I could buy 25 chickens for less than 50 bucks.  25 chickens laying an egg per day, $4 or $5 per dozen for straight-from-the-chickenbutt eggs? I was going to make a KILLING.

I mentioned this to a chicken-owning buddy.

“Sure,” he nodded, “That’s for fertile eggs–not all those eggs will hatch. You’ll need an incubator and all that, and you’re going to lose a few of the hatchlings, so figure about half that will get old enough to lay. Of course, there’s usually a pretty high mortality rate until you get rid of all the predators.”

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, “A raccoon family lives under my deck…”

“Well, get rid of them now or your chickens will last about ten minutes,” he warned, “Same goes for foxes and coyotes. Nothing they like better than a nice, fat hen. Get the reinforced chicken coop so you can lock them down every night.”

My happy backyardful morphed into a prison fortress of chickens, surrounded by concertina wire, with me on 24×7 patrol, shotgun and guard dogs at the ready.

“Oh, and you’ll need a truck to haul off the manure, and a place to dump it,” he continued.

“Now THERE you’re wrong,” I contradicted confidently, “I’m going to sell whatever I don’t use as fertilizer in the yard. It’ll be a nice side income.” 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 that I have to handle. The neighbors were gonna love this…not. And since it takes me about a half-hour to gird up my loins enough to tackle a cat litter box…but he wasn’t done.

“Is your backyard large enough?” he asked, “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, plus the cost of chickens and replacement chickens. Then there’s vet bills, losses to predators, visits from the exterminator, neighborhood lawsuits… Figuring conservatively, my new 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…”

Sold.