“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.

I blame Brenda.

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 normal things, but ask him about chickens and he’ll talk your ear off. He spilled chapter, book and chicken verse into my willing ear, extolling the virtues of several chicken varieties.

Really? There are varieties of chickens?

He lectured me on flightiness, egg production and the ins and outs of broodiness. Broodiness is when the hen objects to donating her eggs to her beloved human mamma and hides them in untoward places. This is bad, because what you want is chickens gleefully tossing their eggs into your skillet.

Yeah, those were the ones for me. “So, do I get them from on Amazon?” I asked.

He gave me a long look. “Start here,” he ordered, sending me to a website for urban chicken farmers.”That’s the best place to learn more about raising chickens.”

Intrigued, I spent a half hour browsing the site, which caters to the heretofore undiscovered subculture of humans addicted to chicken, and I don’t mean the country-fried drumsticks.

Nope. Backyardchickens.com is all about true chicken love and the many varied rewards of chicken ownership. For example:

  • Chicken poop is apparently such a fabulous fertilizer that neighbors and garden centers line up at your coop by the hundreds (and pay small fortunes) for it..
  • Chickens scratch around your flowerbeds and revitalize your plants.
  • They gorge on weed seeds and obnoxious insects but leave the good bugs alone, giving you the most glorious vegetable garden in town.
  • They love to cuddle their special humans (which brings up a question: 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, cosplayers, and Las Vegas costumers.
  • They’re hypoallergenic.
  • At night, their melodious chuckles soothe you to sleep.

I grew more enthusiastic with every page. Where have chickens BEEN all my life?

And here’s the best part: If you run across the rare surly or underperforming chicken, she makes a great bowl of soup.

A chicken, I concluded, is the perfect multipurpose pet. A family member that MAKES me money instead of costing it? Supplies my breakfast AND does the gardening?

I slipped off to sleep that night dreaming of a new life as a backyard chicken rancher.

Every morning I greet my cheerful biddies, who lovingly nuzzle my hand as I slip under their cozy-warm derrieres, seeking breakfast. I choose a few jewel-toned eggs (YES, chickens make colored Easter eggs naturally!), and whip up a perfect cheese souffle for my applauding guests.

Later, I drowse in the sun as my hens industriously pull weeds, trim the grass, and fertilize the rhodies. I grin as my bank account swells from the sale of chicken poo–er, fertilizer and the money I’ve saved on gardeners…

Sold.

Next morning, I started designing chicken coops and planning Easter egg hunts. I was a bit concerned about the rooster: Like most males, roosters are apparently squawkingly loud and obnoxious. I had a feeling that my neighbors might take a dim view of living with a backyard alarm clock set for sunrise.

Fortunately, Mom grew up on a chicken farm, so she might know the answer: “Mom, can you give a rooster a laryngectomy?”

“Beg pardon?” she asked, so I explained about the chickens, the rooster, and the neighbors. She sat silent for a moment, then dropped a bombshell (or maybe an eggshell): Hens don’t need a rooster to lay eggs.

Whoa–did you know that?

I’m a little hazy on the methodology, but it would appear that hens produce eggs with or without actual sex. IOW, a rooster is superfluous as far as my breakfast is concerned.

“You are (XX) years old and you STILL don’t know how hens make eggs?” Mom, “We should have taken you to the country when you were a little girl. You are NOT ready to have chickens.”

In fact, Mom gave a big thumbs-down on the whole chicken venture and refuted the rosy picture painted by 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. Raise chickens in your backyard? Are you crazy?”

OK, I’m paraphrasing a bit but she definitely was against the whole project.

On the other hand…Google says that Portland ranks highest in searching on terms such as “backyard chickens,” and “chicken coops,” so how bad could chickens be? And farm-fresh eggs, which I love, have about as much in common with grocery store eggs as a Ferrari does to roller skates.

Sorry, Mom. Clearly, the chicken world has advanced since you were a kid.

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, with a “tractor coop” for enhanced portability. So… 25 chickens cost less than 50 bucks. If they laid two dozen straight-from-the-chicken-butt pearls per day, at $5 or $6 per dozen I was going to make a KILLING.

I mentioned this to a chicken-owning buddy.

“Sure,” he nodded, “But not all your 25 eggs will hatch. You’ll lose a few hatchlings, so you’ll probably wind up with 10 or 12 laying hens. Then you’ve got to figure on a few more casualties until you clear out the predators.”

Predators?

“Yeah, like raccoons. If there’s a raccoon within ten miles it’ll find your hens. 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. You need a reinforced chicken coop that you can lock down every night.”

My happy backyard of sunning hens morphed into a prison fortress surrounded by concertina wire, me, a shotgun, and guard dogs, on 24X7 patrol.

“Oh, don’t forget the truck to haul off the manure. And a contract with wherever you’re going to dump it,” he added.

“Oh, no,” I contradicted confidently, “Whatever I don’t use as fertilizer in my yard, I’m going to sell. 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. The neighbors were gonna love this…not. Let’s not even talk about the fact that I need a good 30 minutes to steel myself for the cat litterbox.

…and 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 the chickens must stay at least 25 feet away from your neighbors and your property lines.”

OK, this was getting complicated. 

I started adding numbers…$2,500 for a reinforced chicken coop, $1,000 or so for permits, an incubator, warming lights, food, lice dust, hauling manure and such, plus the cost of chickens and replacement chickens. 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, thoughtfully, “Mike sells fresh eggs from his chickens, brings them right to the office. Couple bucks a dozen…”

Sold.