Expanding a Family… The Portland Way

Urban Chickens in front of their coop.

Over the last several years Portland has undergone a transformation of sorts with city dwellers getting creative in how they Urban Farm.  Many have created their own garden boxes to grow organic vegetables, planted fruit trees in their yards and parking strips, and added berry bushes to their landscaping, all using compost they’re making from kitchen and yard scraps.  The latest trend is keeping chickens in the city.

As a child, I loved visiting my grandparents on their big farm in Colorado each summer and collecting eggs from the hen house every morning.  I never thought I would own any chickens myself though since I never planned on living on a farm.  However, times have changed.

A couple of our neighbors’ chickens who could fly over our 6 foot fence began visiting us daily last winter.  They were very friendly, clucking and coming right up to us hoping for a handout of some chicken “scratch” (mixed grains & cracked corn).  Our dog quickly learned these were not critters to be chased and they co-existed in our yard quite well.  The neighbors decided they no longer wanted to keep chickens so we found ourselves in a position to adopt.

Not knowing very much about raising chickens, we first did a lot of research to figure out what we’d be getting ourselves into before adopting them officially.  We visited nearby Livingscape and Pistils Nurseries, and the Urban Farm Store.  We looked up information online, bought a hilarious and informative book called “Keep Chickens!” by local author Barbara Kilarski, studied the architecture of various chicken coops, picked my sister’s brain who owns a couple of chickens up in Olympia, and fretted over whether or not we were ready to adopt.

Finally, after several weeks of researching and continuing to grow fond of “the girls” whom by this time we had named (Betty, Claire, Dotty), we decided to “pull the trigger” and start building a coop for them.  My husband, who I refer to as ‘The Genius’ when it comes to building things, bought a bunch of lumber, screws, hardware cloth, hinges, and latches.  With my limited help, mostly consisting of holding things and handing him tools, he took that pile of stuff and transformed it into a beautiful little chicken coop.

Next we had to teach the hens that the coop we built was their new house, even though we’d be letting them out each morning to roam the yard all day hunting for grubs.  With the help of the neighbor, who is an expert chicken catcher, we brought them to their new dwelling one evening after they had perched in a tree.  Chickens have poor eye sight in the dark so they look for a place to perch for the night around dusk. It took a few evenings, but soon the hens learned the coop was more comfortable, warmer, and safer than perching in an unprotected tree next door.

Over the next several weeks, we got acclimated to life with chickens, learning something new every day and enjoying their little personalities.  Claire is a Black Sumatra and talks (clucks) to us non-stop.  Dotty, the New Hampshire or Rhode Island Red seems to be the alpha chicken and is always first to get our hand-outs.   She also was the quickest to learn where her new home was and makes a big beautiful brown egg almost every day.  Betty is a Golden Spangled Hamburg and is the prettiest of the bunch.  She is a bit skittish around people however and has taken the longest to be comfortable eating out of our hands.

Cleaning the coop weekly is a must for city chickens. It keeps the neighbors and owners happy by reducing the odor. It has proven to be quicker and easier than I had imagined, while adding great nutrients to our compost bin.  They do however like to poop everywhere around the yard and although our dog thinks he’s in treat heaven, his belly doesn’t always agree.  That continues to be an ongoing struggle.  We have accepted that some of our fragile plants will not survive the constant chicken scratching, but the more established larger plants seem to be doing just fine.  We also had to construct a short fence around our vegetable garden boxes since it seems to be their favorite place to find worms.

When we come home from work in the evenings, the girls come running over to us for a nice greeting and some scratch.  My husband can get Claire and Dotty to hop up on his lap and let him pet them while feeding them. While we’re working out in the yard, they are great companions keeping us company hoping we’ll dig up something for easy worm catching.  As an adult, I still enjoy checking the hen house each day to collect the eggs.  Between the three of them we average about two per day.  Their fresh eggs are amazing and don’t compare to the store-bought ones.

Like any pet, chickens come with some challenges and responsibilities, but they also provide tasty eggs and hours of entertainment. If you’ve been considering getting chickens for your backyard, it can be a great experience.  They make me laugh every day with their quirkiness.  They are not high maintenance pets, but chicken keeping is a commitment since they can live up to 10 years.

Within Portland City limits, homeowners are allowed up to 3 hens (no roosters).  The coop should be kept far enough away from your house as well as the neighbors’ houses to avoid foul odors or occasional clucking to be a nuisance.  They need fresh food, water, and shelter from the elements and predators.  They’re very happy to spend their days scratching around the yard for bugs and giving themselves dust baths in the sunshine.  Be sure to check out our local nurseries that have a wealth of information.  A few close to Eliot are Livingscape, 3926 N. Vancouver Ave and Pistils Nursery, 3811 N. Mississippi Ave.  Or, just a few miles away you can find a vast selection at the Urban Farm Store at 2100 SE Belmont.