Last I reported on the chicks, we’d just gotten them, and now they’ve just passed the seven week mark. They’ve gone from balls of fluff to fully feathered, long-legged adolescents, zipping around their cage and the yard, propelled by legs that are ahead of the rest of their bodies in terms of development. We moved them out from the basement brooder at five weeks, and removed their heat lamp at six.
One of the coolest differences between these pullets and our first batch is that these girls are roosting! When we first built the coop in Oakland, we made two lovely roosts, as Carla Emery emphasized that they needed a good place to roost. We waited with excitement for them to use the beautifully curved redwood struts. Hah! They never did for anything except a pushing off point for flying the coop! To sleep they would all pile on top of each other in the nesting box. Apparently we must have communicated our neophyte chicken raisers’ anxiety to the birds, and raised a bunch of nervous nellies. Our new chicks, however, are happily perching away all night long, and even for daytime naps.
A reduction in number has occured from our initial investment in five chicks. The story behind our drop to three birds follows—at some length! I first wrote this post a few weeks ago, and I’m glad to have waited a bit before posting, as the sheer writing of it, but also the passage of time, have calmed me down quite a bit. I still think it’s a story worth telling, if only as one of the many bellwethers for the times in which we live.
When we bought the chicks, we got five, since wanted to end up with three, and we well know that chickens are at their most vulnerable as chicks. Then we had five, and thought, gosh, it’d be nice to keep five, ‘cause you get more eggs that way and can share with people. I looked online to check out the county permit regs again, and realized that we had initially misunderstood the neighbor-notification requirement.
The county says that if you want to get a permit for chickens you need to do the following: you need to have a facility conforming to code; if you’re a renter, you need permission from your landlord; and you need to inform all your neighbors within 200 feet. (We thought you had to get permission from all of your neighbors.) After you’ve done all that, you fill out your request, send it to the county with a check for $31 and await a visit from the county inspector.
So, we decided to try to get a permit, and raise five hens, instead of the three you can have sans-permit here in Portland. Apparently many folks raise a hen or two over the limit (or more, who knows!) without getting a permit, but Patrick and I are rule followers. There are probably some guffaws out there at that statement, given that we even want to raise chickens in an urban area. However, it’s true.
The first two permit requirements were no problem. Our landlord is interested in raising chickens himself; our coop is quite secure; our run area is more than the required distance from all residences; and we know how to raise chickens, in terms of bedding, security, food, etc.
The neighbors turned out to be quite another can of cranky worms, however.
We approached the neighbor-notification with our best community-building mindset. We were nervous—a 200-foot radius encompasses a lot of houses, on this and two other blocks—but interested, too. Patrick made a handsome flyer (Here’s a pdf if you want to see it. Right click to download), so that we could leave something with folks, or leave something in the door when folks weren’t home. Given that people are sometimes unnerved by my short hair (or by the fact that Patrick and I have the same haircut, I’m never quite sure which), I wore a hat, and Patrick brought his clipboard with the list of all the houses we needed to get to. We took the plunge on a sunny Saturday, as people were out of their houses pruning and basking and chatting.
Our first interaction went great: a woman across the street who seemed somewhat confused about why we were telling her about it, but we chatted about rose-pruning, and found out their dog’s name, and it was nice. We then moved down to a group of three women having a curbside conversation while one of them tore out some grass on the incline in front of her house. This woman, it turned out, had raised chickens in the past, loved them in fact, and this seemed like a great harbinger. But then another woman there, who lives a couple doors down from us, spoke up and said, “Well, I just want to know how early they are going to wake us up!” I sighed internally, but tried to be positive, and said that they don’t make so much noise, as we’d picked a quiet breed. I think a lot of people do not understand the difference between hens and roosters.
Now I’ll be honest, I was unnerved by her grumpy response, and in retrospect we should have been more prepared for it. I am still not sure what a better-prepared response would have looked like. We did speak to her concerns, but I am not sure she believed us. She took one of the flyers, to show her husband, she said, and she took off. Still, we weren’t super concerned, as her response was unenthused, but not particularly strong. We continued our way around the neighborhood.
At about half the houses we tried folks weren’t home, or weren’t answering, and most of the other people we talked to were cordial or friendly. We had a lovely chat with one couple who had great rosemary in their yard. We also discovered what the deal is with a big, strangely platted section of our block.
One house has a huge yard, a long, skinny strip that cleaves the center of the block, going behind about four houses, including our own. We met the man who lives there, and he asked if we had a dog, which we don’t. He told us that he and his wife invite neighborhood dog-owners to use his yard as a community dog run. We’d wondered what the deal was because we often heard people back there, but it seemed to be different people from day to day. We wondered if they had a big family or lots of visitors, but it turns out to be a kind of community gathering space. Very cool. I’d farm the land, of course, but still, it’s a community-oriented use, and people clearly have a great time meeting up back there.
There were some strange experiences, as well, like the people who were clearly arriving home or leaving, but studiously avoided our gazes and waited until we passed their houses to go in or out; the grungy abode, clearly occupied by many young people, with a loud T.V., and no answer; or the couple who only cracked the door, and clearly wished we’d not come and would quickly leave.
We were exhausted after our circuit of the neighborhood, but satisfied to have done it, and we sent off our application that day, having met all the requirements.
A couple of days later, around 9 at night, we got a call from a New York area code, which Patrick answered. It turned out to be our next door neighbor to the south, a man we’d never actually met, as he works most of the time in Manhattan. His wife works here, and we’d met her a couple months previously, when she’d brought over a plate of cookies, and let us know that an arborist was coming the next day, and would be cutting back the filbert tree in our back yard, as it was serving as an access route for squirrels that were renovating their attic. She seemed pleasant, if reserved, but we have rarely seen her since, as she’s a driver, and it’s winter.
Her husband (I will call him Richard—not his real name) was calling us, it turned out, to “find out how far along” we were in our plans to get chickens. When Patrick told him we were committed to getting them (well, we had chicks in the basement, but not the number we’d asked for in the permit, which was 6–12), Richard basically said that he was utterly opposed to the idea and meant to put a stop to it.
Now, I only heard Patrick’s side of the conversation first-hand, but I will say that Patrick was remarkably calm. He said several times that he was confused and shocked by the level of Richard’s opposition, and said that we’d raised them before, etc. But this man was adamant that chickens are not neighborly; that he did not want to have to see chickens “in confiment” (animal welfare activist?!?); nor suffer their noise or smell. The best that can be said of the conversation is that it ended relatively soon, with Patrick assuring Richard that we’d take his concerns under advisement.
Which we did. We changed our permit request from 12 to five, and moved the location of the run from next to the fence bordering their yard, to next to the fence bordering our northerly neighbor’s yard. Louisa, our northern neighbor, had no problem with our getting chickens.
Meanwhile, we heard from our landlord that Richard, and perhaps another neighbor (probably the woman who was worried about the noise?) were contacting him, asking that he deny us permission to have chickens. In rather persistent terms. With Richard’s permission, our landlord forwarded us an email Richard had sent him.
Though I am strongly tempted to publish the letter, simply because it is an astonishing document, my better sense is prevailing, though his apparently did not. This three-thousand-plus word diatribe laid bare a barnyard of resentment, with our chickens comprising the very last straw.
It turns out that our basic status as renters did not help our case—hence Richard’s shift from talking to Patrick to directing all comments to our landlord, and later, the county—but also that while Richard considers himself a very rooted person (his transcontinental commute notwithstanding), the house we live in has seen quite a bit of turnover. Turnover that our neighbor described, I kid you not, in fairly minute detail covering the six occupations that have occured since Richard and his wife moved in. The listing and description were purportedly to describe how well our neighbors had gotten along with everyone until us (!), but seemed, despite that, to indicate that no one very satisfactory has lived here. They “listened to the sob stories” of one woman, whom they also did the favor of mowing her lawn and taking in her mail when she travelled, while another woman put up the fence between the two houses, which they “weren’t wild about,” and most recently, the renters before us had an “ailing” baby whom they heard “screaming through the night for months.”
After all that, we show up and want chickens! Richard wrote at some length to our landlord about “how neighborhoods like this work.” Apparently, they work by doing what Richard wants. People like us need to be kept in line, because we bring down property values, and introduce corrosive values into the neighborhood.
Though there is no real short version of it in this case, what Richard wanted, in the end, was for us to not get chickens.
We were fairly devastated by reading this letter. It was pretty brutal in its description of what a force of darkness we are, which is frankly not how we picture ourselves. And yes, we are renters, but our history as such has been pretty stable, actually. Five years in our last house, nine years in the one before that. I certainly wish we had enough money to own a house, but we don’t. Still, we do our best to live in place, despite the insecurity that necessarily arises from not owning the land you live on. We were so excited about this house, and Portland in general, because those values seem to be such a part of this place.
We honestly seriously considered giving up raising chickens here at all.
But we couldn’t do that. I suppose if we had chickens as cute little pets, or as a sort of hobby, we could have backed down with self-respect. But that’s not what we’re doing. Nor, contrary to Richard’s self-centered view of the world, do we want to raise chickens in order to torture him and his wife.
We choose to raise chickens in the city as a part of our convictions. We raise them to deepen our connection with the natural world, by practicing animal husbandry. We raise them to enjoy nutritious wonderful eggs from chickens raised in a good, healthy environment, in the sun, hormone- and antibiotic-free. We raise chickens to help maintain breeds of birds that are not raised in factories, so that when, inevitably, disease1 devastates the factory breeds, some hardier breeds will survive, to provide stock for meat and eggs for all people. We raise chickens to create a more integrated environment on the land we occupy, using animal fertilizer, not petroleum-based inputs, to grow food that we eat, and the plants that make a space beautiful and healthy to live in.
We believe that we can no longer afford to live in a strictly ornamental world, and cannot continue to be an increasingly flaccid and parasitical people. We live in a world of increasing social and economic crises that promise only to become worse with the accumulating impacts of global warming and peak oil. Patrick and I have chosen to live in a way that reduces our ecological footprint, wherein we seek to live as locally as we can. We support local food producers. We live our lives within a radius that we can cover by bicycle. And through raising chickens and gardening the small amount of food we do, we seek to learn and develop once-common skills, and to reconnect with the plants and animals that nourish us.
And we are not alone. This fact is perhaps what strengthened us most of all. More and more people are recognizing the problems with our oil-driven hyper-culture, and trying to make change, many, like us, in small, local, on-the-ground ways. There are all the people raising chickens here in Portland. There are all the people riding their bikes instead of driving. There are all the people who support the farmer’s market, and the food co-ops.
We decided after a lot of reflection to go forward with the permitting process, for five birds.
We sent a revised application to Dave, the county’s man for chicken inspections, and arranged to have him come for his inspection visit the next week. In the exchange we had arranging the inspection, Dave had apologized for all the trouble, which sort of surprised us. All of our interactions with the county had actually been surprisingly straighforward and efficient, and we couldn’t figure out why he was so apologetic. It turns out he was generously apologizing for the trouble others were raising.
He arrived on a rainy day, and we trooped around back to look at the coop and the spot where we wanted to locate the run.
He approved our coop, and appreciated the extra step we’d taken of wrapping the bottom in hardware cloth to stop burrowing animals from snacking on our chickens and their eggs. While we stood around in the back yard, discussing chicken raising, we noted that we understood that our southern neighbors were not terribly pleased about our plans, and mentioned the accomodations we’d made, in terms of number and location. We asked Dave a few questions, and he, in turn, asked us if we knew about a dog run in the neighborhood. Our ears perked up, and we said, sure, and told him about the run, and told him to look over the fence, where you could see the run. He did, and we mentioned that we had never been bothered by the dogs folks bring. The people talk to each other, but the dogs are running, frankly, not barking.
Then, after taking a couple of pictures for his files, Dave sort of glanced around and then asked if we could go in the house, as he did not want to be overheard. So we did. It turns out that not one, not two, but five of our neighbors had contacted Dave to express their concerns about the addition of chickens to our happy little ‘hood. Dave stated that he had never, in eight years of inspections, heard such an outcry, and he was quite stunned.
Apparently a general view among the vocal opposition was that our chickens were just one thing too much. People feel like the neighborhood (the quietest one I have ever lived in!) is getting noisier and noisier,2 and were especially concerned that our chickens would make the dogs bark in the informal dog run! So, because they are bothered by this neighborhood amenity, they wanted us to not get chickens.
We talked with Dave at some length, and it turns out that if we went ahead and got the permit for five chickens—which Dave said he had no problem giving us—our neighbors could basically regularly make our lives hell. First and foremost, they could appeal the permit, holding up its granting, and forcing us to go to a city hearing to plead our case. Dave felt fairly certain that we’d prevail, but he noted that it would be quite a bit of time and trouble, on top of what had gone before. Further, with a permit, if they wanted to call him on a regular basis, suggesting that our birds were being a neighborhood nuisance, he’d be duty-bound to come check it out, whether or not it was true. He noted that if we went with just three, there was no appeal process, and a lower sensitivity threshold should they receive complaints about noise or smell. Three chickens is officially not a big deal, basically.
Dave said that in his conversations with the various complainants he had noted that we had been very accomodating of their concerns, both reducing the number of birds we were planning to raise and changing the location of the coop. We told him that we appreciated all of his help and support in this. He also noted as he was leaving, rather pensively, that people seem more and more uptight these days. He felt like people’s stress levels were making them increasingly intolerant of other people.
It’s the times, he said.
We thanked Dave very much for his willingness to discuss all of the issues, and told him we’d make a decision overnight.
We decided not to go forward with the permit. We have a life to live, and a fairly busy, productive one at that, despite Richard’s view of us as layabout neighborhood wreckers. So, we are now raising three chicks in our urban coop. Hopefully they will all remain healthy. Unfortunately, with only three, there will not be many excess eggs to give to those neighbors who are not afraid of urban chickens.
It was a tough experience, frankly. It happened in that being-in-a-new-place moment when you wonder if you’ll ever really fit in, and it didn’t feel very reassuring on that front! A couple days after deciding to drop the permit process, while working in the yard for the first time this spring, we both felt watched and judged. Watched by a man who doesn’t even live here, for all intents and purposes. Our enthusiasm for the house felt dampened. It is hard to be judged in advance of even having done anything.
It made me feel naive in my hope for community. I know that I do not have great skills in this area. I, like many people in my generation, did not grow up in place. But I also reject my neighbor’s representation that what neighborhoods are about is not bothering anyone. I fear that this definition is what has resulted in the culture of deep alienation we live within.
There’s a lot of space between Richard’s nightmares of a filthy, teeming factory farm in our back yard, and the silent, neatly trimmed, unoccupied lawns of his peaceful summer fantasies.
We—and our chickens—will respectfully occupy some of that ground.
2O.K., I can’t resist a mini-tirade here. People are worried about how much noise the chickens are going to make? Starting with the smaller fauna, the chickens will be no contest for the crows or pre-dawn songbirds. Moving to the noises created by the larger fauna: they will certainly not overpower the racket of all the two-stroke engines mowing all the tiny, little, easily-mowable-by-push-mower lawns of this pastoral paradise; nor—as nothing will until the last drop of oil is drunk—will they ever be as loud as all of the cars, SUVs, and trucks that people drive to and from their houses, day in and day out, never commenting on—or even noticing perhaps?—the growling mutter of their overpowered engines, nor the monstrous, ever-present muted roar of the millions of cars thronging the highways and byways of just about all the spaces of this land. A roar I have heard at 10,000 feet, deep in the Rocky Mountain “wilderness.” The chickens are going to be too noisy. Oh please.