Hen party

• Move over, Rover: Chickens are the new popular pet on the block Urban 'farmers' bring the hens home to roost

Chirpity has every reason to be cocky. As a city-dwelling chicken, she is the new 'it' pet of Portland.

Chirpity lives in Northeast's chichi Irvington neighborhood with Rick and Mary Leatherman and their three children.

Long associated with rural life, chickens have become the chic mascot of urban residents who crow about their benefits.

'They're entertaining, and they can be very friendly. You can pick them up and hold them, and they'll even perch on your shoulder,' Mary Leatherman says.

'They're not aggressive Ñ unless you're wearing bright toenail polish, and then they'll pick at it,' she says. 'They also don't get too far from home; you can let them out in the morning, and they'll crawl back in their coop at night.'

Clearly not just any chicken, Chirpity and her talents extend into the realm of home decor, Leatherman says.

'She lays beautiful eggs,' she says. 'I took one to my decorator and said, 'This is the color that I want for my kitchen!' '

Linnton Feed & Seed Store owner Cathy Black offers several reasons for the current coop d'Žtat.

'I think that one of the reasons that chickens are so popular is that younger people are getting into animals and farming,' Black says. 'People also like having their own fresh farm eggs and also raising chickens on food without antibiotics Ñ you get such a cleaner food. And for a lot of people, it's about starting a cycle in their lives of just living better.'

Black says that in addition to increased sales of chickens at her store Ñ and the subsequent sale of feed and chicken-raising accouterments Ñ customers are taking matters into their own hands, posting requests for chickens on the store's reader board.

Some chicken owners have come into the henhouse in a roundabout fashion. Kate Raphael, who lives near Mount Tabor with her husband and kids, says the family bought chickens to reside in a coop left by friends who were moving. Their purchase apparently inspired neighbors; she now can count four other families within two blocks that keep the birds as pets.

'We now have all these chicken-friendly houses, where a chicken can hide out if it's being chased by a dog,' Raphael says. 'It also keeps preschool meetings lively; we don't talk about what we're supposed to talk about, we just talk about chickens: who's dead and who's been beheaded by local raccoons. Come to think of it, it's a trend that could die out pretty quickly.'

Keeping chickens in the city benefits both owner and bird. While there's a good chance that a farm-dwelling chicken will end the day as dinner, its urban counterpart is more likely to be a unique Ñ albeit pastoral Ñ pet, one with a leg up on the competition. When was the last time that Boots or Spot provided an omelet and entertainment?

Says Black: 'Chickens are a trip! It's just great fun to watch them.'

They can also be trained. 'If you hand-raise a chicken, and touch it from when it's a little chick, they're going to be gentle; you can pick them up and carry them around,' Black says. 'We even had a gal who said she liked to nap with her chickens.'

Chicken helper

Teri and Bob Carlson are wringing maximum benefits from their three hens, which navigate the yard in a 'chicken tractor,' a 3-by-5-foot mobile coop.

Teri Carlson explains: 'It's a cage with an open bottom. You just put it where you want it. The chickens eat the bugs, aerate the soil with their scratching and provide fertilizer in that place.'

The 'black gold' that the chickens provide is great for the rest of the garden surrounding their Southwest Portland home, she adds.

'We make a manure tea to put on our plants; it's amazing stuff,' she says.

Carlson says that even the neighbors are recognizing the benefits of having a chicken on the block Ñ so to speak.

'A neighbor asked us to keep an Araucana for her so she can have the eggs, which are supposed to be very healthy,' she says.

Chicken owners pooh-pooh the concerns associated with chicken ownership: noise and smell.

Angela Tuttle, who works as a nanny for the Leathermans, says the family's chicken makes her presence known only once a day:

'If she makes noise, it's usually when she's laying eggs, and then she makes quite the fuss Ñ it sounds like somebody's strangling her. But it's only for about 20 to 30 minutes, and then she lays an egg and goes about her business.'

Tuttle also downplays the notion that chickens generate an unsavory barnyard scent. 'It can be a little stinky if you're near the coop on a hot day, but the birds themselves don't smell,' she says.

Teri Carlson agrees, saying the scent of eau de coop hasn't been a problem so far.

'We live next to a church,' she says, 'And I keep expecting a call from them. But I guess we're all God's creatures, right?'

Yet all of those creatures won't necessarily get along. Some dogs, for instance, seem to feel that keeping chickens runs afoul of an unwritten rule. Leatherman acknowledges that the family's pooch recently eliminated one of its competitors.

'That's why we're down to one chicken,' she says dryly.

Portland city ordinances allow a residence to have up to three chickens without a permit. Sorry, the girls have to go it alone Ñ for auditory reasons, no roosters are allowed.

Fowl facts

Just as a beagle differs from a boxer, different varieties of chickens have their own unique characteristics.

'Aracaunas are gorgeous chickens, and lay beautiful bluish-green eggs,' Linnton Feed & Seed's Black says of the variety sometimes known as the 'Martha chicken' for the decorative merits of its issue.

Polish hens and Rhode Island Reds are tried-and-true egg layers, although the latter breed is known for having a mean streak. Bantams and silkies are more exotic varieties, known for their elegant plumage and 'pleasant' personalities.

The cost of a backyard bird is surprisingly cheep, er, inexpensive.

'Our chickens are 80 cents to $2.50, depending on what they are,' says Linda Johnson of Burns Feed Store in Gresham. 'Pullets (young hens) tend to be more expensive.'

The minimal cost means there'll be no skin off your beak if the inevitable mix-up occurs. 'One out of 10 hens are going to turn out to be a rooster,' Johnson says, adding that chickens have a life span of about seven years.

Just don't be surprised if bringing a bit of the country into an urban lifestyle inspires a need for more. The Leathermans, for instance, are trading their urban digs for acreage on Yamhill County's Parrett Mountain, where there'll be plenty of room for Chirpity to spread her wings.

Contact Jill Spitznass at

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