Chicken coup?

Posted Feb. 22, 2009, at 7:39 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 11:01 a.m.

FORT KENT, Maine — The city of Portland and I appear to have at least one thing in common — we both draw the line at roosters.

Maine’s largest city recently passed an ordinance allowing residents to raise small flocks of backyard chickens within city limits. Hens only, no roosters allowed.

Among the reasons given for allowing the backyard flocks were access to homegrown food and saving food costs in this time of recession.

Saving food costs?

As a recent convert to homegrown eggs, let me just share my cost-benefit ratio perspective on the eggs ’n’ issues. The savings aren’t, well, all they’re cracked up to be.

First of all, you have to buy a starter flock. These are obtainable at just about any farm supply store. Prices for day-old chicks average around $2 to $2.50 each, depending on quantity and variety.

Immediately upon arrival in their new home my 16 little fluff balls needed warmth, and that meant a heat lamp, at a cost of $26. They also needed water. The two special waterers cost a total of $42.95.

Given the fluff balls’ growth rate, it was easy to see early on they soon would outgrow the large cardboard box I was using as temporary housing, so by the fourth week, my attention turned to a more permanent home.

According to Portland’s newly adopted ordinance, chicken coops must be constructed of materials that are “uniform for each element of the structure such that the walls are made of the same material, the roof has the same shingles or other covering, and any windows or openings are constructed using the same materials. The use of scrap, waste board, sheet metal or similar materials is prohibited. The henhouse shall be well-maintained [and] shall be painted; the color shall be uniform around the structure and shall be in harmony with the surrounding area.”

There will be no shanty chicken towns in Portland.

Living in rural Maine, I had a lot more latitude and began eyeing the scrap lumber around the house.

Then came something of an egg-piphany while working with the tractor one day: I had a perfectly good storage shed that, with a few minor modifications, would make a dandy chicken coop.

All I had to do was convince several friends to come over and help me throw a few loops of chains around the structure, dig around its footing to loosen it, and act as spotters as I dragged it with the tractor away from its former location (adjacent to my sled dog kennel) to its new home on the opposite side of the garage.

This move was precipitated by the fact that sled dogs love chickens — as an entree. In fact, no sooner had I moved the chickens outside than I swear I spotted two of the dogs with slide rules and graph paper figuring out the vectors and probabilities associated with a midnight chicken raid.

So the shed was transformed into a combination Taj Mahal and Fort Knox for chickens.

Not only would they be comfortable on their roosts of varying heights, have a selection of nesting boxes from which to choose, cross-ventilation from windows and a screen door, they also would be safe from sled dogs, coyotes, foxes, raccoons, weasels, hawks, cats and any other predator wandering by thanks to the 6-foot-high chain-link fencing surrounding their yard and the 8-inch-deep, 20-inch-wide screen-lined trench surrounding the yard.

And no, I have not, nor will I, paint it.

It gets cold in northern Maine in the winter and that meant insulation, which should not have been a huge expense since I had some leftover scraps and could do the work myself.

That cost would have remained minimal had I not backed the tractor into the air regulator that powered the pneumatic staple gun I used to sheet the inside walls. Replacement cost: $80.

Once the really deep cold came, insulation and chicken body-heat wasn’t going to cut it, so that’s when the heat lamp was installed — at a cost of $25 for the lamp, plus the $30 a month running the thing has added to my winter electric bill.

Chickens need to eat, and while they get kitchen scraps every day, they also get special “egg-layer crumbles” — a 50-pound bag goes for around $16, which lasts about two weeks so it works out to just over $1 a day for the chicken chow.

A word about the kitchen scraps — chickens love leftovers, whether animal, mineral or vegetable. In fact the only thing they can’t have are coffee grounds, which is something of a pity as I suspect there would be a ready market for caffeine-infused eggs.

With the chickens’ comfort always in mind, I also shelled out $30 for 10 bales of straw to use this winter for their bedding.

By September, they were fully ensconced in the henhouse and all I had to do was sit back and wait for the little darlings to start producing.

It was a bit of a wait, but then one day in early October there came sounds of frantic squawking from the coop. I dashed out to discover one chicken in the nesting box with a single egg and looking quite surprised.

Not as surprised, however, as the 15 other chickens lined up on a single roost, each with an expression that fairly screamed, “You can’t seriously expect us to do that!”

But soon I was collecting up to 14 eggs a day, much to the initial delight of friends and family.

It quickly became apparent, however, that eggs and zucchini have a great deal in common — what’s fresh and a treat early on quickly loses its appeal as time, and sheer abundance, wears on.

Of course, more than eggs come out of chickens. A lot more.

Since the Portland ordinance is rather specific in its language — “Odors from chickens, chicken manure, or other chicken-related substances shall not be perceptible at the property boundaries” — residents are going to need to come up with some sort of disposal plan for all the fertilizer they will accrue. And believe me, there is only so much garden compost friends and friends of friends can use.

The city-dwelling chickens have other rules by which to abide: “Perceptible noise from chickens shall not be loud enough at the property boundaries to disturb persons of reasonable sensitivity. … Only motion-activated lighting may be used to light the exterior of the henhouse … [and] during daylight hours, chickens may be allowed outside of their chicken pens in a securely fenced yard if supervised.”

Perhaps this last one will generate a side business of in-home chicken day care providers?

So far, the only advice I’ve turned down out of hand is getting a rooster to make my hens happy.

Don’t need one, I tell the rooster boosters. My feminist chickens are perfectly content on their own.

In the end, it has been worth it, and I wish the soon-to-be urban chicken farmers in Portland only the best as they carefully construct coops to city specs and agonize over color samples for the exterior paint.

They really are in for a treat. I had no idea chickens are this interesting or — dare I say it? — elegant. The eggs are delicious and as far as having any impact on the recession or economy, I figure I’m doing my part thanks to all the money I’m pumping back into the economy spent getting to this point. To wit:

• Cost of getting and providing housing for chickens, $725.95

• Cost of commercial grain, $32 a month.

• Cost of winter electricity for the heat lamp, $30 a month.

• Cost of giving my friends something to laugh about, priceless.

And I do get the eggs. Using a completely nonscientific formula that calculates number of eggs produced since the chickens began really cranking up in October divided into what I’ve spent thus far on food and materials, I figure each egg to date is worth about $1.50.

I keep about dozen a week for my own household use, and the rest go to friends and family.

There’s no getting around it: For me, home-raised chickens are not saving me any money. Nor, I might add, are they allowable deductions.

jbayly@bangordailynews.net

834-5272

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