Just past where the agricultural zone line starts on Union Street in Bangor, Cat Randall’s chicken obsession is flourishing.
As cars whizz by, her roughly 60 chickens of varying breeds peck around her yard, free ranging and clucking in coops. She never saw herself tending after a backyard full of hens and roosters, but once you start raising the personable breed of domesticated fowl it’s pretty hard to stop.
“Once you get into it, you’re like, ‘Well, I can add a couple more, it’s no big deal,’” Randall said. “I mean, we definitely went a little overboard. […] But that’s what happens. You start by getting one, and then you’re like I want this one and this one. They’re cool.”
Randall is relatively new to raising chickens, which she started doing just six years ago, and she’s not alone. Scott DeMoranville, founder of the Maine Poultry Connection, said over the last decade he’s seen interest in raising backyard chickens gain serious momentum while knowledge of how to do so hasn’t kept pace.
“For some time, from the early ’90s until the last 10 years, chickens weren’t cool, nobody had them,” DeMoranville said. “Unfortunately there is at least a generation of people who didn’t have the good fortune of having that knowledge passed onto them by grandparents and parents, […] because there was no interest.”
What potential chicken farmers need to know
Raising chickens is more than just gathering eggs.
Chicken enthusiasts such as DeMoranville and Randall suggest that anyone who has an interest in raising chickens do their research first into what they’ll need for space, supplies and just basic knowledge about the birds.
“It’s a lot of fun, but it’s also a lot of work,” Randall said. “You can’t go away for the weekend without having someone take care of your animals or take care of your birds and collect the eggs and do all that fun stuff.”
People today need to seek out information about breeds, care chickens require and more, which is available through local connections — think farmers and established chicken enthusiasts — and online. Having raised chickens since the 1980s, DeMoranville created the Maine Poultry Connection six years ago. It’s a Facebook group that connects folks who raise chickens and has been a good place to share the knowledge he’d gained with others.
DeMoranville said six hens — and a rooster if your town permits — is a good flock size to start with. What breed of chicken to raise is a personal decision, DeMoranville said, and he suggests people do their research on which breed will best fit their situation as well as which breed is the most attractive to them.
However, having six hens does not mean you’ll collect six eggs every day. Six hens are more likely to produce a total of three or four eggs per day, DeMoranville said. After a chicken undergoes its first molt at about 18 months, their egg production will increase and become steadier. However, egg production decreases by about 30 percent annually for most breeds. During the winter, egg production also slows drastically because the shorter and colder days affect a hen’s reproductive cycle.
Making sure the chickens have enough space inside of their coop and where they are able to graze during the day is another factor to take into consideration when planning to raise chickens. The amount of space necessary hinges on whether you intend to free range your birds, in that case they are given as much space as they desire and come back to the coop in the evening. Regardless, inside and out of the coop, DeMoranville suggests that each bird be given 4 square feet of space.
“What I tell people is that if the birds seem cramped, they probably are,” DeMoranville said.
For daily maintenance, chickens require fresh food and water, as well as making sure that every night the coop is secure to prevent predators from getting in. In the past, Randall and Blokland have had problems with weasels and other predators killing their chickens. But DeMoranville said making sure your fencing and coops are secure is the best prevention.
When Randall started raising chickens, she said she had no idea how much medical knowledge about chickens she would have to learn. From mites to infections, Randall said the medicine cabinet she has for her chickens has outgrown the medicine cabinet she has for herself. To make sure your birds are healthy, checking in on them everyday is necessary. This doesn’t mean just looking them over but also picking them up to look for signs of infection or weight loss.
Raising backyard chickens in Maine
While raising backyard chickens is becoming a growing trend, your ability to raise them may depend on whether or not your town or city allows backyard chickens. In Bangor, chickens may only be raised in the city’s agricultural zones, which are located on the outskirts of town, in areas such as outer Union Street or Essex Street.
However, just up the interstate in Orono, ordinances recently have been amended to expand where in town folks can raise backyard chickens. While residents were always able to raise an unlimited number of chickens in the town’s agricultural and forest district as well as the limited density residential district, residents with at least 5 acres of land in the medium density district can have six hens in accordance with the new ordinance.
Belfast similarly made steps recently to broaden where in town residents could raise chickens. A 2010 ordinance extends the ability to raise chickens outside of the town’s agricultural zone and into residential zones as long as the landowners obtain a permit. Similar to Orono, residents may raise six hens and any coops or structures must meet standard zoning setback requirements.
Rockland and Portland are relatively lax with their chicken ordinances. In Rockland, residents with a permit may raise chickens anywhere in the city except for areas denoted as residential zone AA, which is determined on an area-by-area basis. Portland sets no standards on where in the city chickens are allowed. However, the city does limit residents to only having six hens. While a permit has been required for raising chickens in the past, Portland is looking to do away with requiring residents to obtain this permit.
DeMoranville said in most towns six hens is the common restriction on raising backyard chickens but recommends checking with your town’s code enforcement office before embarking on any chicken plans.
In Eddington, there is no ordinance dictating how many chickens residents can have, however, Blokland touched base with her neighbors before getting her backyard flock, which includes a rooster.
“I want to keep my birds, but I also want to be a good neighbor and a good citizen,” Blokland said. “I haven’t heard any complaints.”
The folks raising their own flock of chickens are doing so for a variety of reasons from fresh eggs to pest control.
For Randall, a native of Mississippi, she always saw herself raising goats and horses, and when she and her husband bought their farmhouse in Bangor six years ago that was the plan. But upon moving into their new property the Randalls acquired six hens and found a love that has now overtaken their backyard.
“We got six, and [for] people who know chicken math, that six turned into 60 pretty quickly,” she said.
Each day Randall collect fresh eggs from her backyard. With 28 of her hens presently laying eggs, she collects about two dozen per day, keeping some for herself while selling the rest and giving some to neighbors and friends. Having that access to fresh eggs has been a boon for Randall, who says the freshness of the eggs compared to what is available at the grocery store is noticeable.
“You can tell by the way the way [the yolks] look, from my fresh eggs which are orange and bright to the ones you get from the store which are pale,” Randall said. “And the taste difference is remarkable.”
On top of the benefits of having access to fresh eggs, if chickens are free ranged they also act as a form of pest control since they eat insects such as ticks. Eddington resident Erica Blokland said that since getting her chickens about five years ago she’s only had to pick one or two ticks off of her dog.
While Blokland began raising chickens to get back in touch with the nostalgia of going into her backyard and coming back to the kitchen with a usable food product, she has since found a love for the personalities of chickens.
DeMoranville said he’s often heard people suggest that chickens would be a good form of therapy because of their funny characteristics and mannerisms.
“They have such personalities,” Blokland said. “I can go outside and they’ll follow me around a little bit. They’re very interested in what I’m doing.”
Though chickens take a fair share of work, enthusiasts say there’s nothing that beats watching an egg hatch and grow into a chicken that lays its own eggs. It’s a lesson in life, in which the benefits are far more than just the fresh eggs you’ll receive.
“It’s a great experience,” Randall said. “You can’t, to me, beat fresh fresh eggs or the experience of watching [chickens] grow up and produce food for you.”