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In Portland, Ore., urban chickens rule the roost

Newspapers across the country have been splashing urban and suburban chicken-keeping across their front pages as the latest thing. But in Portland, Ore., it's old hat. For the past few years, chicken-keeping has found its place here.
/ Source: The Associated Press

North Williams Avenue is a street with a soundtrack like most any other in the neighborhoods of Portland. There's the swishing of bikes, the rustling of leaves, the whirring of motors.

But then there's something else under those familiar notes: A tiny warble of clucks coming from a chicken coop set in a front yard.

Newspapers across the country have been splashing urban and suburban chicken-keeping across their front pages. It's the latest thing, they say. But in Portland, it's old hat. For the past few years, chicken-keeping has found its place here.

It seems odd at first; a background beat added to the wrong song. But if you listen as you walk along the streets, it's a chorus that starts to sound familiar.

Portland Mayor Sam Adams has two hens. Spots in chicken-raising classes fill up nearly as fast as the nurseries in North Portland can plan them. Hatcheries have trouble keeping up with demand. Residents dedicate blogs to their chickens.

And late last month, hundreds of people turned out for the Sixth Annual Tour de Coop, a self-guided tour of 26 chicken coops.

"It's inspiring," said Naomi Coplin, one of the chicken-watchers as she looked around at the setup just off North Williams Avenue.

The yard looked like a watercolor painting. Greens and reds and yellows and pinks folded in on each other. Sunflowers taller than the visitors shot up from the tilled ground. Raised beds offered up produce. Bees and butterflies shot through the air, using wildflowers as landing pads. And at the center of the garden was one of Portland's most impressive coops.

The structure wound through the yard in the shape of a "V." There was a roost, a run, a tower for lounging and a sign out front in the shape of an egg. "Hens for Obama," it read.

On that warm Sunday, Coplin, 49, had come to this coop on a mission.

"I'm hoping by the time we're done this morning, she's convinced," she said with a nod at her friend, Barb Wayson.

Coplin already has her own chickens and Wayson, her old high school pal, has been mulling over getting some of her own. "I kind of pride myself on being an environmentalist," Wayson said. The hens would be one more step toward sustainability. They'd eat leftover scraps and offer up some fertilizer and fresh eggs.

Wayson took in the scene once more. "I just love the yard with the chickens," she said.

Growing Gardens, the group that presented the tour this year, sold out of the 800 booklets it printed detailing the route. It's a glossy guide, complete with pictures of the ways in which Portlanders have wrangled chickens into their lives and onto their property.

Some coops are sleek, cottage-looking things, the sort of home Martha Stewart would order up. Others are more eclectic, cobbled together from scraps of tin and wood.

The tour started six years ago with just a dozen coops and about 100 people. Since then, Growing Gardens, which promotes home gardening and sustainable living, has taken it over and watched it expand.

"Three years ago, I was thinking, oh, you know, maybe at some point this is going to peak," said Debra Lippoldt, the executive director of Growing Gardens. It hasn't.

Why hen-keeping came early to Portland is hard to say.

"It's people wanting to get into a more sustainable way of living and more of a grow-local movement, and I think Portland and some of those other areas have been in the forefront," said Rob Ludlow, the owner of Backyard Chicken, a California Web site that offers itself up as a chicken-keeping field guide.

Mandie Rose, resident chicken expert at Pistils Nursery in North Portland, says the store has been selling about 600 chicks every year and the number keeps growing. This spring, hatcheries were having trouble keeping them stocked.

"That's the first time it's happened in the four years I've been here," Rose said.

Customers are young and old, single and married, hip and not-so-much. "It's pretty much everybody," she said. "I've seen every type and every personality."

A Portland chicken-raising listserv, PDXBackyardChix, will clog an inbox with discussions of the intricacies — and joys — of keeping hens.

"(F)irst egg!!!," read a recent subject line. "Oh the thrill!"

"Yahoo!" came a quick response from some chicken-loving stranger. "Did you take a picture of it?"

The reply: "Indeed, we took a ridiculous number of photos! It is, after all, the $533 egg we have so been anticipating."

Nationwide, many cities have changed laws to allow for small flocks, often without roosters and their early morning crowing. Disputes have surfaced in some cities and suburbs over concerns that chickens will reduce property values or that their feed could attract rodents.

In Salem, Oregon's capital city, Barbara Palermo has led the local fight for the right to raise chickens in her backyard. When city officials told her she'd have to get rid of some illegal chickens about a year ago, she nearly gave in. Then she did some poking around and discovered the vibrant chicken scene in Portland and how it was spreading.

"I had no idea that this was allowed everywhere, that there was this urban-chicken movement," she said. "When I discovered that, then I really realized that it was just ridiculous not to at least try to change the law."

Palermo has organized hundreds of chicken lovers in Salem, and put together a packet countering arguments against chicken keeping. She's fielded calls from city dwellers in New Jersey, Tennessee, North Carolina and elsewhere who want the scoop on chicken ordinances.

Progress in Salem itself has been slow. Trying to convince council members that chickens don't smell, won't run wild and won't, generally, cause havoc is difficult.

But, Palermo says, "It's a movement. It's not going to go away."