Flying the Coop?

As those of you who read here regularly will remember, when we got our chicks in April, there was quite a brouhaha in the neighborhood. We were quite taken aback, having been optimistically confident that Portlanders were into chickens, into neighborhood, into sustainability, and all those good, wholesome things. Knowing how many folks in PDX successfully raise chickens in their city lots, I maintain a belief that some, if not most, parts of the city are friendly to these practices. Our neighborhood has proved resolutely not to be among them, however.

three hens and a cat

The girls are just now getting into their laying rhythm, a couple of eggs a day now, and are gorgeous creatures, as you can see. But they are chickens, and they are chatty birds who are keyed to the seasons. Right now, sunrise is around half past five, and that’s when the girls arise. A few weeks ago we heard them setting up a racket around then, and rolled out of bed to go put them in their yard. Since then, we’ve been getting up at 5:30 to beat them to the coop door, and letting them range in the yard for an hour or so, and then putting them in their run. We thought that this would be sufficient to keep their clucks and conversations from being annoying to the neighbors.

Nevertheless, because of the stated powerful opposition we received early on, we have been terribly self-conscious about any noise the girls make. Just this week, on a ride we took early one morning, we had a long conversation about how we worried about the girls bothering people, and what that meant and what, if anything, we should do about it.

This is a very difficult issue for us. Contrary to the way many people seem to live in today’s world, we do not actually believe that being an American means that one has the “right” to do whatever one wants. We may feel that way, sometimes, but we try not to act on it. It’s hard, though, not to drift that way. We struggle with that attitude with many incidents in daily life. In a country where most of what people are doing seems wrong to us, it is tempting to add up a column of those wrongs and say, well, if you all get to do all those things, then we can do this one little thing. It is easy to fall in to the popular pastime of self-victimization by this route. All those things people do suddenly become things they are doing to us. All the power mowers, all the cars, all the NIMBY attitudes become personal assaults.

It all starts to feel very wearing: the fact that our anti-chicken neighbors will not meet our eyes when they accidentally emerge into the front yard when we are outside, all the conversations we have in our heads, etc. But after that ride we felt renewed in our convictions, and decided it was OK to keep the chickens. We love them, our household does not make any more noise than any other household, and furthermore, people should get used to integrating chickens and other productive activities into our urban landscape. We added it up, that is to say, and decided the account balance was in our favor.

Ben Stein wrote a really thought-provoking editorial in Sunday’s NYT Business section, speaking to a shift in our country, from a collection of communities to a collection of individuals. From a place where your neighbors would share their pool, and look after your kid if she got sent home sick from school, to a place where everyone is supposed to have their own damn pool, and your neighbors wouldn’t recognize your kid because they’ve never even met you. There is something of the suburban pastoral in the vision he presents of America in the fifties, but at the same time, I could not easily push away what he had to say. Things have changed, for the worse, here in America. We are losing the ability to share—space, time, words, ideas. I was particularly struck that this article was in the business section—not the section of the paper you generally turn to for sentimental views of community.

One of the big things that I think has changed is that economistic thinking rules. We all live by adding up what we have against what someone else has, what we get out of a transaction versus what the other guy gets. In this mode of thinking, graciousness, cordiality, and civility do not compute. They are ephemeral, and not amenable to quantification. In fact, they take time, moments of slowness and pause, impeding the all-important forward motion of commerce. I suppose it doesn’t help that we are in an intensely militaristic moment globally. Attack first, and heck, don’t even bother with asking questions later.

Monday morning we got a call from Dave, the very kind man with the county (see the chicken fracas post for more on this man’s goodness) who told us that he is getting noise complaints about the chickens. He has gotten some from the original opponents, but he is also getting some from new people. People, as Patrick notes, who are reacting to reality, not to the imagined horrors, of chickens. So we know of 6 households (at least) of the 28 or so in our permit area who are not happy to have chickens nearby. Unhappy enough, in fact, to go out of their way to complain.

After writing to our landlord (a chicken proponent, who is about to get his own chickens) we learned that over the weekend, some neighbors also emailed him about the early morning chicken calls. Unfortunately, they did not feel comfortable complaining to us. This is not a community. It is a collection of individuals.

Tuesday morning we sat on the backsteps listening to the wild birds make their morning calls, and the squirrels begin to scrabble around and scold, and then, at 5:30 (they are consistent), the chickens. Their sounds do not by any means distinguish themselves on a decibel level from the local urban wildlife. Patrick observed, however, that the chickens sound different to human ears. There is some way, developed over thousands of years of mutual domestication, that their clucks and croons grab our attention. Sadly, some people are working hard in today’s world to deny those old connections to the nonhuman, natural world, to our environment, to our food sources. They do not want to be reminded that their eggs, their grilled, boneless chicken breast are connected to an animal, a living, breathing, feathered, speechifying being. To hear, to see, to gather an egg from our chickens is for me a moment for grace—for gratitude for what we have. For some of our neighbors it is cause for a rise in blood-pressure, or an early morning groan, or a frustrated phone call.

Our initial reaction was to give up. Our goal is not to prove a point, not to make people unhappy, nor, even, to win. Our goal was to nurture animals, to nurture ourselves, and hopefully to add some of that good experience to others’ lives. We do not want to just confront arrogance with adamance, in a poultry arms race. That is not the world we want to live in. Just because we want chickens does not mean that we should have them. Chickens are not an inalienable right, just like cars are not, nor clean air, nor even free speech. They are all privileges, dependent on many things we take too much for granted.

So we have sent out feelers about who might take them, and communicated with various homesteady/urban poultry folks about the problem. Patrick asked folks on the Portland Backyard Chickens list (an awesome group of very supportive and helpful folks) to tell us their stories about having chickens. What were their neighborhoods/neighbors like? The consensus seems to be that we, by some fluke, managed to find one of the few agressively anti-chicken outposts in Portland. Folks have had occassional issues with neighbors, but their neighbors have told them about it and they have found solutions. Mostly, however, people report that neighbors enjoy the birds, visit and feed them, chat with them about the hens, and enjoy any excess eggs. This was actually much more our experience in Oakland, despite the much closer quarters we and the chickens were in.

One member of the list suggested the possibility of mediation, wherein a third party would sit with us and the offended parties and see if there was any possible resolution that is less antagonistic than the current state of affairs. We are exploring this possibility, though we are unsure whether anyone will be willing to come. But Patrick had a good conversation with the mediation office, and we are awaiting more info in the mail.

On top of all the complaints to the nuisance control people and our landlord, we received an anonymously-sent letter yesterday. It was a form letter to be sent to owners of barking dogs, with the word “dog” crossed out and chicken written in, and apparently downloaded from the County Department of Business and Community Development, Animal Control Division web site (which I can’t find&#151the letter said that’s where it was from). This is a different division than Dave’s. The sender also attached three pages of suggestions for keeping a barking dog quiet! Patrick contacted the office that the form comes from, and they said that the neighbors could get a petition going that would result in a fine. We could appeal the fine.

The woman at the agency—out of Troutdale, where apparently roosters are legal—said she had a neighbor with a rooster, and the crowing was a problem, but they came to an agreement that the neighbor wouldn’t let the rooster out until the woman left for work. This intrigued us, as in combination with some remarks from the informal PDX chicken survey we’d been receiving, it suggested that perhaps we could do something about the early morning issue. Chickens will not make noise if it’s dark. Our coop set up was such that half the coop was open, so they knew it was dawn as soon as it was dawn. Last night we took a bunch of corrugated cardboard and covered the open end, so the coop is dark when the door is shut. This morning we got up at 5, went and sat on the back stoop and listened to the neighborhood wake up for and hour and a half. It was quite a grey morning (beautiful, blessed relief from the heat wave!), and the local avian population was a little slower to start than usual, but even once all the crows and scrub jays and flickers were swooping and calling and screeching, no sounds from the chickens at all. How cool is that? So, we let them out at 7 a.m. When we opened the coop they were all awake, but just not making any noise. I think a lot of people probably have completely enclosed coops, so the 5:30 a.m. thing isn’t an issue. This is good chicken fact to know, whatever happens!

We received many generous offers to take our birds, even while the offerers encouraged us to keep them. Our landlords said they’d take them, and good friends (Cleverchimp’s Todd and his wife Martina) who are planning their own coop made the great suggestion that they foster the birds while we figure out what’s going on. This would also give them a chance to try chickens on for size—though their neighborhood has proven chicken-cred.

One thing I take from this whole mess is that, whatever petty nonsense our anti-chicken neighbors put out there, we also have a tremendous base of support—and squawking about this has been a source of great suggestions and generous support.

We don’t know, yet, what we’re going to do. We’ve initiated the mediation thing—while remaining skeptical that we’ll get many takers. We’ve remediated the early morning issue, so that should take some heat off that front. And we are considering what it means to live smack dab in such a yuppified, Stepford block. Whatever happens, I am not sure that is likely to change. We know from other neighbors that this type of aggressive opposition to the new is not restricted to our chickens. There was a powerful opposition, for example, to an attempt to do a City Repair project here. So, we are confronted with the possibility that it doesn’t make sense for us to get too settled in here.

On Monday Patrick and I were distraught. We couldn’t think about anything else, we were angry and sad and hurt. But two days later, even though we may still have to remove the chickens if there’s no other resolution, I am feeling so much more positive. It is mostly about feeling like there are options, avenues of possibility. How much of our anger and stress in daily life is because we feel like we don’t have those things? How much of others? I never knew how much chickens were going to teach me about human relations.

chicken profile

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18 Responses to Flying the Coop?

  1. Rebecca says:

    So even though I’m not a fan of the chicken per se, I see nothing wrong with you keeping chickens. Heck, the crows and squirrels wake me up at 6 a.m. in Seattle so I can’t imagine chickens making any more noise than them. The neighbor’s dog makes noise and the children roaming the street at 11 p.m. make noise. It’s not enough to freak me out but then I’m learning that I’m much more tolerant. Of course I will come out and bust your a** if you shoot off fireworks in the middle of the night. I won’t call the cops, I’ll tell you to knock it off.

    Good luck!

  2. Sarah says:

    Thats too bad. We kept chickens and ducks (at different times) in our yard in Saskatoon Sk. and the neighbours were pretty OK with it but park in one of ‘their’ (on street) parking places and the s**t would hit the fan! So I guess it might be different issues for different folks.
    In fact everyone loved the ducks and when we butchered them ( ducks do not do well in Saskatchewan -35° winter temps) I had to lie about it or be shunned or something.
    Anyway I love the chickens and the blog. Keep it up and good luck

  3. Scout says:

    Wow.

    I just read your first post on this subject, and now this recent update, and it’s all so sad and shocking. A nation of “individuals” certainly hits the nail on the head. I’m so sorry that a move from California to Oregon didn’t leave behind the superficial for the more pastoral, but instead has made you two constantly worried and paranoid about your chickens and your neighbors. It’s a crying shame, is what it is.

    That being said, I offer this small bit of advice, which I learned from my mother, and have (unfortunately) found to be true: document everything. If you don’t have one already, start a folder with a letter of your original intent, Patrick’s cool flyer for the neighbors, your petition for a permit, etc. Date everything, and make notes of particular events, like the day you decided to have three chickens instead of five or twelve, and the day you heard of your neighbors’ most recent complaints, and actually did something about it. Sometimes, a file like this does little more than keep things straight in your head. Other times, it may be helpful if you have to go to court to fight an absurd fine.

    It doesn’t sound like you’re long for this neighborhood, and that’s a shame, too. But before packing up house, home, and chicks, consider talking to the neighbors again. It can be hard enough to do in the first place, let alone when they’re so clearly set against you, but I think the very important thing here is standing up for yourselves and for the life you believe in. You have shown yourself to be level-headed and intelligent enough to understand what’s *really* going on in these neighbors’ minds, so take some time to think about what you would like to accomplish, and what you would say to meet those ends. This time, be prepared for an argument from some of them, so you may respond politely and able to address their points. You could begin the conversation by noting that you heard of the recent noise problem, then explain how you have addressed it.

    More than anything, they’ll probably be shocked you’re talking to them again, and (hopefully) they’ll see you two making an honest effort to get along. At the very least, you’re not a faceless entity they can complain about willy-nilly without thought beyond their own selfish desires. You’re another human being, and you’re their neighbor, and it’s important they see that. You’re not “those” people; you’re good people.

    I know it’s a lot to ask you to put yourself in this situation, and I fully understand if you don’t feel like traipsing off as lambs to the slaughter. I simply suggest it as an option which may make them calm down, and allow you and Patrick to have more days enjoying bike rides, and less days fretting about your lovely chickens.

    I wish we, as people, could talk to each other more. I never get over how people declare what a small world it is now, thanks to cell phones, cars and internets, when what it has really become is a world divided by walls we’ve erected ourselves. It’s really truly sad, and it depresses me to no end, but I’m glad the internet brings me your blog, and brings some of us closer within our community.

    Good luck.

  4. Jim says:

    Stand up for your right to use your property as you see fit. I’m hard-pressed to see how your three chickens are causing a nuisance (30 chickens and roosters might be a different story). The definition I learned for ‘nuisance’ when I took a law class in grad school stipulated that you must be interfering with your neighbors’ use and enjoyment of their properties to be causing a nuisance. Wikipedia specifies “quiet enjoyment” but further stipulates: “To be a nuisance, the level of interference must rise above the merely aesthetic.” They cite the hypothetical purple house as an aesthetic nuisance, though not a legal nuisance. Further: “In most cases, normal uses of a property that can constitute quiet enjoyment cannot be restrained in nuisance either. For example, the sound of a crying baby may be annoying, but it is an expected part of quiet enjoyment of property and does not constitute a nuisance.” In many ways, the chickens are part of YOUR quiet enjoyment of YOUR property, and your neighbors are, in effect, creating a nuisance by trying to interfere with YOUR rights. Unless you happen to live in a neighborhood where chickens are restricted by ordinance, or if you avoided the proper legal channels and permits for getting chickens, tort law would seem to be on your side. It might be interesting (and useful to your argument) to buy a cheap decibel-meter at radio shack to record noise intensities of background wild birds, barking dogs, traffic, etc, in comparison to your chickens.

    I’d also recommend taking a look at your state constitution. Those documents are often full of archaic amendments that may be useful to you. Minnesota’s constitution, if I’m not mistaken, has a specific amendment to prevent the government from restricting the sale of homegrown vegetables. It probably dates back 100 years, and the reasons for it have faded now, but it could be handy someday. Also, barking dog ordinances tend to require that a dog be barking continuously for some lengthy duration before being deemed a nuisance. Recently St Paul considered reducing that duration to one minute, which was considered extremely restrictive and I think it was voted down by the city council. I’d bet that Portland extends barking dog owners a wide latitude on these matters, and there is no reason the same latitude shouldn’t be applied to your chickens.

    Finally, I have learned that some people are happiest when they have something to complain about. My neighbors complain about everything. The more I try to accommodate, the more they complain. I stopped being so accommodating, and they mostly stopped complaining (at least to me).

  5. George Bones says:

    I guess the solution to your problem is simple.
    You need to work hard and save up enough money to buy your own home.
    You buy the home in a place that is far enough away from civilized people so you can raise chickens, smear youself in shit, eat beans etc
    Whatever it is that floats your boat.
    You see, the simple fact is this – you are smug, smelly, pricks. You think you are changing the world for the better. You’re not.
    Now – I suggest you get on your bike – strap a chicken to your back and move to Canada – eh.

  6. Paul Cooley says:

    I hope that the mediation might help. It’s a shame that your neighbors don’t see the value of having chickens in the neighborhood. Our neighbor two doors down brought us a dozen eggs from his chickens, and he gives eggs away to other neighbors as well. Maybe a free egg campaign will help, though the type of person who would complain about chickens might also look askance at eggs that didn’t “originate” in a refrigerator. We’re already spreading honey through the neighborhood, in spite of not harvesting that much from the bees this first year.

    Our chickens are still pretty quiet, and the neighbor by the henhouse said she loves the sounds of chickens.

    Unfortunately, Violet is a rooster. So far, whenever I talk to people about the need to get rid of her, ah, him, I meet with the response of “Oh, I love the sound of a rooster. I don’t know who could complain about that.” Still, I know we should give him away while his crowing still sounds like a squeaky door.

    The rooster, however, will only crow if let out of the chicken run. I’m sure that will change as he gets older.

    Good luck with your neighbors.

  7. Jamie says:

    “…and furthermore, people should get used to integrating chickens and other productive activities into our urban landscape.”

    I believe this with all my heart. I have been thinking of starting a modern-day Victory Garden movement in our area–not for victory in a war, but for victory against the demise of the agricultural way of life. I think chickens are an integral part of that. We need, need, need a connection with our food.

    But your neighbors seem very closed-minded and aggressive. I hate to say it, but you might be right to consider not settling in too much. It’s easier to promote change in the presence of at least a *few* like-minded people.

  8. Martina says:

    I am upset about the lack of courage your neighbors show. What has our society come to, if we push every confrontation immediately to a higher level? There seems to be a lack of empathy…

  9. Evan says:

    It’s amazing that people who could no doubt put up with thousands of cars driving by their front door everyday are so easily disturbed by chickens. These people really need an attitude adjustment.

  10. mary mcguire says:

    I liked reading all the comments. I know your chickens and can see again how pretty they are, and lively. I remind you that some of the ocmplainers di so in the hot weather and also that six complainers do not make a neighborhood. I hope you stay put in your good place that offers so much, that you continue to solve this problem, and that you continue this very good neighborhood blog that l like to visit so much. mary

  11. stacey says:

    Having come, through weekend solo camping in forests, to adore the sounds that the forest makes at sunset and sunrise, I would find it wonderful to have the sounds of chickens. When I wake up by an alarm clock it’s irritating, but when woken up naturally by either the cats or the birds singing or the dog next door’s joyous barking when let out for the morning it is wonderful. I live in the city all week and have grown to love the cooing of doves on my window ledge.

    People have become so disconnected with the natural music of life.

  12. Josh says:

    I’m sorry to hear about all this. I’m looking at finding a place to live and hopefully start some kind of small farm. But besides chickens, I’m interested in a lot of other animals like ducks and particularly miniature sheep, so I’m thinking more and more that I should probably move a little outside the city. But then, sprawl seems to move so quickly and unpredictably that you’ll never know when you might be overtaken again. And I need someplace I can feel secure at being able to stay for as much as a lifetime, so I can invest in my homesteade, particularly fruit and nut trees. It’s all very frustrating. Why do people have to be so prudish, and why does government have to badger average people and small producers so much. We’re not the ones destroying the planet. And those who want to truly live sustainably can’t becuase so many things are simply illegal unless you are in the middle of nowhere, and sometimes still have to avoid the eye of government. It’s all so frustrating and ridiculous. Yet many regulations we do need are either not made or simply not enforced, especially when it comes to corporations. Argh! I bet this is what drives people like the pilgrims and the original homesteaders to do what they did and seek new lands despite the dangers. What have we given up to live in the society we do now? At what point is it no longer worth the sacrifices?

  13. Renee says:

    I’m disappointed in your neighborhood – my how it has changed in the last 10 years.

    I would love to suggest to your neighbors (George Bones maybe?) that they explore suburban communities that have their very own Neighborhood Association. They can happily live in an isolated environment where everything looks and feels exactly how they want it to. No homeless people, no graffiti, green lawn after green lawn, no noise – maybe they could put in some recorded bird chirping with outdoor speakers? A great attempt to surround oneself with symbols of “happiness” that will magically transform their lives into happiness!

    Urban life is about diversity, community, and having an open mind.

  14. Shannon says:

    It is amazing how poultry can stimulate examination of our selfish culture today. While surfing for information on local
    ordinances in my own RURAL North Carolina County- I found this excellent web page that helped curb my fury.

    It is sad to say- we are on 13 acres of rural ZONED farmland and a DISTANT neighbor has chosen to make indirect
    commentary about our two pet ducks and 2 chickens- our “neighbor” has recently relocated from the burbs and
    has chosen to complain.

    I agree with the above commentary- some folks just like to complain rather than peacefully seek a solution.

  15. Jim says:

    I had the same problem here in San Diego. Nobody seemed to mind cars, motorcycles or dogs making a racket; but let three hens cluck and they had fits.

  16. Maria says:

    We had a sweet little banty rooster for quite some time. Everybody claimed to love his crowing (he had quite the neighborhood fan club) except for one family who moved in after the rooster and his ladies were well established. They complained about him. It’s really tough when you’re a welfare mom and a rooster wakes you up at the crack of 6:30 a.m., ruining your beauty sleep, you know.

    But I’m not bitter…

  17. Tracey Tiret says:

    I loved your blog and I too feel for you. I am in a similar situation in that I will soon need to get rid of my roosters which are pullets and I don’t know which ones will be roosters. Can someone help me to figure out the early signs of a rooster, so I can hone down the coop. I wish I did’nt have to but you know, for the neighbors sake. Thanks

  18. Holly says:

    Tracey,

    Unfortunately, I’m not sure there are absolutely dependable signs of a rooster—I think they make themselves known. We never ended up with any, so never had to deal with that particular problem!

    Good luck, and enjoy your birds.

    Holly

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