Chris Donahue steps out to her backyard, smiling, and cries, “Hi girls! C’mere girls!”
With that, seven lovely ladies come running across the yard, screeching with delight upon seeing Chris emerge from the house. You’d think she’d been gone for years. One girl stops running, noticing something submerged in the fresh garden soil, and bends in for a closer look. She moves her neck with an odd angular grace and then dives forward in a flash, nabbing a slimy earthworm and yanking at it until it snaps out of the ground and hits her in the face like a rubber band pulled too far.
Then she eats it. Her beak snaps shut and her pleasure in finding a prime snack shows as her shining white feathers rise slightly and then smooth again over her back and wings. She struts over to Chris and lets out a small squawk.
As sustainable living becomes more attractive and rewarding with social, economic, and environmental pressures increasing, the backyard chicken movement in the Pacific Northwest is blossoming into a popular new way to love the food you eat–literally.
In Eugene, Oregon, the rising demand for more backyard chickens led the city council last September to suspend the section of code that restricted owners to just two chickens per household.
“The code doesn’t currently serve the needs of the people, so the most cost-effective move was to suspend enforcement,” says Anne Donahue, the urban agriculture coordinator for the City of Eugene and partner of Chris Donahue.
The Donahues themselves have been living in violation of the Eugene code for years. They started a large backyard garden fifteen years ago and decided they wanted to be closer to and in greater control of their food source.
“Once I started eating fresh eggs I realized how good they were. I knew where my food was coming from and I knew I was feeding them well and taking care of them. It’s just a great connection,” Chris says.
The Eugene code still requires owners to properly care for their chickens, including maintaining coops from developing strong odors and ensuring neighbors are not disrupted by the chickens.
If you don’t clean up or maintain your coop, the city will ask you to remediate those impacts or remove the offending fowl. The key to keeping a chicken coop is to be a good neighbor and tend to your chickens in a responsible manner. That way everyone comes out a winner, you, your chickens, and your neighbors,” Anne says.
But it’s unlikely many neighbors get unhappy, considering most chicken owners give out their fresh eggs to the community and care for their chickens like children. While most start raising hens as a sustainable food option, many come to see their chickens less as protein producers and more as family members.
It’s a familiar scene: parents worrying about their kids when they go out to a movie. But in this case, Chris worries about her hens in addition to worrying about her eleven-year-old son, Caleb, and is committed to getting home right on time, if not early, for her girls.
“I’m pretty obsessive. I really am,” Chris says, chuckling. “If we’re going to a movie I have to have a whole plan about who is going to put [the chickens] away, or if we can put them away before we actually leave. If we’re at a party, I put the neighbor’s number on speed dial.”
Caleb has grown up with chickens all his life and it’s clear he’s very proud of his hens. He goes out to check for today’s eggs and returns with a warm egg and a big smile.
“She just laid this one. Feel it—it’s warm!” he says.
“It’s been a really, really good learning experience for Caleb. He’s raised them from chicks in the kitchen. He’s happy to go collect eggs and show his friends all about them. I think that’s really helped him have a connection to his food and an appreciation for freshness,” Chris says, cupping the warm egg in her hands and beaming at Caleb.
“We really care a lot about our chickens,” Chris adds.
“There’s really something magical about a sunny day in the morning when you’re sitting out there with a cup of coffee and they’re around you and they’re just making these sweet sounds—there’s just this sweet connection that you don’t want to give up. They are part of the family.”
Many chicken breeds are considered to be “dual purpose” birds, meaning they can be used for both their meat and their eggs. But many owners choose to name their hens, making it much harder to consider eating a family pet.
Take Long Beach, Washington, couple Sonya Lynn and Ali Harrington’s chickens, all somewhat morbidly, yet appropriately named after chicken dinners: Cacciatore, Divan, Pot Pie, Noodle, and Coq au Vin, or Coco for short. The two haven’t decided if the hens’ names will truly be their destinies or remain cute titles for an even cuter feathery family.
Fairly new to the backyard chicken world with hens they bought as day-old chicks last April, Lynn and Harrington clearly adore their “girls,” even lining the coop with lavender to make the place more like a home. They love coming out and greeting the hens in the morning, when they say it’s absolute madness.
“They associate food with me, and so when I come outside they get really excited to see me. They start squawking and flapping and they will follow me everywhere,” Lynn says, laughing. “It’s like I’m a rock star. . . They’re like, ‘Holy shit! She’s here! Oh my God!’”
Also in Long Beach, Lynn Dickerson has named her big brood of seventeen after characters from James Bond movies, including a Golden Buff Orpington hen named Octopussy and a Golden Polish hen named Holly Goodhead. Holly Goodhead has a crown of feathers on her head that gets in her eyes and gives her the appearance of a dumb blonde as she blindly wanders around the yard, shaking her head trying to get the feathers out of her eyes.
As unique as the chickens themselves are, so are the coops they live in, including Norton and Holly Cabell’s coop that is a shocking royal purple, matching their Eugene home. Their eight chickens remain unnamed, but after seven years of raising hens, Norton notes that it’s an easy but entertaining choice, and the first few years of chickens are especially fun.
“In the summertime, we would take our dinner out and sit out in the yard with a picnic table and chairs and eat our dinner and look at the chickens–just watch the chickens. I remember saying, ‘Holly, when I was in my twenties and thirties, I just could not have imagined a way of enjoying the day by sitting and watching chickens,’” he says, smiling at the memory.
For many, raising chickens starts with a desire to be healthy and turns into a lifestyle. Bill Bezuk started The Eugene Backyard Farmer store last April as urban chickens became more popular. He says he thinks the trend is going to continue.
“Chickens are just fun and entertaining, and people see that and want to try it for themselves. Plus, the benefits of healthy eggs are crucial, not to mention the free fertilizer that comes along with the process,” he says.
Bezuk has two chickens at the store and four more at home, and he understands the attachment most owners feel to their girls.
“They’re my buddies. There’s just something about the way they look at me with that adorable look on their faces,” he says.
Back in the Donahues’ yard, Anne turns up fresh soil as the chickens dive in for tasty worms. Chris coos lovingly at two Rhode Island Reds while Caleb holds a sparkling Golden Buff Orpington in his lap. The Buff peers up at Caleb with a calmness not expected of a farm animal, and Caleb looks back with a smile. He runs his hand along the soft golden feathers and the hen makes a quiet, but completely understandable, coo of comfort.
“She likes you, Caleb. With you and the sun, today is a perfect day to be a chicken,” Chris says, picking up one of the Rhode Island Reds and kissing it gently on the neck. “Isn’t it?”