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Flash in the Pan

View from the other side

My chickens crossed the road last week.

They were the only ones left, since the others got killed by a dog last month. The two remaining Buff Orpingtons survived because they ran for the coop during the carnage, while the Barred Rocks, Australorps and Blue Cochin Bantams ran in circles.

I thought the Buff girls were pretty street-smart. Whenever they went out for a little “free-range” action, they’d wander the alleys, into neighboring yards if they didn’t have dogs. If a dog came into our yard, the girls could run or fly away—even over an 8-foot fence if necessary. If you look around the world, chickens are hardly strangers to urban environments. Usually they can hang.

Either way, chickens have more than bloodthirsty dogs to worry about. For instance, it’s illegal to raise chickens within Missoula city limits. Luckily for chicken lovers, Animal Control has more important things to worry about than chickens. But if a neighbor complains, the ordinance is enforced and the chickens are done for.

A few weeks ago, the Missoulian wrote a story about this happening to a young local family. A subsequent editorial went in-depth, fretting about manure piles and property values and concluding with a worthless suggestion that we solve the problem by creating nonprofit poultry cooperatives to satisfy the public’s need for fresh eggs and local meat, while keeping Missoula “hospitable to Missoulians, not just their food.”

This poultry commune idea belies a simplistic understanding of why people want to raise chickens in the first place. This is about more than meat and eggs. It’s about closing a loop between you and your garden.

Before I owned chickens, I would look in the classifieds for people giving away manure so I could enjoy the privilege of driving around and shoveling crap on and off my pickup.

The girls changed that by providing all the manure we needed. Wherever we’d move their mobile pen around the garden, they’d go to work on the weeds, worms and whatever else they found, like tossed-in kitchen scraps. In turn, the girls would make a few eggs and leave their “special sauce” in the ground for the next generation of plants.

I miss hauling around manure about as much as I miss that old compost pile. So barbaric! I mean, really, why let your kitchen waste rot in a pile when it could make the ladies so happy? And remember, what’s good for the hen…

The day the Buff Orpingtons vanished, I knew something was wrong when they didn’t come home to roost. The next morning, I made the neighborhood rounds. The chickens were last seen across the road, in someone’s front lawn.

A lot of people I approached said things like, “Someone probably caught them and ate them.” But nobody could hold one of those sweet girls in their hands and want to kill—much less pluck and gut—her. Plus, you’d have to cook her for days to make her soft enough to eat. And I should know, because that’s what I did after the dog attack.

Mind you, I never would have killed one of the girls. The plan for when they stopped laying was free rent and pasture for the rest of their lives. But given they were already dead from the dog, taking them into my body made more sense than burying them in the dirt.

As I was recently flipping through the chicken catalog looking for replacement Buff girls, some neighbors came by to offer condolences. They ended up getting in on my chicken order, and pretty soon half the block was too. And this is bigger than one block—it’s the sort of thing happening all over Missoula.

That’s why Missoula’s Community Food and Agriculture Coalition (CFAC) is exploring ways that people and chickens might coexist in town, and City Councilor Stacy Rye has proposed an ordinance that would allow personal-sized flocks in residential neighborhoods. The proposal is currently being discussed in committee, and if it passes, it will probably include strict rules governing things like the presence of roosters, permissible numbers of birds and containment.

This last item—containment—is the key. Had my chickens last month been in a fenced yard—still free-ranging, mind you, but protected—that dog might not have killed the girls. And the last two probably wouldn’t have wandered across the road. Luckily, nobody complained about my chickens during three years of meandering through the neighborhood, because even though my neighbors and their kids loved my girls, they probably didn’t love turds on their patios.

The girls had everything a chicken could want right here at home—cool places to scratch, lots of table scraps. The question left is why they crossed that road. Obviously, they crossed the road because they weren’t contained. And because, like us, Buff Orpingtons are smart enough to wonder if the grass is greener on the other side.

Ask Chef Boy Ari: Fitting the coop

Q: Dear Chef Boy Ari,

I am seriously considering entering the poultry enterprise. In hand is my 1954 copy of The ABC’s of Poultry Raising and the landlady gave no objection. I’ve got a good pile of pine shavings from my winter woodworking, lots of scrap wood and fencing, and a few plans for a coop drawn up. It is too late to do chicks since my coop is still under construction, so I am planning on getting some ready-to-lay birds this summer. My goal is to produce some yummy eggs and meat, to generate manure, and give me some bargaining room with friends who make honey or wine. We can all buy eggs dirt cheap, so after absorbing the costs of the coop, feed, litter and bird replacement, I don’t expect to achieve financial gain except to save on my egg budget by raising a few birds.

I think I can build a pretty warm and dry structure with what I have around the house along with some help from Home Resources. With all the mills and woodworkers in town I could likely get pretty cheap pine shavings to use as litter once mine is used up.

What I am trying to sort out is a strategy for feeding a small laying flock…

—Pursuer of Poultry

A: Dear Pursuer,

I’m sorry to say I can’t run the entirety of your 523-word letter in a space that’s only allotted 300 words, including the answer. But I think I get the gist of your question.

The short answer is, it’s not too late to order some new chicks. You’ll have two months to figure out how to build your coop. In the meantime, plant some pasture mix in the area you want to keep them. And don’t use pine shavings for bedding. Use material that will break down quickly in your garden, like straw.

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