A Place for Old Chickens, Outside the Pot
PORTLAND, Ore. — Hindus regard the chicken as a vessel for evil spirits. The Chinese cook them to honor village deities. But here, chickens are a symbol of urban nirvana, their coops backyard shrines to a locavore movement that has city dwellers moving ever closer to their food. And the increasingly intimate relationships have led some bird owners to make plans for their chickens’ unproductive years. Hence a budding phenomenon: urban chicken retirement.
While many Portlanders still pluck aging birds for the broiler, others seek a blissful, pastoral end for them. Because most chickens lay the majority of eggs early in life, and can live about 10 years, the quest for a place where chickens can live out their sunset years has brought a boom to at least two farm animal sanctuaries and led Pete Porath, a self-described chicken slinger, to expand the portion of his business that finds new homes for unwanted birds.
“I would say I’m a halfway house for chickens on the move,” he said.
Mr. Porath, who brokers chicks to feed stores and other buyers from his five-acre farm in Estacada, first began finding new homes for birds as a free service to smooth bad feelings about misdelivered roosters. Now he “rehomes” 1,000 to 2,000 birds a year, most belonging to a unique subset he dubs “the Portland birds.”
“We have rehomed all kinds of stuff. Ducks, chickens, peacocks, turkey, quail, guineas,” he said. “Birds that we rehome out of the city, we have a policy that we don’t eat them.” He says the rule stems from an oft-expressed desire by former owners that the birds spend their golden years on a farm.
His indulgence has lured gawkers to his property, 30 miles southeast of Portland, much to the chagrin of his wife, Tanisha. She says some stroll the garden, eating vegetables and food off the trees.
“I think it’s one of these things when people have a vision of coming to our house and it’s a park. And they think, ‘Oh, this is where my chicken is going to live.’ They want it rehomed here because they have a fantasy of a farm,” she said.
Wayne Geiger, who has absorbed about 100 city birds at Lighthouse Farm Sanctuary in Scio, agrees.
“People think they go out to the sanctuary and they go skipping through the meadows and the fields are covered in daisies,” Mr. Geiger said.
The reality, he said, is that the birds must often be penned to limit breeding, cockfights and predator attacks. He has suggested that cities retool their chicken-keeping policies to allow backyard flocks to grow large enough to include the aging birds. Doing so would allow senior birds to stay in their coops while the youngsters continue laying.
Some Portlanders, like Russ Finley, share that vision. Mr. Finley, a 54-year-old architect, is among 525 Portland-area homeowners with permits to surpass the three-chicken limit. That number is sharply up since 2000, when only about 20 properties held such permits.
Mr. Finley once retired a brooding bird that was disrupting his backyard flock, as well as another chicken that had formed a strong bond with it. He said he had no problem with killing chickens, and he eats meat. But in this case he just could not do it.
“They have personalities,” he explained. “And they each have different ways of interacting with you, and they make different sounds.”
Mr. Finley said the five birds he now owns are a home-based food source that complements a vegetable garden. But they are also pets, he said, part of a family that includes his partner, Ray Frye, two dogs and two cats.
“We name them and we hold them,” he said. “I know it sounds kind of crazy, but we kiss them.”
The couple also buy toys for their chicks, and enjoy watching the older birds jump for Cheerios and chase one another around the yard.
Their stunning multilevel chicken coop was featured in the 2011 Tour de Coops in Portland. The event showcases the most spectacular of bird lodgings. Last year’s featured coops sported green roofs, rainwater systems and towers with panoramic views.
Retiring such chickens, Mr. Porath said, is surprisingly easy. They are steered toward farms where they eat pests that bother other animals, and are used for breeding, to turn compost, to keep grass down and as pets. Roosters are also sought to protect flocks from predators. Mr. Porath said he screened out the cockfighting hooligans that come calling, as well as clients with appetites for silkies, a breed of chicken that looks oddly like a primate and is served as a delicacy in some cultures.
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