Cities December 2008

A Cock Crows in Portland

The heartbreak of urban chicken husbandry
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Time was running out for Fizzle the rooster. Four weeks ago, he had announced his sex to the world, or at least to his Portland, Oregon, neighborhood, crowing so vociferously that there was no denying his masculinity. And that was the problem, because while Portland law allows up to three hens in a resident’s backyard without a permit—making the city a particularly appealing place for those who wish to try their hands at the growing pastime of urban chicken-keeping—roosters are strictly prohibited because of the noise.

This left Fizzle’s owner, Jennifer Scott, in a bind (“Our neighbors love us dearly,” she said, “but not that much”). It also placed Fizzle firmly in an emerging urban underclass: the homeless rooster.

Questions of sustainability and food provenance and, to a lesser extent, fears about economic instability have motivated folks in more and more cities—places like Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Fort Collins, Colorado—to install chicken coops in their backyards, in the hope of reaping fresh eggs, free fertilizer, and organic pest control. Of course, introducing all these chickens into cities has had unanticipated consequences, flashes of red tooth and claw that interrupt bucolic fantasy: family pets gobbling up chickens; chickens gobbling up lead-based paint chips. But all this is nothing compared to the mysteries of chicken sexing.

Simply put, it’s not easy to size up a chicken’s true leanings, at least not right away. That’s a lesson many urban chicken owners learn the hard way, because no matter how attached they become to this creature they’re raising from an egg, even chicken-friendly cities such as Portland (where a tour highlighting the best in backyard avian architecture—think coops with eco-roofs and heated floors—attracted more than 600 people last year) draw a firm line at roosters. So the question becomes: How to get rid of them?

Turning them into dinner does not seem to be popular, sustainability benefits aside. Instead, other, more decidedly urban solutions have emerged. New postings pop up almost daily on Craigslist featuring roosters that need to leave Portland, pronto: “cute rooster who crows too loud for the neighbor. very sad to let him go, but we must until the city changes its mind.” Like personal ads for humans, many include descriptions of the ideal match, mentions of farm fantasies, and attempts to warn away the wrong partner: “Too small for a chicken dinner.”

There is another option for Portland’s roosters on the run: about 40 minutes from downtown, just off the Mount Hood Highway in the town of Boring, sits Geren’s Farm Supply. The feed store has long operated a small, low-ceilinged shed called the Critter Korner, where farmers bring unwanted livestock. Geren’s then sells the animals. In recent years, however, city people have turned Geren’s into a kind of relocation center for banished roosters, according to Roz Rushing, the daughter of Geren’s owners. “I’ve had grown men in tears because they raised them as babies and they live in the city and can’t have a rooster,” Rushing says from behind the feed-store counter, where a dry-erase board keeps a running tally of Critter Korner’s population, and an orange cat named Mr. Dunn naps amid the day’s paperwork. “Then there’s some people, they’ve been spurred by their roosters, and they can’t wait to get rid of ’em. They say, ‘Take it away now. I never want to see it again.’”

Fizzle’s owner decided against making the trek to Boring. Although Geren’s sells the animals only for farm use, it obviously can’t guarantee that they don’t become someone’s dinner. Not willing to take this chance, Scott posted and reposted Fizzle’s details on the Internet, praying for a response—and the continued patience of her neighbors.

Finally, one day, Fizzle received an offer from a compatible suitor: he would be leaving Portland, his birthplace, for a rural community about 20 miles south. Perhaps best of all, from Fizzle’s perspective, anyway, he would become a breeding rooster. Life in the country, it seems, has its upside.

Inara Verzemnieks is a writer in Portland.
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