When I was a kid, I spent part of several summers at my uncle and aunt's chicken farm in Vineland, New Jersey. I helped feed and water the chickens. I collected the eggs, sometimes from under the bellies of the recalcitrant hens, placing them gently, one by one, in the enameled wire basket. I learned to work the simple but ingenious machine that candled the eggs -- shining a light through them to inspect for blood spots, embryos, and multiple yolks -- then chugged them along on a tiny conveyor that gently tipped each one into the appropriate chute, sorted by size and weight. On at least one occasion, I accompanied Uncle Sol on a trip to the slaughterhouse. Aunt Hansi was a fabulous cook and baker; most of the double yolks went into her cakes.
Though I loved going about my chores in their dusty midst, the chickens themselves seemed to me, for the most part, an undifferentiated white clucking mass, sometimes somnolent, sometimes excited. My vacation reading at the farm one summer was a thick, profusely illustrated manual of poultry diseases. I was particularly fascinated by the color plates of Newcastle Disease. I intended to be a doctor at that point, so the interest was professional.
Years passed. In the early '90s my friend Mary Carter wrote a charming series of essays about her small flock in Marin County. The "Chicken Lady" writings are archived as part of The Best of the WELL, and available to members of that pioneering online community (www.well.com). Chickens came in colors, I discovered; some breeds were temperamental in one direction or another; individual birds might have personalities as unique as humans.
Mary was a forerunner of the urban poultry movement. Now, at least here in Portland, it's a chicken on every plot. Actually, we're allowed three hens (more with a permit), though roosters are forbidden within city limits. Our back-fence neighbors have constructed what they refer to as a chicken Taj Majal; neighbors two doors up have a coop; a couple of houses up from them there's another. I hear telltale clucks from yards throughout the neighborhood whenever I take a walk.
Two years ago, my friend Jackie gifted me with the charming couple at the top of this page. They've been living in the southeast corner of the backyard, exactly where the coop is going now. I thought of them as mere garden ornaments, but it's clear that they've been placeholders all along.
Here's a shot of the coop in progress. I bought the plans from theGardenCoop.com and Mike, our builder, modified the design to fit our somewhat-constrained space.
The most labor-intensive part of the job was trenching the base around the perimeter, avoiding damage to major tree roots in the process. The bottom edge of the hardware cloth -- a sturdier, finer mesh than so-called "chicken wire" -- that covers the coop will be buried several inches, as a barrier to burrowing predators.
When the coop's completed, I'll do some exterior painting, cueing off the colors I used on this old and extremely tall wooden ladder I found a couple weeks ago, which I plan to place picturesquely... somewhere. After that we'll turn to the serious matter of acquiring chicks, pullets or full-grown laying hens. What and when depend on timing and availability. I'll keep you posted.
The giant ladder is currently sharing deck space with several container gardens I potted up last week, following a trip to Xera Plants, a remarkable local nursery that's generally wholesale-only. (Hardy Plant Society members got a special tour plus discount shopping opportunity; that alone is worth the price of membership.) Most of the plants I bought are succulents, a broad and fascinating family. One of the best-known species is sempervivum, which typically grows as a central rosette surrounded by smaller offshoots. Its common name is hens and chicks.