Photo Illustration by Andrew Jackson/KEIZERTIMES

UPDATE 3/21/11 @ 8:37 p.m. The Keizer City Council voted 6-1 to start the text amendment process that would allow chickens in urban zones of the city.

Councilor Jim Taylor was the no vote. Conditions attached to the proposal include limiting owners to three hens and create a five-foot setback from all fence and property lines. Roosters would not be allowed.

Several public hearings remain before the city’s development code would change to expand the zones where chickens are allowed. Currently the birds are only allowed in agricultural zones.

More in Friday’s Keizertimes. For an in-depth look at the experience other cities have had with urban chickens check out our story below.

By JASON COX
of the Keizertimes

The urban chicken is up for debate at the Keizer City Council this coming Monday.

Judging by a January work session where councilors sought information – where both chicken lovers and opponents expressed their hopes and fears about the world’s most common bird – one can expect a cacophony of clucking both for and against the proposal.

Code Enforcement Officer Tony Casker of Keizer said his department’s concerns include not only odors and noise, but how the birds might be best contained to avoid the jaws of another common backyard animal – the humble dog. Staff will be proposing the yes or no question, and councilors would have to initiate a text amendment. It’s expected no permit process will be recommended and enforcement would be complaint-based.

“One concern would be proper containment,” Casker said.

But a funny thing has happened in almost every urban setting that allowed residents to keep chickens: Not much. Complaints haven’t spiked, and there doesn’t seem to be a flood of would-be chicken owners setting up coops. Codes enforcement staffers we spoke to throughout the Willamette Valley say more typical household pets like dogs and cats create dramatically more problems for them than chickens do.

There’s a few theories for the lack of flying feathers where the birds were allowed. One is that there simply aren’t that many people keeping urban chickens. Salem officials reported only 10 permits have been issued for coops, despite a two-year battle to lift the bird ban.

Another is that while chicken raising can be educational and fun – and, similar to gardening, satisfying – it’s not necessarily cost-effective. Depending on how you set it up coops can cost next to nothing or be quite the expense, and the cost of livestock
feed continues to rise as more corn is converted into biofuel.

That said, a representative from Wilco Farm Stores said he’s seen an uptick in sales from Salem-area stores after the Cherry City passed its urban chicken regulations. Some like
the idea of knowing where their food comes from, others may see it as a fun hobby.

Still others consider the chicken a good house pet.

Are the fowl foul?

The Keizertimes surveyed four Oregon cities along with Multnomah County, and sought information from the city of Keizer’s research into code enforcement and animal control problems posed by chickens.

With the exceptions of Multnomah County and Corvallis – the latter of which allows roosters, which made up the majority of reported problems –  officials reported few or no complaints in the recent past regarding chickens.

One reason could be that most cities disallow roosters, the male bird that is known for its loud call, particularly in the morning. Of the 15 communities surveyed by city officials, only one – Corvallis – allows roosters.

Ordinances there “speak to noise generation,” said Chris Westfall, code enforcement supervisor for Corvallis. “What we do further regulate is that all animal waste has to be kept removed from the premises, and that no person shall keep animals in the city limits that cause excessive, frequent loud noises.”

And Michele Tracy of Corvallis Animal Control said complaints about rooster noise were “very frequent” last summer.

“We haven’t had many since then,” she added.

Limits on the number of birds allowed vary widely by jurisdiction. Corvallis, Lake Oswego and Lincoln City have no limits, yet several communities – including Salem – allow a maximum of three. The Cherry City finally allowed chickens last year after a protracted two-year battle. Some communities allow more.

Research by Keizer staff indicated chicken complaints are up in Salem since hens were allowed, in some cases neighbors turning in one another because they know licenses are required.

In Medford, about 10 percent of its 64 noise complaints in 2010 were chicken-related. Most were caused by roosters.

Eugene only allows two hens, but their code enforcement department has put a moratorium on enforcing the rule in what officials there painted as an experiment of sorts.

Interestingly, Eugene also had a law on the books for many years limiting households to two dogs each. That law was amended to allow up to three pooches, but Permit Review Manager Mike McKerrow said a Eugene City Council work session in April will discuss cutting that number back to two.

Indeed, McKerrow sees little difference – at least in terms of nuisance abatement – between dogs and chickens.

“You could have two dogs that just bark all the time and are an annoyance … or you might have three or four dogs that are well-managed and don’t create any impacts,” McKerrow said. “… Probably what’s more important is how the animals are managed.”

Meanwhile, as part of the city’s Food Security Resource and Scoping Plan, officials opted not to enforce limits on female fowl.

“The general idea is urban farming to grow more of your food and items that you need for living on your own property,” McKerrow said. “There’s a general interest in exploring that, and the city supports those kind of options, and in some cases that might mean modifying the codes the city administers.”

Beaverton officials had similar green motivations, and Code Enforcement Officer Mark Bennett there estimated the city got between 10 and 15 chicken-related complaints last year. They don’t specifically track chicken calls, instead putting them under the generic nuisance animal category.

“Dogs, definitely, are number one” in calls for service, Bennett said. “It could be barking, dog poop, aggressive dogs, someone thinking their neighbors are abusing the dogs.”

Yet in Multnomah County, the division that investigates poultry-related problems said chickens make up the majority of their agricultural animal-related complaints. The county enforces Portland’s law, which allows up to three hens without a permit and more with one.

There’s the rooster complaints that seem to pop up from time to time whether chickens are allowed or not in a particular locality. But at least in Multnomah the problem is poultry-at-large.

“It’s mostly chickens getting out of their coop,” said Ben Duncan, public information officer and program development specialist for Multnomah County Environmental Health.

The city of Dallas started allowing up to five hens per home in January 2010. And they have yet to see a single complaint. The birds are only allowed in low-density residential zones, must be in a coop and at least 10 feet away from the property line.

“We had gotten over the years calls from people as this movement has gained steam,” said Jason Locke, community development director for Dallas. “When we adopted it we didn’t all of a sudden have a bunch of chickens in the city limits. We have had two or three inquiries since.”

What would really change?

Considering Keizer already responds to illicit chicken complaints within the city, Keizer Community Development Director Nate Brown said in most cases the penalty for an illegal chicken versus an ill-kempt coop would be the same: A visit from the code enforcement officer, and fines if the property owner doesn’t take care of the problem. The city has yet to remove chickens from a property where they’re not allowed, Brown said.

“I think we may have issued a citation for a chicken,” Brown said. “But at some point it’s not worth it to fight the fight. And if chickens are allowed people are going to try to sneak in seven if three are allowed…. And we’ll have to deal with the same thing.”

Brown said he doesn’t plan to recommend licensing, as is required in Salem. But his proposal could include requiring – or at least suggesting – feedback from neighbors.

“If we foster communication in our neighborhoods by saying, ‘If you want chickens you need to go explain to your neighbors,’ it gets people engaged with their neighbors and it’s a positive thing,” Brown said.

Is the interest really there?

Judging by public testimony in both Salem and Keizer, urban chicken advocates come well-prepared and with a passion for raising the birds.

And David Dimick, a category manager for Wilco Farm Stores, said he’s definitely seen increased interest and sales of chicks and hens since the Salem ban was lifted.

But there’s other indicators that while there may be more coops than before, would-be urban farmers aren’t exactly beating down doors to have them.

Code enforcement officials in Salem had been getting about 30 chicken-related complaints per year, about 50 percent rooster-related. As of March 11, only 14 licenses have been applied for, and 10 approved.

“It was presented to our council as a groundswell movement,” said Brady Rogers, Salem’s Neighborhood Enhancement Division administrator. “There will be very little impact if these are the numbers that actually exist in our community.”

Some other areas report few inquiries about chickens, but unlike Salem most don’t require a coop permit, so it’s assumed not everyone with chickens is calling city hall.

There’s also the question of whether raising chickens versus buying your own eggs is cost-effective.

“My theory is raising your own eggs or meat is not always as cost-effective,” said Merle Stadeli, an area specialist in animal health and pet supplies for Wilco. “I think it’s more the idea people enjoy knowing where the egg or meat came from – it was raised under their management. … They like to go natural. I’m not saying the industry is bad, but that’s kind of the trend nowadays.”

Dimick said that, at least with Salem’s three-hen limit, the act would likely be cost-neutral. A pre-made coop can cost several hundred dollars, he said, but many people convert existing sheds or doghouses.

In addition, gardeners may find chickens helpful: They love to eat bugs, Dimick said, and once composted chicken manure is one of the best natural fertilizers out there.

But besides the inevitable cleaning that has to be done, there’s also other potential drawbacks: While Dimick said the sexing process is 95 percent accurate, occasionally a chick thought to be a hen grows up to be a rooster, and the male birds are banned in almost every urban setting due to their loud crowing. Luckily the male bird is only there to fertilize the egg; the ones you buy in the store are not fertilized and you don’t need one in a coop to get eggs. No matter who got the sex wrong it’s the owner’s responsibility to find a new home – or a stew pot – for the rooster.

Hens don’t lay eggs for their entire lifespan either; they start at about five months old and generally begin a steady production decline after two to three years of age. But they can live anywhere from five to 10 years, and occasionally longer than that.

But it’s not just about the practical benefits pro-chicken advocates tout, Dimick said.

“They turn them into pets. I wouldn’t call them like a dog or anything like that but a lot of people like to buy exotic breeds of chickens because they look weird,” Dimick said. “We sell a lot of different colors and breeds, chickens with feathers that come two inches out of their heads.”