Mark Neimann-Ross thinks City People have a poor understanding of the chicken-egg relationship. When they hear that the hens he keeps on his small lot in inner Southeast Portland supply him with eggs (nearly one per hen per day), but that he does not keep any roosters (per the city’s Municipal Code sections 13.05.015 and 13.10.010), they often ask how a hen can lay an egg without a rooster. Janell, Mark’s wife, is usually there to respond: “Well, women lay eggs without a rooster, don’t they?”
Mark’s side yard is a certified Multnomah County Animal Facility and, as such, may house up to ten hens, a pig, and a goat. Mark has thus far resisted hoofed animals, but keeps both laying hens and meat birds.
Down This Path Lays Madness: Mark Neimann-Ross on Urban Chicken-Keeping
I am hereditarily disposed to talking to animals. My mom talks to pine trees and my sister is an Animal Communicator in Los Angeles; she makes a considerable living. She says chickens are very immediate. When you step into their environment they think about you, but as soon as you walk out, they are back to scratching at the dirt. She says they are kind of dumb, that they don’t have very good conversations. But I’ve asked her to talk to the chickens, and she’s found out what their names are and what their opinions are about certain things. They are very chicken-y opinions. They spend a lot of time thinking about their social order. It’s very important to them, apparently. You want them to be nice to each other and you want your side yard to be full of harmony, but instead they are chasing each other and pulling out feathers.
I had a Buff Orpington who ate feathers a lot, damn bird. It was Augusta Mae. My sister named it. Yeah, Augusta Mae. And she was an “Augusta Mae.” She was the kind of bird that you see in kids’ books with the apron on. She was at the bottom of the pecking order but she had this passive-aggressive streak. She would sneak up behind the other chickens and pull feathers out of their butts. They would be rolling in the dirt and Augusta Mae would sneak up behind them and pull feathers off, for as long as she could do it. I kept wondering why these chickens had bare butts, but not her.
We all know they’re animals and they don’t come in the house; they don’t watch television with me. I do put them on my shoulder and people will laugh. I come out and talk to them and they come talk to me. And I let them know what’s going on and I understand they are chickens, but we have our conversations and they know who I am and what I’m up to. But, really, their job is to run around and scratch dirt and they do it very well. You can explain a lot about chickens when you know that every synapse ends in food.
Chickens are omnivores. They eat everything and they eat a lot of it. So I am constantly looking—I find myself…I’m starting… I am resisting this. But I am starting to dumpster-dive outside of grocery stores. You know, ‘cause there’s this beautiful head of lettuce in there. It’s kind of wilted, but I’m thinking Oh, these chickens would love that, and how hard it is not to just reach in there and just grab it—Oh, god. Down this path lays madness.
I have lost chickens to raccoons. I hear this chicken screaming one night and I come running downstairs, in my underwear of course, and I lean over the porch here. This raccoon has the Pearl Araucana by the wing. He has his arm in the coop and this chicken is raising bloody hell. Feathers are starting to fly. So I lean over and go Hey! and this raccoon just looks up at me, like, What? This is my chicken. I have a bow and arrow. Seriously. I launch an arrow down into the yard and I tell him—see? animal communication—The next one’s for you. I wait about five minutes and here he comes back again. He actually looked up at me and was like, Oh, busted. So I started throwing apples and I’ve stopped with the arrow thing. It was an escalation issue. I thought, if I am really going to be shooting raccoons, I should be using hunting tips. They have three razor blades attached to the tip so that when they go through a deer they slice arteries and veins. It’s intended to bleed out an animal. So the problem is if you start launching hunting tips—these are designed to go through deer, and they’ll easily go through a house. I decided that—gosh—Ally’s not going to like it if she gets up one morning to find an arrow through the drywall of her house.
I have a raccoon trap. They are way too smart to get caught in a raccoon trap, but it raises the question of what do you do with the raccoon. I called up Animal Control to ask them, If I do catch a raccoon, what do I do with it? So the guy says, Well, you’ve got three options. Number one, you can get a permit and relocate it. So I am picturing a screaming raccoon—they are really irritable—so I’m thinking I am going to pick up a trap, full of screaming raccoon and then I am going to put it in my car and drive thirty miles with this thing screaming and peeing in the back of my car, possibly getting out. And I have to get a permit for this, but they are not giving permits. So it’s an option, but it’s not an option.
Option number two is to release it back on to your property. So if I trap it, I can give it a stern talking to or have my sister communicate with it and let it know it’s not welcome.
Or number three, euthanize it. I can call up an animal control facility or I can do it.
He says that the easiest way to do it is just a garbage can full of water. Yeah, OK, so imagine that you have done this. Now you have a garbage can, fifty-five gallons of water, and a dead, floating raccoon. So I boosted up security: an electric fence.
We have chicken dinner every once in a while, obviously. And I boil it down to get chicken broth, and then what’s left, the chicken bones and the meat…Oh, man, there’s nothing better. My kids freaked out. The first time they go in the backyard and I’m out there with this plate of chicken bits and the chickens are like, Whoo hoo! Oh yeah, they love it. Turkey? Nothing better.
We don’t name the meat birds because they, you know. So some of the neighborhood girls discovered that I had six new chickens—Paco, Kay, and Bee, plus three white birds that didn’t have names. So I come out one day and they tell me, Oh, we decided to name your white birds! Snowball and Fluffy! And I said, Do you guys know that we are going to eat these birds? And they all just got these big eyes, you know these big eight-year-old eyes. They had no idea that Fluffy and Snowball were going to be chicken cacciatore. So that’s the only problem, when the eight-year-olds realize we’re going to be eating Fluffy. They were kind of surprised. They never realized that chicken comes from chicken. All they know is that we are having chicken tonight.