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Unplucked

A backyard chicken keeper comes out of the coop.

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After a years-long campaign to legalize backyard poultry, chicken lovers triumphed last week. Richmond City Council voted to allow as many as four hens to be kept on a single-family lot, as long as the owner gets a $60 permit and meets the coop requirements.

Law-abiding Richmonders rushed to file for permits. As a formerly law-breaking chicken keeper, I want to tell them: Wait.

Sure, chickens are great fun. My hens, black-and-white Loretta and red-brown Dolly, came running when I called, grabbed grubs while I gardened, and jumped to snatch grapes from my hand. They stalked the yard like tiny tyrannosaurs and gobbled the bean sprouts from our takeout pho. They laid abundant eggs, although I tried not to think about the grub content of my breakfast.

But the pro-poultry faction paints a pastoral picture of birds cooing tranquilly in the yard. Nope. Chickens bring chaos.

Chickens aren't quiet — at least not the hens with whom I'm personally acquainted. Loretta and Dolly trumpeted at daybreak, sending me running outside in my pajamas to unlock their door. At times, Dolly crowed like a rooster, a behavior sometimes adopted by the dominant bird in a hens-only flock. Driven to distraction by the noise, I gave her to a flock-keeping friend in Orange.

That just left Loretta lonely. In the evenings she paced back and forth as we sat on the screen porch, complaining about not being allowed inside. Wonk wonk wonnnnk, she whined. Every night. Every morning.

Chickens kinda smell. I moved the coop to a new patch of grass every few days and even bathed Loretta in the backyard when her fluffy rear got matted. These measures failed to prevent eye-watering whiffs of eau de barnyard.

Chickens destroy. Loretta scattered the mulch and ate my impatiens. She excavated a crater under the walnut tree where she bathed in the dust, trilling contentedly. I fenced my vegetable garden, then watched her poke her beak through the pickets to nibble the tomatoes.

And chickens are prey. In February 2010, a hawk fastened its talons into Loretta's back while she was out in the yard. It lifted her a few feet off the ground before my husband ran out shouting. The hawk flew off. Loretta crashed to earth. She sat stunned in the asparagus patch, surrounded by a halo of down.

Maybe she was OK, I thought. I gingerly ruffled her feathers and saw that she was not. The talons had left two gruesome gashes in her sides.

I did some speedy research on avian first aid and followed a veteran farmer's step-by-step guide, rinsing the wounds with peroxide and dabbing them with Neosporin. I put Loretta in a cardboard box, brought her inside, fed her yogurt and worried.

I decided I wouldn't take my pet chicken to the vet. Not when I eat chicken weekly. Not when children lack basic medical care. I took the $200 I might have spent and donated it to Doctors Without Borders.

A few days after the attack, the wounds looked greenish. My stomach flipped, but I grimly kept cleaning them. We began talking about how we would euthanize her. Luckily, Loretta proved a tough bird. After she recovered, I bought her a HenSaver chicken jacket embroidered with two glaring red eyes, billed as a hawk deterrent. Loretta pecked at the elastic until she managed to get the detested jacket off. The hawk pursued her a few more times, once managing to scatter some feathers, but Loretta learned to run pell-mell for the abelia thicket when she saw that ominous shadow overhead.

The hawk wasn't the only predator with an interest in fat, flightless birds. While our own cat was terrified of Loretta, a neighbor's tabby stalked her. Then a raccoon took up residence under our shed, watching and waiting.

Last summer Loretta began sleeping in odd places — next to the oil tank, on the patio chairs, in the recycling bin. She perched on the fire pit, her weathervane silhouette eerie in the twilight. I retrieved her at dusk and plunked her back in her house.

One Friday evening in the fall, I couldn't find her in any of her favorite roosts. I left her coop door open and went to bed. I woke to a silent backyard, and my heart sank.

I found her that afternoon lying in the ivy, torn apart. Her yellow eyes were glazed, her red comb pale. I cried. "I don't think you'd make a very good farmer," my husband said gently. We buried her under the walnut tree, where she'd been happy.

If you want chickens, get them. But first, figure out what you will do when your birds get sick, or loud, or filthy, or maimed. Know that your tiny tyrannosaurs will torment you, and that you will love them. That you will have to protect them, and that you may fail. S

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