They call it “chicken math.”

Start with a couple of backyard chickens. Fall in love. Get more.

And more. And . . . more.

“It always seems to end up that way somehow,” said Ally Burnham, who started with four chickens at her Oxford home four years ago and now has more than 100.

As the nation’s backyard chicken craze continues, Mainers are flipping out over fowl more than ever. For eggs. For meat. For pets. For entertainment.

Oh, the entertainment.

“It’s like chicken TV,” said DeAnna Church, who cares for 43 chickens at her Vienna home. “Everyone who comes over sits and watches them. And most people ask me to call them in for the chance they’ll come running, all of them.”

Statistics are hard to come by — not every chicken keeper needs a permit and there’s no central database tracking Maine’s backyard chicken population — but there’s other evidence that chickens are only getting more popular, like Lewiston residents recently demanding the right to keep chickens in the city and the nearly 5,000 poultry-loving members that have filled a 4-year-old Maine Facebook group.

So what’s behind the obsession?

Chicken fans spill all. No yolk.

Ally Burnham

One day about four years ago, Burnham and her family decided they wanted fresh eggs. Like, very fresh. A supply of them.

The Burnhams lived in a wooded subdivision on two acres of land in Oxford, more than enough room for a few chickens. So they bought four and considered them pets.

Enter: chicken math.

“They are the gateway animal,” Burnham said.

She bought some more chickens. Rescued some. Some were born there.

Today Burnham has 17 adult pet chickens, at least seven babies (at last count) and 80 meat birds destined for the dinner table.

The mother of four children herself, Burnham is particularly attached to her fierce mother hens (“They’re like my spirit animal”). But her very favorite of the flock is a month-old chick named Chipmunk.

“The second we pick her up she just lays right down and falls asleep on us,” Burnham said.    

Her chickens are free-range.  

“People think that chickens are just stupid animals who don’t know anything, but I love sitting outside and just watching our chickens be,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll walk out back and they’ve got this one area of the yard they’ve dug down to dirt and they’ll all just be in a pile taking a dirt bath. It just makes me crack up laughing, it’s so funny.”

Burnham calls her chickens “the best therapy ever.”

“I think I’ll always have chickens,” she said. “One day it’ll be like, ‘Let’s go to grandma’s house and see her chickens.'”

Scott DeMoranville

For years, Scott DeMoranville has been widely considered a chicken guru.

Broody hen too broody? Chick sick? Can’t keep the fox out of the hen house?

Word was, call DeMoranville. At 48, he’d been raising chickens for most of his life.

For him, chickens have always been part hobby, part lifestyle, part philosophy.

“There isn’t much that is more calming than a Sunday morning coffee on the porch listening to the chickens talking back and forth,” he said. “I am thankful for the values raising chickens and other birds has given our kids and how it made them aware of the importance of providing for something or someone in your care.”

Four years ago, DeMoranville, who lives in Bradford and has 25 to 30 different breeds of fowl, started the statewide Facebook group Maine Poultry Connection to help Maine’ growing chicken community. It had 10 members that first night.

It now has almost 5,000 members — Mainers who buy, sell and trade, share advice and post chicken photos with the kind of love and amusement normally reserved for proud parents. Some refer to themselves in posts as “crazy chicken lady” and “new chicken mom.”   

It’s enthusiasm that delights DeMoranville.

“I can remember years ago when chickens weren’t cool,” he said.

DeMoranville answers 200 and 250 messages a week from people with chicken-related questions. Blue Seal dubbed him “Ambassador to Poultry,” making him the go-to person in Maine for customers’ chicken conundrums. He also gives chicken talks at trade shows and festivals.

“At the fall harvest festival in Bangor they had 30 chairs there. . . . By the time it was 20 minutes into a one-hour seminar, every chair was full and there were, I don’t know, 90 people standing,” DeMoranville said. “It was crazy.”

He used to wonder if the chicken craze was destined to fade away. Now he believes backyard chickens are here to stay. 

“I don’t think it’s a fad. I think it’s a way of life,” he said.

Meredith Falso

When Meredith Falso and her husband bought their Oxford home a couple of years ago, they looked at their new backyard and mused about how fun it would be to have chickens.

“I never kind of took him seriously,” Falso said.

That is until her birthday this year, when he gave her a gift certificate from Paris Farmers Union that said, essentially: “You have six eggs on reserve.”

In May, the couple picked up their new additions to the family.

“It’s like they’re pets,” said Falso, who also has a dog, a cat and two fish. “They’re loyal. I just walked across the yard and all six of them were following along behind me.”

Falso’s six Buff Orpingtons will eventually provide eggs. Too young yet to lay, the chickens — named Katy Perry, Adam Sandler, Prince, Buffy, Roo and Sid Vicious — currently provide entertainment.

“It’s fascinating to watch them. They’re more different than anything we’ve ever had before,” Falso said. “The novelty of it is still kind of exciting. Their voices are starting to change, their feathers are growing in. They’ve always had this tiny little ‘peep peep peep’ and now they’re starting to cluck. It’s like ‘wow!'”

Raising chickens has also served as a bonding experience for Falso, her husband and his two children. 

“We’ve also really taken an interest in compost and gardening, like learning about the science end of things with chickens. Not even talking about the eggs yet, we use their manure and it goes directly into our compost pile,” she said. “They’re a part of our cycle.”

It hasn’t wholly been a Disney movie. The chickens tore up part of Falso’s lawn and building a coop turned out to be a bigger chore than anyone expected.

Still, she said, watching the chickens eat cantaloupe in her yard, “I’m all in. There’s no turning back now. It’s so fun.”

DeAnna Church

DeAnna Church got her first flock of chickens 13 years ago after she contracted Lyme disease from a tick. The birds could both control the bug population at her Vienna home and give her family eggs; it seemed perfect.

“We have no ticks, no fleas. As soon as something starts to hatch — (such as) the flying ants that nobody likes that hatch out of the ground — you know when they’re getting ready to hatch because (the chickens) stand over the hole and as soon as the bugs come out they eat a buffet,” Church said. “That’s all they do, they walk around and scavenge all day and they give you eggs when they’re done.”

She currently has more than 40 chickens that roam free during the day and live at night in a kind of chicken dream house of two coops connected by an enclosed, covered play yard. When her broody hens won’t leave their eggs, she delivers them snacks in bed. Er, nest.

The chickens lay a couple dozen eggs a day, which helps Church feed her three children. She sells or pickles the leftovers.

“I have a lot of uses for them,” she said.

And then there’s the unlimited entertainment value of 43 chickens. Think chicken TV.

“We like to stand at the top of the driveway and roll grapes or meatballs and make them race for them,” Church said. “That video was a huge hit.”

Olivia Boyce

Olivia Boyce’s family doesn’t eat a lot of eggs. One of her two boys doesn’t even like them.

But having a dozen chickens? That they like.

“It’s been a great experience for my family and I to take care of them and hang out with them,” Boyce said. “We do hang out with them.”

Boyce grew up with chickens. When she and her family got their own place in South Paris a couple of years ago, she realized she had room for some of her own. Besides, she wasn’t liking how chickens were treated on the large-scale farms that supplied eggs to her local grocery store.

“I just couldn’t support that any longer. I knew a little bit about raising chickens and I knew it was something that I could handle,” she said. “I have two children and I thought it would be great to get them started on knowing where their food comes from and how to get their own food.”

Boyce now has six adults and six young chickens of different breeds. They sleep in a coop at night and roam free during the day, eating bugs, grass and table scraps. 

“They really like melon,” Boyce said.

Her sons, ages 4 and 6, helped name members of the flock, including Black Ninja, Dark Knight and Kevin. All girls.

The chickens produce nearly a dozen eggs a day at their peak — a lot for a family that doesn’t eat a lot of eggs. Boyce hard boils some and gives away or sells others.

In the summer, when the chickens can scavenge on their own, feed costs are minimal. In the winter, 12 chickens can go through a $13-$15 bag of grain a week. To Boyce, it’s cost effective.

Plus, her family gets to hang out with chickens.

“They’re just funny birds to watch. They have a pecking order,” Boyce said. “They make these little noises when they find something interesting, like a little patch of ants or a worm, and all the other chickens come running over.”

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Want chickens? First, know this

* Chickens are living creatures and need to be treated with care and respect, just like any other animal in your home.

* Chickens need shelter, such as a enclosed coop. It helps protect them from predators and keeps them warm in the winter.
 
* Chickens have to eat. In the summer they can find their own food (bugs, yum!), but you may have to supplement with table scraps and chicken feed. Foraging is harder, if not impossible, during Maine winters, so providing food is vital. 
 
* Chickens need clean, unfrozen water every day. 
 
* There are many different breeds. Some are better as meat birds, while others are best for eggs and others are good for both. Some are laid back, while others are more aggressive. Some don’t fare well in the cold. Do your research.
 
* Depending on where you live, you may need a permit and you may be limited in the number of chickens you’re allowed to have. (If you’re allowed to have any at all.) Check with your town about local ordinances.

Resources:

* Maine Poultry Connection Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/301939479926992/

* University of Maine Cooperative Extension: 1-800-287-0274 or your local Extension office

* Your town hall. Find out the rules where you live before you build your flock. 


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