Violet, Iris and Ollie Milliken – 8, 3 and 6 years old, respectively – tried to contain their excitement at the Portland Post Office on Forest Avenue by casually flipping through coloring books a postal worker gave them.

But they were understandably distracted. They were with their mother, Kristie Green, waiting to greet the newest addition to the family’s brood – 20 baby chicks that will eventually join the flock of backyard chickens already at their home in Cape Elizabeth.

Suddenly, a chorus of high-pitched cheep! cheep! cheeps! filled the cavernous Colonial Revival building, echoing throughout the large lobby.

“Oh, I hear something!” Green said. “Do you guys hear anything? I hear them!”

The kids’ eyes grew larger, their jaws fell slack as they listened to these Peeps come to life. There wasn’t much time to appreciate the moment because they had to get the chicks home and under a heat lamp, fast. Green carried the chirping box out in one hand, and the family rushed through the cold March air to the car.

CHICKEN SUPREME

It’s that time of year. Chick time.

Feed stores are taking orders for chicks to be picked up in May or June, when it’s warmer and easier to keep them alive. And they are selling them to people like Green, who likes getting them early so she can have eggs sooner. Green had her chicks shipped just after hatching from Cackle Hatchery in Missouri.

Few studies have been done on how fast the hobby of backyard chicken raising is growing, but in 2013 the USDA surveyed four major cities – Denver, Los Angeles, Miami and New York City – and found that while fewer than 1 percent of households had chickens, nearly 4 percent of households without chickens planned to have them within the next five years.

“It’s difficult to find reliable statistics, accurate statistics, because they’re so quickly changing and there’s so much we don’t know,” said Kathy Shea Mormino of Suffield, Connecticut, an attorney-turned-backyard chicken farmer who is affectionately known by her 700,000 followers on Facebook as “The Chicken Chick.”

“For every household that we know keeps chickens,” Mormino said, “I’m sure there are 10 more that we don’t know about.”

They are, so to speak, flying under the radar.

Mike Rogers of Paris Farmers Union in Norway said his company has seen “huge” growth in sales of all things chicken.

“It amazes me every year,” he said. “No matter how many birds we sell, we sell more. The interest is incredible. I think it’s an easy way for people to get back to the basics.”

When Steven Bibula bought Orchard Ridge Farm in Gorham, he thought he would be dealing mostly in apples. But ever since he got into selling chickens, that part of his business has boomed, with wannabe urban chicken farmers driving there from Portland and Boston to check out his Buff Orpingtons, Black Laced Golden Wyandottes and Egyptian Fayoumis. Poultry experts say Orchard Ridge is the only farm in southern Maine to offer such a wide variety of breeds and sell them at different ages.

“We’re making pizza and donuts now” in the farm’s kitchen, Bibula said, “but it’s the chickens that get all the hits” on the website.

According to the USDA, major cities in 40 states permit urban chickens. In Maine, cities including Portland, South Portland,Westbrook, Sanford, Saco and Auburn have all debated the idea of backyard chickens and approved chicken ordinances.

Regulations vary from community to community. Portland residents are allowed no more than six chickens per household. Roosters, although they have a calming effect on nervous hens, are forbidden so their crowing doesn’t wake up the neighbors. Chickens in the city are “for pets and personal use only” – no selling the eggs – and hen houses must be 25 feet from neighbors.

Portland passed its chicken ordinance in 2009. Last year (2015-2016), the city sold 20 permits. This year the number jumped to 37, plus one that’s pending. (The fee is $26, and permits expire on May 31.) In one case, according to city spokesperson Jessica Grondin, the chickens and hen house were made part of the purchase-and-sale agreement when a Portland home changed hands.

COOP DE GRAZE

When the backyard chicken revival started 10 to 15 years ago, it was all about the eggs – and teaching something about farm life to human chicks.

“Some of it is that people want to know where their food is coming from,” said Donna Coffin, an extension educator with the University of Maine based in Dover-Foxcroft. “Some of it is they want to have a family project that can help teach kids responsibility and an appreciation for other life forms, to give them some compassion.”

That was part of the motivation for Anna-Lena Schneider and Michael Kress of Portland, who began vegetable gardening with their children – Ben, Sam and Ella – last year and then added chickens a few weeks ago. They own a double lot in the city, so they have plenty of room.

“We really got into growing our own food last year, and we just love the process of ‘Oh we’re planting something together, look how it’s growing, how we’re harvesting it all together,'” Schneider said.

Chickens seemed like a natural next step. They family made a trip out to Orchard Ridge Farm, where Bibula helped them pick out five chickens, all different breeds. They were about a week old when they got them, “little fluff balls,” Schneider said. Kress is building their coop – which Schneider says is fast becoming a “chicken palace” – and the children are learning how to handle the birds gently.

“We’re kind of nervous about keeping them warm, but they’ve done really great,” Schneider said. “They’ve flourished. It’s a really fun way to be in touch with the food that we’re putting into our bodies and knowing where it’s coming from.”

Schneider grew up in Germany, so when it came time to name the chickens, the family gave them “old German lady names:” Wilma, Berta, Gertrud, Else and Frieda.

Naming the chickens is a good sign that they’ll never end up on the family dinner table when their prime egg-laying years are behind them. Top-tier layers can provide a family with 200-300 eggs a year, but if they have names, their primary purpose is probably pet.

“Chickens are the new dog, except that you get six at a time,” Mormino said.

Mormino calls chickens a “no-waste pet.”

“They can eat your kitchen scraps. They can till your garden,” she said. “They eat insects, so they’re great organic pest control. They’re great organic fertilizers.”

Bibula helps people customize their flock depending on their goals. While some customers tell him they want the best egg production for their money, others care more about unusual breeds or “birds they can cuddle.”

“We’re getting a lot of calls from people who have Lyme disease that say, ‘I need chickens because I want to reduce the tick population,’ ” he said. (Andalusians, Egyptian Fayoumis, the Leghorns and some of the Hamburgs are good tick foragers, Bibula said.)

Other chicken enthusiasts just want to watch the birds, hoping to lower their blood pressure or ease their own empty nest syndrome.

That may sound a little wacky, but Mormino says raising chickens can indeed be therapeutic. They’re being brought into retirement homes, she said. Children and adults with autism are raising them, she said, as are veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Come for the eggs,” Mormino quipped, “stay for the stress reduction.”

NOT JUST FLUFF

As soon as Kristie Green brought the family’s new chicks home, she dipped their beaks in water fortified with sugar and vitamins (it helps them learn how to drink) and placed them in a large plywood box fitted with a heat lamp in their living room. All had survived the trip from Missouri, which doesn’t always happen with shipped chicks. Shivering from the quick walk from the car to the house, the chicks huddled under the heat lamp. But soon, they moved to the water dispenser and start drinking – a good sign.

Violet, Ollie and Iris immediately start picking the birds up and naming them. Violet picked up a fawn-colored one. “This one’s going to be named Josie, mama,” she said. Others were christened Daisy and Moonshadow.

“Very gently, Iris, very gently,” Green instructed her youngest. Then later “Iris, I don’t want you to pick one up without my help, OK?”

Ollie defended their chick-handling abilities: “We did go to farm camp,” he said.

Green noted some of the chicks were “stressed out,” and advised her children to slow down on naming them because they might not be able to recognize the named chicks in a few days. “Don’t, don’t get too attached yet,”she said. “It’s really hard to tell them apart for a while.”

Green buys her chicks in March so they will be laying by fall. The hatchery ships the chicks out the day they hatch, without food or water. Just before hatching, newborn chicks absorb any remaining yolk, which nourishes and sustains them en route, Green explained.

Green’s family started raising chickens five years ago, when they lived in Pownal. Her husband, David Milliken, built the coop that has moved with them a couple of times. It usually houses about 15 chickens that provide the family with three to four dozen eggs a week. They re-order chicks every two years. This year, instead of a mix of breeds, Green went for just two – Black Australorps and Easter Eggers, so named because they lay green and blue eggs.

“I like my chickens to look pretty,” Green said, laughing. “I found I like dealing with them a lot more if they’re lovely looking, and we had some breeds that were good layers but God, they were just so ugly.”

Green feeds her chickens organic feed, and said it would probably be cheaper – and a lot easier – just to buy eggs from a store or farmers market.

“It’s constant work,” she said. “There’s a lot of tending. And chickens are dirty. They’re gross. There’s a lot of poop. You have to work hard to keep your coop from being dirty.”

You also have to worry about predators. Chickens are at the bottom of the food chain and “not that smart,” Green says, so they are, well, sitting ducks. When Green’s family lived in South Portland, they lost their entire flock to skunks and foxes.

But there are also rewards – beyond eggs. She mentions tick control, then adds, “We love them, and I really love the connection to them.”

Meanwhile, while Green fetches food for the chicks, more of the little fluff balls are getting names.

“Can we hold one, mama?” Violet asks. “Mama, can we hold one?”

Correction: This story was updated at 1:45 p.m. on March 29 to correct an inaccurate description of the chicks’ development.

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

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