WATERVILLE — Heather Merrow scattered shredded cabbage on the ground and her chickens came, clucking.

They snapped up the cabbage in their beaks, strutted around and waited for the next treat she dispersed: cooked rice.

“We’ve had no issues whatsoever with our chickens,” said Merrow, 46. “No noise issues, and I mean, they’re healthy chickens. They’re cute to watch and they’re friendly.”

Her husband, Ralph, 48, concurs.

“They love scraps,” he said. “They’ll eat just about everything.”

That was Thursday as the couple gave a tour of their backyard pen and chicken coop off Autumn Street in the city’s South End. They have five chickens — two white and three red.

“The white ones are Thelma and Louise and the red ones are Fran and Rose and Georgette,” Heather said. “One of our chickens, Blanche, died.”

The Merrows bought their chickens on March 22 — Heather’s birthday — at Tractor Supply for $2.39 each, they said. They were 1 day old and they lived in the Merrows’ house until April.

That was long before city councilors voted — last Tuesday, in fact — to allow people in the city’s residential zone to have up to six laying hens, under certain conditions.

The couple is not concerned that they housed chickens prior to the city’s approval. At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, Heather Merrow admitted to “harboring illegal chickens,” when Councilor John O’Donnell, D-Ward 5, said he was told she had them.

The Merrows said they now plan to apply for a permit from the city for housing chickens; the process requires a henhouse inspection by Code Enforcement Officer Garth Collins, for a $25 fee.

Heather Merrow, a certified nurse’s aide, co-chairwoman of the South End Neighborhood Association and vice president of the Board of Directors of the Kennebec Valley Community Action Program, said she had long wanted to have chickens at her Autumn Street home.

She grew up on a small farm in Monticello — a town north of Houlton — where her family had hens, pigs, a pony and other animals.

She decided to buy the chicks on her birthday this year, despite the city’s rule against housing them anywhere except in the rural residential zone. She and her husband figured the state would allow them to have chickens under a rule called “Maine Right to Farm,” but they recently learned that if they make less than $2,000 from their chicken operation, they do not qualify.

“The city doesn’t allow us to sell the eggs, so that’s counterproductive,” said Ralph Merrow, who works for Prizm Painting and is Scoutmaster of a Boy Scout troop.

The couple enjoys having fresh eggs, they said. The hens lay a total of about five eggs a day, and the Merrows give most of them away, to co-workers, neighbors and family members.

The eggs taste much different from those available in stores, Heather Merrow said, “and they’re a fluffier egg than store-bought eggs.”

Hen investment

Start-up costs for housing chickens are significant, but the Merrows say they will recoup their costs in the number of eggs they will garner.

Their hens are housed in a coop Ralph made, for a cost of about $500.

The coop is framed in wood and has chicken wire for walls except for a walled-in shelf where the chickens roost and lay their eggs on a bed of wood shavings.

The Merrows have motion lights and a security camera to help protect their coop.

“You can’t get onto my property without my knowing,” Ralph Merrow said.

Ralph built a removable wall that allows Heather to clean the wood shavings easily once a week; he also built a tiny door outside the coop that Heather opens to reach in and remove the eggs. Both that door and the door to the coop itself are locked.

“This is a basic henhouse design you can get off of any of the chicken websites, and it’s in all the chicken magazines, and I modified it to do what I wanted it to do,” Ralph said.

The spacious pen around the henhouse is lined with trees on two sides and the back wall of the house on a third. It is neatly kept and clean.

‘It’s a commitment’

The hens scratch and peck at the ground, looking for worms and bugs. They make little squawking sounds and follow Heather Merrow around as she talks to them.

Wearing pink and brown rubber boots and a T-shirt that says “Will Trade Husband for Tractor,” Heather said she feels more confident eating eggs that are fresh.

“My chickens are clean, and I know where my chickens have been,” she said. “I recommend people have chickens if they take care of them. It’s a commitment. It’s not the same as taking care of a dog.

“With chickens, you have to clean the coop, you have to make sure they have food and water, and the eggs have to be collected every day. With a dog, you can tie him outside and say, ‘Here’s your bowl of food, here’s your bowl of water — you’re good for the day.'”

The Merrows feed their chickens grain pellets, in addition to people food.

“I feed them carrots, cabbage, apples, rice,” Heather says. “They’ll even eat chicken, too. Isn’t that nasty?”

Amy Calder — 861-9247
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