Chickens are camped out in more local backyards than you might think, from landscaped swaths in Orinda to tight city lots in Berkeley. One San Leandro feed store sells enough feed to keep some six thousand birds clucking. In Oakland's Fruitvale district, you can hear outlaw roosters crowing at all hours.
Which means, for better or worse, raising a few laying hens in your yard won't make you the neighborhood freak. Still, if you're frustrated that ripping out the front lawn and installing a vegetable garden doesn't brand you a hippie in these parts, chickens just might be your ticket to countercultural cachet.
Mary Johns shares her Piedmont home with a bantam rooster named Wally, "a very undemanding little pet." He sleeps in a chicken-wire enclosure underneath Johns' kitchen island. "During the day he prances back and forth on the deck," she says, and although the unusual indoor coop requires frequent cleaning, she says the setup has been very successful. When her teenage daughter brings friends home, they go gaga for affable Wally.
Chickens have distinct personalities unwelcome news, perhaps, for those who enjoy them primarily at KFC and make friendly pets. They won't be sleeping at the foot of your bed, but they will stay endearingly underfoot as you pull weeds or tan in your patio chair. And unlike those freeloading dogs and cats, they pay rent in eggs.
The hens do, anyway; keeping hens for eggs in an urban area is a laid-back affair. Roosters can be a disturbance, so much so that the City of Oakland recently banned them outright. A rooster's crow is loud and proud. Wally is much smaller than standard roosters, but his declarations of self can still be heard ringing out across the canyon behind his home. Johns was worried at first, "being that it's Piedmont," but she's had Wally for two years now without complaint.
Hen noises are much sweeter: the shuffling of leaves as they scratch the soil, the quiet bok-bok-bok of contentment that is their take on purring, the check-in calls back and forth ("Bwaawk! Where you at?"). Best of all is the ecstatic egg celebration, which begins with a string of ascending boks and crescendos to bok-bok-b-CAW! Hearing this announcement and then stepping outside to gather a warm egg will make you feel like God.
You won't need a rooster, by the way. Hens lay regularly, even if there's no guy around to fertilize. Damn fine eggs they are, too. If you keep chickens, you might never order another restaurant omelette. Store-bought eggs will seem pale and runny. Flat and flavorless. A fresh, homegrown egg has spunk. The yolk is orange for real, and the white stays firmly where it lands in the pan.
Saskia Levy-Sheon, thirteen, has grown up alongside a small flock of Barred Plymouth Rock hens, and says the free egg supply is the best part. Her dad decided to add a coop to their Oakland yard five years ago. "He needed someone to talk to," she explains, eyes rolled.
"They're fun to hold, except when they poop on you," says Saskia's nine-year-old sister Sophie, who particularly enjoys hand-feeding slug treats to the birds. Kids are mesmerized by the prodigiousness of these feathery egg machines.
Hens go lay-crazy their first year, possibly threatening your cholesterol count, and then lay gradually fewer eggs each year. Someday, your spring chickens will be old and worn out. Since most urban poultry isn't fated for the stewpot, you may end up caring for them well past their prime laying days. Healthy hens typically live eight to ten years.
Eggs aren't the only perk, anyhow. Gardeners: Imagine a machine that tills soil, turns compost, hunts snails, eats leaf-mined chard, and spews organic fertilizer. What if it came in a cute, feathered package? The best part is, the more weeds, grass, and insects your chickens munch, the healthier they, and your eggs will be. (Recent trials by Mother Earth News showed pastured, homegrown eggs to be vastly higher in omega-3s, beta-carotene, and Vitamin E, and lower in cholesterol, than factory-farmed eggs.)
Of course, chickens also can turn your garden into a graveyard of uprooted seedlings, defoliated callas, and disappeared tomatoes. They need boundaries. Herein lies the art of urban husbandry. You need to strike a balance between security i.e., a raccoon-proof coop humane treatment, and protection of your garden. Maybe at your Petaluma spread you could just fling open the coop each morning and let 'em roam. It doesn't work quite that way in Oakland.
The simplest solution is a fenced run attached to the coop. This will soon become a wasteland, however, a chilling display of the garden's would-be fate. The chickens will rid the run of plant matter and dig out comfy holes in which to take their prized dust baths. For limited access to green foliage, let them out shortly before dusk so they can graze the garden awhile and make their way back to the coop on their own yep, chickens do come home to roost. You may still want to protect vegetable beds and young seedlings. Throwing some leaves or weeds into the coop also provides fresh vegetable matter.
Definitely let your chickens clean up your vegetable beds at the end of the season. Give them a patch of buggy, spent vegetables and tired soil, and they'll scratch and peck and bok contentedly until only freshly turned earth remains. No grubs, no weed seeds. They'll provide the fertilizer and dig it in at no extra charge.
While backyard chickens bring delights, there's also some unpleasantness to be dealt with. There will be manure, which will stink, and if it isn't promptly exiled there will also be flies. If the coop has any potential entry points, grain-robbing rodents will visit. That said, basic maintenance will keep any grossness at bay. (See sidebar, "Tips for Chicks.")
Ready for your chickens? Better start with chicks. But be aware that bringing these little cotton balls into your life is a bit stressful. Most chicks for sale are but a day old and need newborn care. Fortunately, they are only chicks for a second, so this level of commitment won't last long. Their vulnerable fluff quickly disappears, and in six weeks or so, they'll be feathered up and ready for coop life.
Amid the morning clucking, skirmishes over worms, and never-ending attempts to fly the coop, you might breeze right past the fact that you're raising your own food. But one day, when the coop is quiet and the hens have laid, you'll find yourself in a stupefied daze, just thinking about where those eggs really came from.
Tips for Chicks
Pointers for the fledgling urban chicken farmer.
The coop: Provide at least four square feet per bird. Chickens like to sleep on elevated roosts, which can be fashioned from an old broomstick or thick branch. Hens will also need nests for laying any foot-square wooden box will do. Building a coop is a weekend project for toolbelt divas. For the rest of us, there are simple plans online, and even premade coops.
Eggs: Collect daily so they stay fresh.
Food and water: Buy laying feed for hens and chick feed for the tykes. Feed stores also sell nifty feeders and waterers (the hanging kind work great), which should never be empty. Chickens also love food scraps, insects, and weeds from the garden.
Protection: If you let the flock run during the day, always close the coop door before nightfall. Raccoons are clever and ravenous. Skunks, dogs, cats, and even hawks may also harm chickens.
Sanitation: Clean the coop weekly by removing manure and changing bedding. Pet stores sell pine-chip bedding. Straw makes an excellent, inexpensive substitute, but bales can be hard to come by locally and harder to squeeze into a sedan.
Vermin: A rodent-proof coop and regular cleaning are your best defenses against rats and flies. If you have rat problems, set traps and poison bait outside the coop at night. RESCUE! brand outdoor flytraps are effective in catching stray flies, but no substitute for wise manure management.
Picking Up Chicks
Mike's Feed, 710 E 14th St., San Leandro, 510-638-2005.
Western Farm Center, 21 West 7th St., Santa Rosa, 707-545-0721.
Rivertown Feed and Pet Country Store, 200 1st St., Petaluma, 707-762-4504.
McMurray Hatchery, McMurrayHatchery.com
My Pet Chicken, MyPetChicken.com
Organic/nonorganic feed and supplies: Mike's (see above);
Animal Farm, 1531 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, 510-526-2993.
Nonorganic feed only: Pet Club, 3535 Hollis St., Emeryville, 510-595-7955;
Pagano's Hardware, 1100 Lincoln Ave., Alameda, 510-522-1345.
The Chicken Doctor St. Louis Veterinary Clinic, 3545 Fruitvale Ave., Oakland, 510-530-1004.
Gail Damerow, Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens (Storey, $18.95)
Barbara Kilarski, Keep Chickens! Tending Small Flocks in Cities, Suburbs, and Other Small Spaces (Storey, $16.95)
Gail Luttmann and Rick Luttmann, Chickens in Your Backyard: A Beginner's Guide (Rodale, $12.95)
Chicken Keeping: General info, plus hen blog and hencam.
The City Chicken: Coop photos and useful FAQ. Home.centurytel.net/thecitychicken
FeatherSite: A wellspring on breeds and husbandry.
Backyard Chickens: Coop design and helpful Learning Center. BackyardChickens.com
Biosecurity for the Birds: Bird flu info. www.aphis.usda.gov/vs/birdbiosecurity/
Mother Earth News Chicken and Egg Page: Egg nutrition research. MotherEarthNews.com/eggs
Alameda: No more than six chickens or other fowl. Coop must be 20 feet from dwellings and should be kept sanitary to deter vermin.
Berkeley: Coop must be 25 feet from dwellings and maintained so as not to become a breeding ground for flies.
Emeryville: Coop must be 20 feet from dwellings and be kept clean and sanitary.
Lafayette: Coop in backyard only; 60 feet from front property line, 10 feet from any property line, 55 feet from neighbors.
Oakland: Coop must be 20 feet from any dwelling. No roosters.
Orinda: Coop must be 60 feet from front property line, 40 feet from any side or rear property line.
Walnut Creek: Coop must be 100 feet from front property line, 50 feet from any interior lot line, and 15 feet from any side or rear property line.