As the morning sun peeks over the rolling Hayward hills, Anne Kenney is already busy tending to her "girls." For the flock of fourteen rescued chickens, Kenney's predator-proof backyard is a slice of free-range paradise. To Kenney, a fifty-year-old aspiring pastry chef, the chickens are her enduring companions.
Two years ago, Kenney started rescuing unwanted chickens from her neighbors and Craigslist. As a newly unemployed teacher, she decided to refocus her energies to stay positive in spite of an uncertain career path.
Most recently, she adopted two Leghorn hens that nearly starved to death earlier this year at A&L Poultry, an abandoned egg facility near Turlock, California. The hens now dine on a varied, colorful array of feedstuffs, including brown rice, blueberries, romaine lettuce, and organic chicken crumble.
"I know each one's voice," Kenney said. "Chickens keep me connected. They give my life purpose. "
Faced with the daunting task of finding employment, Kenney said the chickens have helped her cope with depression. When she started adopting chickens, "it went from the worst time of my life to all of a sudden the best time of my life," she said.
From two-pound Bantams and mid-size Frizzle Cochins to ten-pound Jersey Giants, chickens are now welcomed in as feathered "Fidos" in many Bay Area households. A growing number of chicken keepers are moving away from the conventional feedstore and breeder sources in favor of adopting cluckers as companion animals.
With a quick online search, it's easy to find chickens in need of rescue. Local humane societies, municipal animal shelters, and rescue organizations like Vacaville's Animal Place Rescue Ranch routinely offer chickens up for adoption. PetFinder.com, a popular online animal adoption network, also lists chickens.
Aspiring chicken "parents" should know a few important points about bird care before adoption. Caregivers should be mindful of local zoning laws. Some municipalities limit or prohibit residents from having chickens, especially roosters. A city's municipal code is available online for review. The City of Alameda caps the limit on pet chickens at six. Oakland residents may care for hens as pets; however, roosters are prohibited within city limits. A twenty-foot buffer must be in place between a bird's living space and any human dwelling in both Alameda and Oakland. Chickens may also be adopted as pets in Berkeley with a 25-foot buffer zone in place.
In daylight, chickens enjoy spacious yet protected outdoor accommodations, as these domestic birds love to forage, dustbathe, and sunbathe. At night, it's essential for chickens to be provided with a secure, comfortable enclosure to safeguard them against predators, such as raccoons, coyotes, owls, and hawks. Caregivers should also be mindful to keep dogs and cats separated from chickens.
Lori Huneke, who adopted a small group of hens from the Marin Humane Society in March, said it's important to maintain a regular cleaning schedule for the chickens' indoor and outdoor living spaces.
Chicken manure is known for its foul odor. "Chickens are really cool pets," said Huneke, a mother of two children who lives in Pleasanton. "People don't realize that. But, you have to be on top of cleaning up after them. It's been a seriously amazing experience for my kids. Caring for the chickens teaches them responsibility. They also experience the life cycle of an animal."
The physical well-being of a companion bird also plays a central role in the overall care of chickens. Oakley's Medical Center for Birds and San Francisco's Bay Area Bird Hospital are popular avian-care destinations for sick and injured chickens.
"The vet bills are the same as if you brought your dog or cat to the vet," cautioned Karen Cunningham of Brisbane. "It can be expensive if your chickens get sick." Cunningham, who works from home, shares her home and garden with five rescued hens.
Rachel Stamps, a retired veterinary nurse with avian care experience, stressed the importance of proper nutrition, vaccination, and parasite prevention for companion chickens. She recommends identifying a local veterinarian who is skilled in treating chickens. With ideal care, chickens can live for more than ten years.
A longtime Livermore resident, Stamps encourages newcomer chicken adopters to befriend a person who already has chickens for advice and ideas. In addition, she said, farm animal rescue organizations offer free educational materials on the topic of humane chicken care.
The intelligence of chickens is often understated. In fact, scientific studies have shown that chickens can anticipate the future, grasp cause-and-effect relations, and maintain self-control.
Chickens can also sound off at least thirty distinct vocalizations, which is music to Stamps' ears. "It's very calming just listening to chickens," said Stamps, who has rescued and rehabilitated several injured hens and roosters from local backyards farms in recent years.
At dusk, Kenney oversees the evening procession of her menagerie of rescued chickens in to their secure birdhouse. This daily activity is a therapeutic routine for Kenney and a thoughtful safe precaution for her lucky hens.
"Chickens are sentient beings, just like dogs and cats," she concludes. "This experience with hens completely changed my life. These rescued hens saved me."