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By Cathy Kirkman

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About this blog: This blog explores life in Palo Alto with our dogs, cats and other pets, as well as the urban wildlife around us, the title being a reference to Sharon Creech?s lovely story, "Love That Dog." I grew up in Palo Alto surrounded by ...  (More)

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Backyard Farmer: It's time to start thinking about chickens

Uploaded: Jan 31, 2014
This post is part of an occasional series that explores what people are doing in their backyards for green living. You know that it's time to think about chickens when the poultry and farm catalogs start arriving in the mail, along with all of the gardening catalogs. Urban chickens are popular these days, because they contribute to sustainable living, enrich your garden, and enhance backyard living, especially for kids. And fresh eggs really do taste better; it's "living offa the fatta the lan'" here in California, as
Lennie Small dreamed. So if you're thinking about getting a few chickens, where to begin? A few suggestions:

Deciding what to get is the really fun part, so let's start with that. First, you will want hens, no roosters -- not allowed in the city, too noisy. Think twice about hatching eggs, because you are likely to end up with some roosters. Second, consider whether you want to raise baby chicks (super cute), start with pullets (juvenile hens) or find some mature laying hens. Chickens start laying around 5-6 months of age, to gauge when to expect your first eggs. If you get baby chicks, they need to be kept inside and quite warm for a good while, so make sure you know what you're doing and get the proper set-up. Backyardchickens.com is a great source for all types of questions about keeping chickens. Also Books Inc. in Town & Country has a shelf of chicken-keeping books for newbies.

McMurray Hatchery is a well-known source for chickens for the last 50+ years at least, and they seem to have every model of designer chicken and other fowl available. Once you see all the breeds and the range of colors, feather crests, combs, etc., you will be truly amazed. In selecting breeds, ask yourself, do you want reliable layers of large eggs, like Rhode Island Reds, or fancy chickens like crested Polish that are just nice to have around, or some Araucanas that lay smaller, lightly colored eggs, or some combination? McMurray sends your chicks in a package with a heated floor that keeps them safe during transit. I have read online that some groups are against hatcheries, because they don't keep the baby roosters. This seems like an age-old issue with keeping chickens in general, in terms of not needing an equal supply of roosters, so I really don't know what the answer is on that.

If you don't want to order your chickens online, consider going to a feed store. We have a country house out in Modesto where we keep animals, so all I have to do is head over to JS West feed store downtown and have fun looking at what's in stock, which is usually a mix of chicks and juvenile birds. Out in the Valley, don't be surprised if they toss your chicks in a paper bag, cutting holes in it for air, so be prepared with a box or something. Similarly, Half Moon Bay Feed & Fuel has chicks and supplies year-round. And Pet Food Depot right here in Palo Alto (over by Fry's) sells 50 pound bags of chicken feed at a fair price.

Another idea, especially if you have children, is to go to a spring poultry show. You can see all the breeds and meet the junior show kids and their parents for some advice on how to get started. You should also be able to buy chickens there. According to The Urban Chicken Podcast (!), on February 15th, the Greater California Society of Poultry Fanciers is having its Greater California Show at the Fresno Fairgrounds, and on March 17, the Stanislaus County Youth Poultry Show will be held in Turlock. Or wait until the summer, for our local county fairs or the state fair in Sacramento.

Also, you could look to see if any hens are available for adoption. Farmsanctuary.org has listings for available chickens in California that need homes, although many are roosters. I'm sure there are other networks out there; if anyone has information on that please share.

And of course, you will need a chicken coop, which can be as simple or extravagant as your taste and budget allow. Check out the coops that were part of the Silicon Valley Tour de Coop for ideas. The Tour de Coop has taken place in September for the last two years, modeled on the Tour de Cluck out in Davis, and hopefully it will continue this year as well.

The simple route is to build a basic wood structure or repurpose a dog house or garden shed. The chickens will need a quiet spot to lay, which can be a laying box or other small enclosure. And they will need a place to roost at night, because it's in their nature to sleep above the ground. It should be covered, as they would rather sleep in the pouring rain atop a roost than go inside and be dry in a low shelter, go figure. You will want to enclose your coop, either with a pre-fab design, or the old-fashioned way with chicken wire.

You will want to make sure you situate your coop where it won't bother your neighbors, and socialize your plans with them so they are okay with it -- hopefully they will like the idea of fresh eggs! Different places have different rules about keeping chickens, and Backyardchickens.com has information on California ordinances, including Palo Alto and surrounding areas. In terms of chores, you will need to clean your coop, white-wash it, and keep the straw fresh. At the end of the day, being a good neighbor is the same thing as being a good chicken ambassador.

Experience with animals is a great learning opportunity for kids. Ohlone elementary has a mini-farm as part of their learning environment, while other schools such as Escondido have had chickens, rabbits and gardens, not sure if they're still there now. If your kids have an interest in 4-H, Santa Clara county 4-H clubs meet in Cupertino, and San Mateo county 4-H clubs meet nearby in Redwood City.

A few thoughts in closing. Try to position your coop where you can see it out your back window. There's a lot going on out there, in terms of flock dynamics and bird personalities, which is fun to watch. For example, pecking orders do exist, and birds of a feather do flock together, although once we had a same-sex couple, two broody hens who hatched and raised a duckling together. His name was Chuck, Ch(icken) + (D)uck.

Also save kitchen scraps for them like apple cores, stale bread and lettuce. They will race over to see you when they learn that you come bearing gifts, and this practice reduces food waste in your household. Plant a victory garden to make use of the soil enrichments that you now have available, and every now and then let the girls out to eat bugs around your yard.

As William Carlos Williams said, so much depends on that red wheel barrow, beside the white chickens.


Posted by Hmmm, a resident of East Palo Alto,
on Jan 31, 2014 at 1:42 pm

Hmmm is a registered user.

PSA: Please don't dump your hens when they're too old to lay eggs. It's a lousy thing to do!

Posted by Cathy Kirkman, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Jan 31, 2014 at 1:50 pm

Cathy Kirkman is a registered user.

Dear Hmmm,

Thanks for sharing -- I had not heard of that practice. That's really sad, and while it goes without saying, I really appreciate your saying it!

Also I see that you're registered in East Palo Alto, which has such an amazing agrarian history dating back to its beginnings as Ravenswood. I believe some people still keep horses?


Posted by Michele Dauber, a resident of Barron Park,
on Feb 2, 2014 at 11:07 pm

Hi Cathy: great post. We have chickens. Two thoughts. First, you don't mention permit requirements. In Palo Alto, you can have up to 6 hens (no roos) but have to have a permit from animal control. There are restrictions on how close your coop can be to your neighbor's property line (basically you have to be more than 25 feet from the property line or you need their written consent) to get the permit. This can be a very uncomfortable situation for people who fail to ask ahead of time. Most neighbors are fine, especially if you share your eggs, but you don't want to get a pet for your child and find out the hard way that you can't keep it.

Second, you can give away your extra eggs (4 hens will give you 4 eggs a day so unless you want to have a heart attack you can't eat them all) to Neighbors Helping Neighbors in Palo Alto. They will give you egg washing instructions, extra cartons, and come pick up the eggs for distribution to the needy.

Posted by Cathy Kirkman, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Feb 3, 2014 at 9:03 am

Cathy Kirkman is a registered user.

Hi Michele,

Thanks for commenting and clarifying the ordinance. Also donating eggs is a wonderful idea. The other thing I didn't mention is that Common Ground, over on College Avenue, has had classes on backyard chickens, in addition to its gardening, composting, and other classes.


Posted by Hmmm, a resident of East Palo Alto,
on Feb 3, 2014 at 11:15 am

Hmmm is a registered user.

Hi Cathy,

Yes, some people in E. Palo Alto still have horses. Historically, there has been an active BAlack Cowboy Association here, but I don't know its current status.

There are also chickens, which is also a strong part of our agricultural history. The HQ for Collective Roots (a local food justice nonprofit) has a lot of chickens at their location, and may even have an original coop that was built with the old house that is their office. I may be mistaken, but my guess is that their place is one of the original urban chicken farms that Charles Weeks started. Here's a story from The Weekly that you might enjoy, if you haven't read it:

Web Link

And yes, currently, hipster urban chicken owners are dumping older hens, which is really sad. The chickens we grew up with were beloved pets as well as egg layers, so we never dumped them!

Posted by Midtown, a resident of Midtown,
on Feb 3, 2014 at 1:23 pm

My grandparents raised about 50 chickens for eggs and meat. When the birds got too old to produce the birds were butchered for meat. They felt it was important for me to participate in this. One never again looks at chicken in the supermarket quite the same way after participating in this exercise.

Posted by Cathy Kirkman, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Feb 3, 2014 at 1:57 pm

Cathy Kirkman is a registered user.

Dear Hmmm,

Thanks much for the info --I will have to go by Collective Roots and check it out!

Dear Midtown,

I think we all would have a different perspective if we lived closer to the land like that, and perhaps more of us would end up vegan as a result. At least your grandparents' chickens were not factory farmed, as those industrial practices are downright wretched. I think Mark Zuckerberg said he was only going to eat meat that he butchered himself, so maybe that's the new trend, as people try to eat lower down the food chain.


Posted by Power of One, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Feb 5, 2014 at 9:26 am

I never looked at hens the same after reading Bryce Courtenay's 1989 novel "Power of One." It's a great book and one of the lead characters is a hen.

Posted by Cathy Kirkman, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Feb 5, 2014 at 8:10 pm

Cathy Kirkman is a registered user.

Dear Power of One,

Sounds like an interesting read, I'll have to check it out. I have known some hens that we called the "mean girls" for how they treated their peers (actually technically not peers, since lower on the pecking order), and some low-key ones that are just nice to have around. It's also interesting to watch them grow up and see how they tend to stick with their cliques, etc.


Posted by Keri Wagner, a resident of Charleston Meadows,
on Feb 7, 2014 at 10:32 am

Kathy, yes there is a ranch with horses in East Palo Alto, called Ravenswood Ranch on Weeks Street. Clif is the resident cowboy and owner.

Posted by Cathy Kirkman, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Feb 7, 2014 at 11:13 am

Cathy Kirkman is a registered user.

Dear Keri,

Thanks for the info, that is really cool, and how lucky to be able to keep horses in town! I will have to go by there.


Posted by Hmmm, a resident of East Palo Alto,
on Feb 7, 2014 at 12:21 pm

Hmmm is a registered user.

Hi Cathy,

Yes - the term "hen pecked" has a history!

I think the E. Palo Alto cowboy may allow tours of/people could check out his place, as he used to do so.

Here is the website for Collective Roots: Web Link
Their flagship garden is not far from the cowboy's, but their hens are at their HQ on the west side.

Posted by Jon B, a resident of Barron Park,
on Feb 7, 2014 at 12:25 pm

I urge anyone considering having chickens to consider a couple things:
1. Your neighbors. My neighbor built a chicken coop right on the fence line so that I had the joy of hearing them cluck and fight every morning at 0500. And did you know that most hens squawk after they lay an egg- long and loudly? Not to mention the flies, rodents (attracted to the feed) and smell. The neighbor\'s coop has since been moved to irritate someone else :)happy dance:)
2. Roosters. Even though the seller guarantees that the chicks are 95% hens, you are very likely to get a rooster. Nobody wants a rooster (see #1) and the shelters have taken in their share. If you are not prepared to let them loose to torment the neighborhood, are you prepared for a fresh chicken dinner?
3. Coop cost. Crazy. Consider building one yourself, as they don\'t need a palace. I once built one from old pallets.

Don\'t get me wrong, I love chickens and grew up with them. They are fine, in their place- which is usually the country. If you feel the need to do your \'conservation\' part, I recommend growing vegetables.

Posted by Cathy Kirkman, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Feb 7, 2014 at 12:55 pm

Cathy Kirkman is a registered user.

Dear Hmmm,

Thanks for the update. I think I will ask to visit and see if I can take some pictures to share.


Posted by Cathy Kirkman, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Feb 7, 2014 at 1:03 pm

Cathy Kirkman is a registered user.

Dear Jon B.,

Thanks for your comments, and I feel that being a considerate neighbor is the most important thing, whether it is with your dogs, chickens, music, or whatever. Actually there is a strong trend afoot in terms of keeping urban chickens. San Francisco, Seattle and other cities have passed chicken-friendly ordinances. Perhaps I will do a survey in my copious free time -- the urban chicken trend is mostly reflected in post-millenium ordinance updates.


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