Happy Hens, Happy Family

Backyard Chicken Coops Come to Alameda

    I started a new ritual last fall. Every morning, after I drop the kids at school and take the dog for a walk, I make myself a cup of hot coffee and head out to the tiny chicken coop in our backyard. When I open the door, three of our resident hens—Henrietta, Joy and Gertrude—squawk loudly and dash out into the yard, where they flap their wings maniacally and run around in large circles, until at last they settle down to pecking peacefully at the ground. But Buff—who has a malformed beak and so has been pampered more than your average chicken—jogs impatiently at my feet, crooning, bawking, peering up at me and generally begging for treats, compliments and a little snuggling time.
    So I comply. Yes, I pull up an old stool, sit down and wait for Buff to leap into my lap for pats and conversation. (Clarification: I pat and talk; she coos and tries, occasionally, to peck at my teeth with her beak.) But as I watch the songbirds in the bushes, the bees in the flowers and the other hens waddling across the grass, I confess I enjoy a few moments of perfect peace before diving into my hectic day as a working mom.
    Now, I may be the only lady in Alameda who cozies up to a crooked-beak chicken. But I’m definitely not the only one with chickens here. A rough survey of Island residents turned up word of at least two-dozen chicken-raisers here—from people living in rented houses on the base to the owners of lovely Victorians in the East End. One might even say it’s a trend—one that reflects a national movement toward greener, more sustainable living and an increased emphasis on the importance of locally produced food.
    “Over the years I’ve become increasingly aware of how our food-production systems are messing up our bodies and our environment,” says Betsy Weiss, who lives with six hens near Encinal Hardware. “So I keep egg-laying chickens because it’s not just good for my family. It’s good for the planet.”

Counting the Ways

    In our urbanized, suburbanized world, keeping chickens seems like a relic of the past. But these days, people come to chickens for all sorts of reasons, including:
    Healthy eggs: Factory-farmed “layers” are given antibiotics and often exposed to insecticides sprayed in the giant warehouses in which they’re raised. Eggs from backyard chickens contain fewer of those chemicals—especially if the chickens are given organic feed and table scraps. “We see our chickens as working animals,” says Erin Barrett, who with husband Jack Mingo took on six hens about two years ago, while she was working on a degree in culture, ecology and sustainable living at New College of California. “They’re not pets. They’re a source of food for us.”
    Besides, eggs from backyard chickens taste better. “After working as a short-order chef, I pretty much stopped eating eggs until we had our own backyard chicken eggs,” says Margy Kirwin, a massage therapist and pastry chef on the Island. “Now I only eat those. And when I make desserts for home, I only use our own eggs, because the color is better, the texture is better and they taste creamier than any egg you could buy from the store.”
    Backyard eggs even look better—two of our hens lay eggs with lovely greenish-blue shells, a feat that makes every day seem like
Easter at our house.
    Healthy chickens: Recent news reports have highlighted the ways in which factory-farmed chickens suffer. They’re crowded into cages so small they can’t walk, preen themselves or even spread their wings; they’re debeaked so they can’t peck each other; and they are forced to lay so many eggs, they develop brittle bones that easily break.
    That sort of thing matters to my husband and me—the fact that our own chickens live in roomy quarters yet can run free in the garden, snooze in the sunshine and take dust baths whenever they want appeals deeply to us. Happy hens, we think, make a happy family.
Healthy gardens: Nitrogen-rich chicken manure is famously good for plants. “When we plan a garden, we allow the chickens to free-range throughout the entire yard for weeks before hand,” Barrett says. “At other times, we put all the poop [from the coop] into the compost, which we also use for the garden beds.” What may look like mushy, stinky bird poop to one person, in other words, looks like next year’s crop of fabulous tomatoes to another—and it’s all done without using chemical fertilizers that eventually would wind up in San Francisco Bay.
    Chickens also help gardens by eating just the kind of bugs we don’t want: grubs, snails, slugs and earwigs. As such, some chickens are neighborhood resources. “I used to worry when my hens would go to the neighbors’ houses,” says Steve Anderson, a real estate agent with Kane Associates who lives with five chickens in his Craftsman house on the East End. “But it turns out the neighbors like the hens because they eat up all the snails.”

The Rules

    Of course, one of the first questions people ask when they see our chickens is, “Are they legal?” They are—within limits. The city’s municipal code allows Alamedans to have no more than six chickens (or ducks or geese) within city limits, and their enclosure has to be at least 20 feet from any neighbor’s dwelling. (Horse enclosures, for those of you with a strong aggie leaning, have to be 40 feet from a dwelling; pig pens have to be 300 feet from a dwelling.)
    There is no specific rule against roosters in Alameda, but it’s widely understood that you can’t keep a rooster here, due to their potential for disturbing the peace (i.e., sleep) of neighbors. This is no minor matter. We got our original chicks from my son’s kindergarten classroom, unsure what their gender actually was. When little Monkey belted out his first cock-a-doodle one morning in July, I heard it all the way down the block—and he was inside when he started. Getting rid of roosters is notoriously difficult in the Bay Area (we sent our own cockerels to far-flung farms), so many people choose to buy instead two-day old “sexed” chicks, which reduces the risk of ending up with roosters in towns that don’t allow them.

What You Need

    The supplies for chickens are blessedly simple. If you get chicks, (and egg-laying breeds generally cost between $2 and $4
a piece), you need a big box (or cage, animal carrier or tub) and a heat lamp, which will serve as your “brooder box.” That’s step one.
    Once your chicks grow in their grown-up (i.e., “smooth”) feathers, you’ll need an outdoor coop for them. Conventional wisdom calls for 10 square feet per bird in the coop, but chickens that get to run around the yard during the day can get by on a little less. Regardless of their free-ranging opportunities, all chickens need poultry feeders, waterers and nesting boxes (where they’ll lay the eggs)—and a good supply of chicken food (see resources information below).
    You’ll also need a sense of humor and some tolerance for chaos. Having been raised in a box in our living room, for instance, three of our hens regularly strut into the living room via the backdoor, seemingly thinking home is where the people and nice rugs are. We always kick them out, but we’ve noticed that some visitors aren’t as amused by the spectacle as we are. Indeed, most urban chicken-raisers have an offbeat side. Erin Barrett and Jack Mingo, for instance, are writers and editors who also keep bees in their yard and drive bio-diesel vehicles. Steve Anderson is a Harley-riding, poker-playing real estate agent. Margy Kirwin is a baker-turned-massage therapist and yogi. Betsy Weiss is a public school teacher and a co-owner of the Yoga Station. If you’re a bird of that kind of feather, you might really enjoy some poultry in the backyard.
—By Susan E. Davis
—Photography by Lewis Smith


    Yep, we’re smack dab in the middle of the Bay Area, but chicken supplies and information are readily accessible.
    Keep Chickens! Tending Small Flocks in Cities, Suburbs, and other Small Spaces by Barbara Kilarski.
    Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens: Care, Feeding, Facilities by Gail Damerow.
Web Sites Contains a wealth of information (including bulletin boards) on hatching, raising and tending backyard chickens.
    Alamo Feed & Grain, 3196 Danville Blvd., Alamo, (925) 837-4994. Carries conventional and organic feeds, as well as waterers, feeders, straw and baby chicks (in season).
    Concord Feed, 228 Hookston Road, Pleasant Hill, (925) 940-1200. Carries feed, plus waterers, feeders, straw and baby chicks (in season).
    RabbitEars, 303 Arlington Ave., Kensington, (510) 525-6155. Carries conventional and organic feeds.

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