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By Cathy Kirkman

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. 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. 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 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.