A local look at personality-rich fowl play in the backyard.
Thursday, June 3, 2010
“Harley! Frida! Freya!”
Three hens nudge their way out from under a tree in the corner of the Pacific Grove yard and hustle over like three busybodies anticipating the latest gossip. Overjoyed to find that the news is bite-sized pieces of tortilla, the black and shiny Harley smashes his face against his owner’s hand relentlessly. But the light-colored Frida has to be offered a morsel several times before she will accept it.
“The blonde is more wild, but she’s really stupid when it comes to realizing ‘These people are feeding me,’” says the chickens’ owner, who asked to remain anonymous because she’s worried about backyard chicken laws in her politically contentious town.
In addition to tortillas, rice, bread, vegetable scraps and other leftovers all get tossed into the small, well-fenced yard. Every bit of the mess disappears in less than an hour – along with any weeds or garden vegetables that might have been growing in the soil beneath it.
This hen-keeper doesn’t know the laws, and she doesn’t want to. She just wants to keep her birds. As it turns out, the regulations vary so much across Monterey County that it’s hard to keep things straight: Salinas and Carmel don’t allow chickens at all in residential areas, but in Seaside only roosters are prohibited, and in Monterey you may raise up to four chickens regardless of their gender. In P.G., would-be coop keepers must apply for a permit.
Legal issues certainly don’t seem to be stopping people from keeping backyard birds, judging by the scope of sites like www.mypetchicken.com, which offers an extensive collection of e-books and a broad array of products from live chicks to chicken diapers, and www.backyardchickens.com, which runs a chicken forum with thousands of members, 743 of whom were online when I visited.
Over in Castroville, whole neighborhoods crawl with roosters. “We have a symphony going on,” says painter Andrew Jackson, who owns a rooster and a few hens, as do several neighbors.
“CHICKENS AREN’T AS STUPID AS YOU THINK.”
Like many, Jackson didn’t intend to keep a rooster. He received the chick from local musician Steve Gardner, who had already christened it Tosca, the name of a female character in opera. But Tosca turned out to be, in the words of Jackson, “a total cock.” That is to say, “He’s a pain in the ass. He attacks everybody. He can jump four feet and spread his talons out and scratch you.”
But there’s a certain fondness in Jackson’s voice. Referring to himself as a “good chicken daddy,” he describes how he watches over his little flock, making sure they don’t get swooped up by the neighborhood eagles. When he senses they are in danger, he pretends he’s an eagle himself and chases his them back to their coop.
And roosters are nice to have around if you want chicks; Jackson is currently letting two hens, Tigre and Bunny, sit on a few eggs, just “to see what happens.”
Our anonymous keeper has discovered a strategy to get chicks without a rooster, however. Since she noticed that Speckles was in a brooding mood, she ordered fertile eggs. Even though they aren’t her own, Speckles sits on them around the clock. “The mothers are protective,” her caretaker says. “Speckles was kind of second-in-command, but now she’s just mean to everyone.”
Whether or not they end up getting chicks, however, both these chicken-keepers are quite happy with their steady supply of high-quality eggs.
“At first, my son wouldn’t eat them because they were so orange,” says the urban hen-keeper. “But then he realized how delicious they are. It’s like that’s the way they’re supposed to be.”
Both poultry people rely on Carmel Valley’s Hacienda Hay and Feed for supplies. In addition to many varieties of chicken feed and medication, Hacienda sells chicks in a variety of breeds from February through October. The chicks come pre-sorted female from the hatcheries, but, according to employee Chris Olow, about two or three in every 100 will still turn out to be males.
Frustrated customers, or people tired of putting up with a rooster, periodically dump roosters over the fence onto Hacienda’s property; there are now about 12 running around the yard, adding to the store’s funky charm. But just as Jackson seems rather fond of cocky Tosca, Olow doesn’t seem to mind. From backyard to feed yard, there seems to be a lot of chicken charisma at work.
“Chickens aren’t as cuddly as dogs, but they’re not as stupid as you think,” the anonymous featherhead says.
In fact, Jackson adds, they radiate personality. “Whenever I want a totally hilarious laugh,” he says, “I go and hang out with the chickens.”