Backyard chickens seem to be popular now, and we’ve been getting quite a few calls and emails at Cooperative Extension about raising chickens. We don’t have anyone here in the LA office with poultry expertise, so I checked in with our UC Extension poultry specialist at UC Davis, Dr. Francine Bradley. She gave me the scoop and some helpful resources for folks who want to raise backyard chickens.
Dr. Bradley has also noticed the increased interest in backyard chicken-keeping throughout the state. She said that people who contact her tend to fall into four distinct groups of backyard chicken enthusiasts.
1. Fanciers, who raise chickens competitively
2. 4-H members
3. People who want to save money through backyard egg production
4. A growing number of people who keep a few hens as pets. They often don’t care whether their hens lay eggs or not. (Dr. Bradley noted that this group often refers to their hens as “the girls.”)
For anyone who wants to try backyard chickens, or currently has some, here are helpful pointers from Dr. Bradley.
Potential chicken owners should check their city’s zoning laws for livestock, specifically chickens. This information can be found on city planning department web sites or by calling the zoning department. (Laws vary by municipality but many cities in Los Angeles County allow residents to keep a small number of hens, and require that they be kept a minimum of 20 feet from the owner’s residence and 35 from any neighboring residences. Laws around keeping roosters tend to be more restrictive.)
Dr. Bradley remarked that even more important than checking the zoning laws is talking with your neighbors. “Be respectful of your neighbors. Talk to them first before getting the chickens,” she said. “If neighbors feel like they’ve bought into the idea, they will be much more supportive and less likely to call the city with complaints”. She suggested that chicken owners be careful about when they let the chickens out in the morning, so that their clucking does not annoy the neighbors, and also share some eggs to build goodwill. (I would also suggest that urban residents forgo owning roosters if they want to maintain good relationships with neighbors, because roosters are truly noisy, and may crow day and night).
New chicken owners tend to make three critical mistakes, according to Dr. Bradley, in the areas of housing, nutrition and veterinary care. But these mistakes are easy to avoid.
First, “People often have the misconception that it’s best for the chickens to run around the yard,” said Dr. Bradley. However, due to urban predators, including coyotes, feral cats, raptors and other wildlife, chickens should be kept in a coop with wire sides, and a solid top which keeps out droppings from wild birds, whose droppings can spread diseases to domestic birds. If chicken owners want to take a few members of the flock out to run around the yard for a while, they should stay outside with their chickens to keep an eye on them.
Second, she hears of people feeding their chickens all kinds of odd things, from cat food to organic polenta. Owners should purchase chicken feed, which is made specifically for chickens, at a feed store. Also, don’t bother buying chicken scratch. It’s the equivalent of chicken junk food.
Third, plan to provide appropriate veterinary care for chickens. “Many people tell me “Oh, it’s just a chicken, I’m not going to take it to the vet”,” said Dr. Bradley. “I take exception to that. If you are going to own an animal, you need to accept the responsibility of providing care if it is sick.” Unfortunately, according to Dr. Bradley, there is only one vet in the greater Los Angeles area who regularly treats backyard chickens. His name is Dr. Marion Hammarlund. He is located in Riverside and can be reached at 951-687-2373. In addition to in-office visits, he will provide telephone consultations for a reasonable fee.
There is another option if a chicken dies. Its owner can then take it to the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory in San Bernardino. The lab will do a free postmortem analysis on a chicken carcass, and send the owner a report. This information can then help to save the rest of the flock. If a chicken dies, the owner should double-bag the carcass in plastic and keep it cool, but not frozen. The San Bernardino lab is open Monday-Friday, from 8 am to 5 pm, and an appointment not necessary. A courier service is available, for a fee, if it is too far or inconvenient to drive to San Bernardino. The lab’s phone number is 909-383-4287. More information about the lab and location are available at http://cahfs.ucdavis.edu/show.php?id=104#sb
. Dr. Bradley suggests that chicken owners could have the lab fax their report to Dr. Hammarlund, who can then help them to interpret the report.
Best of luck with “the girls”!