Time was when dawn in Los Altos Hills was heralded each day by an operatic chorus - of roosters. In Los Altos and all over the Peninsula, many homes and farmsteads kept chickens for food and eggs.
Even in recent years when our area's agrarian roots are being supplanted by multimillion-dollar mansions, a surprising number of residents holds tight to their hens, and the occasional rooster.
"It's better than blood pressure medicine," said Rosalind Creasy. "So calming." Creasy, a professional writer and photographer, has been raising chickens in the front yard of her Los Altos home for 15 years.
"I can take my cup of tea and sit on the steps in the coop, and they come and sit on my shoulders," she said. "They want to be with me. They are my buddies."
Most area cities have only minimal restrictions on the number of pets per homeowner, and none prohibits chickens. One small animal is allowed for each 1,000-square feet of lot in Los Altos. Mountain View sanctions four small animals without a permit, more with a permit. There are no restrictions at all in Los Altos Hills.
This is good for chickens but bad for numbers crunchers: There are no statistics available on the backyard - or front yard - poultry population in the area.
The codes do not prohibit the keeping of roosters, but do prohibit annoying the neighbors. While some people find the crowing of roosters at dawn charming, others most definitely do not.
Creasy's fowl adventure began when her husband thought it would be fun to hatch an egg. The egg became a rooster, perhaps not her first choice. Creasy has had Mister X, who closely resembles a Silver Duckwing Araucana, ever since.
Now an imposing and handsome gentleman, Mister X struts during the day, but Creasy scoops him up at night and deposits him in a dog carrier in the garage. That muffles his early-morning wakeup calls.
Mister X shares the yard with a couple of cousins, hens that lay blue eggs, but he is clearly the big draw for the neighborhood kids. "They bring their grandparents, friends and cousins to see the rooster - it's a big deal for kids, more than a dog," Creasy said. "It seems really organic. As if he knows they want him to, he cock-a-doodle-dos when they leave."
Creasy planted sorrel by Mister X's cage near the sidewalk so the kids can come and pick the leaves and feed them to Mister X and his females.
Creasy is a much better chicken farmer than I was. When my daughter was young, we had chickens in Los Altos Hills, and loved them dearly, but made the fatal mistake of letting them stay out of their coop at night. They were all killed by wild predators. We were so heartbroken by their demise that we haven't had chickens since.
But in the course of writing this story, I have remembered that chickens are worth the trouble and possible grief. Of all the things you can do in your yard, it's hard to beat the fun of raising chickens. Chickens are interesting to watch, educational for your children and easier than you would expect. They make wonderful sounds. Plus they provide you with the best-tasting eggs you ever have eaten.
Organic gardening consultant Jody Main, longtime manager of Creasy's garden, has several hens at her Woodside home.
"Raising hens can be very simple and fun if set up properly in the beginning." Main said. "You need two professionals - one to make a safe chicken house and yard, and one, if need be, to take a dying and suffering hen out of its misery. This could be done by a vet or at home. The realities of life are sometimes harsh."
Main's husband, Bill, built her chicken coop with help from son Jonathan. Jody recommends digging a trench 1-foot deep around the edge of the coop site, and putting boards in the trench to form a foundation. Chicken-wire walls can then be staple-gunned to the framework. She also recommends a solid roof.
Main teaches chicken-raising classes at Common Ground in Palo Alto and offers private consultations on setting up a chicken coop.
Main raises Rhode Island Reds, Gold Laced Wyandottes and Bluff Orpingtons. Chickens are integral to Main's oeuvre. "Chickens are a wonderful addition to an organic garden," says her description of the Common Ground class. "They complete the circle. We give them our food scraps and garden greens; they give us eggs and fertilizer; we plant crops - perfect!
"Chickens are wonderful pets that fully participate and contribute to the whole."
The Mains have had chickens for years, building a new coop at each new home, each coop taller than the one before.
"We finally made one tall enough for anyone to walk into without bending over," she said.
This is Main's recipe for happy hens:
• Provide a secure coop, that is, a wooden house for roosting and egg laying and a chicken-wire-enclosed yard. The yard and the house together are the coop.
• Build the coop with enough space for the chickens and for you. A good size for four to six hens is 8Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â½-by-11-foot long, 6Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â½ feet tall. You want to be able to go in easily to clean.
• Provide a five-gallon feeder and a five-gallon water can. These hold enough for a week of winter's use, less in the summer. With this equipment, you can leave the chickens alone for a few days, but have a neighbor check on them.
• Six hens is a good number to start with. If you lose a couple, you still have four, enough to provide a family of four with eggs.
• Use straw for bedding. It keeps everything fresh and is easy to clean out. As a bonus, the straw and chicken droppings combine to form a light, fluffy compost for your garden.
Once a month, rake out the hen house and yard and provide new bedding.
• Provide proper food - laying crumble, scratch, greens and oyster shells. Chickens also love kitchen scraps and spent plants from the garden.
You can get crumble, scratch (corn) and oyster shells from Portola Valley Feed.
Straw and seeds for growing chicken greens are available at Common Ground.
Half Moon Bay Feed and Fuel sells supplies and baby chicks.
The trend in thinking about food these days is to become more aware of where our food comes from and how it is grown. Raising chickens in the yard provides firsthand knowledge of where and how food is created.
And best of all, you will be amazed at how terrific fresh-laid eggs taste.
For more information on building a chicken coop, visit www.backyardchickens.com.
For chicken facts
and lore, see Page 30