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Backyard chickens: Local residents laud the benefits of hens

Photo Elliott Burr/Town Crier Backyard chickens can serve as pets or useful helpers in the garden. Los Altos resident Nancy Schneider deploys her hens as "worm wranglers" and garden fertilizers.

Shari Emling of Los Altos Hills has something to cackle about. So do Nancy and Mike Schneider and Roberta Barns, all living in Los Altos.

They’re among the growing number of people who keep chickens in their backyards. And they are quick to point out the benefits – namely food, fertilizer and pest control – that have contributed to this trend.

Just consider the fact that the website www.backyardchickens.com gets 6 million hits a month and 4,000 new posts on its online forum each day. And chicken-keeping classes are springing up all over, from local Master Gardeners’ classes to one offered by Love Apple Farm’s owner Cynthia Sandberg, who supplies produce for the Michelin two-star restaurant Manresa in Los Gatos.

“People are starting to realize how detached from their food they have become,” said Jesse Cool, chef/owner of Flea St. Café in Menlo Park. “Having chickens gets us closer to our food source.”

Cool, an advocate for local, sustainable, organic food, has a big chicken coop in her Palo Alto backyard. She loves her “ladies” and their eggs.

“There is nothing that compares to an egg from a happy, well-fed chicken,” she said.

Emling’s chickens certainly are happy. They have free run of a large, fenced corral, which they share with two goats – Greta and Violet – and a “condo” where they roost at night. Her granddaughter loves to feed them. They eat just about everything – table scraps, produce, worms, bugs and, of course, chicken feed.

They provide entertainment along with their eggs. Emling has quite a cast of characters costumed in colorful and exotic feathers (their eggs are colorful, too). Among them are Lucille Ball, a Rhode Island Red; Dorothy Dandridge, a Black Star hen with reddish feathers around its neck; Helen Hayes, a brown, red and gold Easter Egger hen that lays blue eggs; and Audrey Hepburn, a bearded Ameraucana that lays aqua-tinted eggs.

Emling’s chickens occasionally nestle between the goats’ horns so that it appears the goats are wearing chicken hats.

“It’s sort of Zenlike to be with a chicken. They’re very relaxing,” she said. “They make a pleasant low sound when they’re happy, and they’ll sit on your lap and sleep.”

Petlike Sylvia, a very pretty 14-year-old Silver Laced Wyandotte, is a true “mother hen.” She has hatched both quail and Ringneck Pheasant eggs.

No pet chickens for the Schneiders, who approach their chicken-keeping from a different perspective. Mike is an urban farmer and “worm wrangler.” He wanted chickens because they produce manure for composting and eat bugs. The fresh eggs are a plus.

They have three no-name hens – a Rhode Island Red and two Leghorns – fondly called “the ladies.” They need supervision when they’re outside the coop, because they’re not very ladylike in the way they attack Mike’s chard, peas and tomatoes.

He built them a very simple coop, unlike the trendy upscale chicken coops with doors, shutters and window boxes found online.

This is in keeping with Robin Mankey’s advice to “keep it simple and take barricading seriously.” Mankey, of Take Root in Palo Alto, does garden design, installation and maintenance and has been keeping chickens for a dozen years. One of her clients just turned a playhouse into a chicken coop.

“All chickens need is water, food, nesting boxes and a place to roost,” she said.

What about gender and breed?

“Hens are the way to go,” said Mankey, who has some wild rooster tales.

But gender is a nonissue in Los Altos because there is an ordinance prohibiting roosters.

Bantams are suitable for smaller backyards because they don’t need as much space as other breeds. However, their eggs are one-half to one-third the size of a regular hen egg.

Roberta Barns, a master gardener who has kept chickens for 25 years, has four bantams. Her story is typical of how many people get started.

Her son’s kindergarten teacher thought it would be good for the children to view the entire cycle of life. Hence, fertile eggs were hatched in the classroom, producing baby chicks, which became big chickens needing homes. Among them was Chicken Little, who hatched a clan of her own at Barns’ house.

She no longer names her chickens. Nor does Mankey. Neither thinks of them as pets.

Not so for Karl Franzen of Palo Alto, who has a popular website, www.chickenhop.com, on which he posts information on raising chickens, egg recipes, chicken books and even chicken sounds. He treats his chickens as individuals.

“Chickens have individual tastes and preferences that change over time – just like people,” he said. “They enjoy an occasional cantaloupe, because the moist contents are cool on a summer day and the enzymatic effect helps keep their digestion clear, just like people.”

Franzen suggests installing a sandbox to fully please your chicken.

“They stretch out full length and kick the sand over themselves,” he said. “It cools and cleans them and is part of their natural behavior.”

Emling says chickens make “wonderful, peaceful, friendly pets.” And, she said, they’re “brighter than you think.”

Nancy Schneider would disagree. Each of her hens has its own nesting box, but all lay their eggs in the same one, “hence the word ‘birdbrain.’”

But all agreed that keeping chickens is easy, rewarding and lots of fun.

“It’s good bang for the bucks,” Franzen said.

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