Finding friendship in the food supply: Backyard chickens peck their way into local hearts

Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Isabelle Cnudde, above, visits with her flock outside their predator-proof coop. White Leghorns, inset, are known for big combs that flop at a rakish angle.

Chicken Little, the Little Red Hen, Medio Pollito - folktales from around the world acknowledge the goofy, enterprising and food-obsessed spirit of domestic egg layers. As backyard chickens keep gaining in popularity locally, spurred on by traditions like the Silicon Valley Tour de Coop, more families are getting a crash course in the personalities behind the eggs they eat.

Los Altos resident Isabelle Cnudde and her husband moved into their midcentury Los Altos ranch house in 2009 and first bought three hens, she said, "because I wanted to know where food came from - (seeking) 'happy eggs' was how I got started. But you come back from work and just hang out with the chickens. Egg layers become pets."

She turned her backyard chicken coop into a microsanctuary in 2014, when she adopted her first rescue hens. She formalized the household operation as a nonprofit organization, Clorofil, in 2016 and began teaching classes and speaking to local schools and community groups about the world of the domestic chicken.

A cast of characters

Cnudde’s microsanctuary includes a huge, predator-proof outdoor space that looks like a sprawling greenhouse, enclosed by timber framing and chicken wire. She stepped up her structure after a hawk hovering over her Loyola Corners neighborhood snatched a chicken. She also maintains a guest coop that looks like a chicken RV - a wheeled house with its own private yard a ways away from the main avian condos. She uses that space to isolate new foster chickens and introduce them gradually to the community.

During the daytime, her flock of seven picks through the open space of the sanctuary, nibbling at the green weeds Cnudde cultivates on its behalf.

Cnudde’s chicken Curry, whom she described as a "sweet, loving spirit," is missing one eye and can’t see much from the remaining one, but can navigate by sound. Curry arrived in Los Altos from a pasture egg farm a year ago.

Marjo, a "very fashionable hen with a big attitude," according to Cnudde, wears an enormously oversized red comb with nonchalance and has learned card tricks, courtesy of an extremely food-motivated interest in working for snacks. Marjo joined Cnudde from a battery cage farm in 2015.

Cnudde acquired her first birds, Poppy, Sage and Ginger, the typical way - buying chicks from a heritage breed. She said as she discovered how "awesome" she found their company, her interest shifted from backyard food production to something more soulful.

Ginger, now the elder bird of the flock, grumpily attempts to roost in trees rather than return to her coop some evenings. Fennel, a "lap chicken" who loved to be petted, attended chicken care classes as a demonstration bird. One of Cnudde’s first rescues, Fennel once spent an hour cuddling with a patient when she visited a local hospice as an "avian ambassadress" to fill in for Cnudde’s dog, Lallie, who usually pays those visits.

"The rescue ones are the more social ones - for them, it is paradise here," Cnudde explained.

Her flock currently includes three White Leghorns with clipped beaks from battery egg farms, one Red Sexlink from a free-range egg farm and three Ameraucanas grandfathered in from Cnudde’s pre-rescue days.

The White Leghorns have a dandy-like swagger from the overgrown red combs that flop atop their heads, while the Ameraucanas have tiny combs but glimmer with a subtle rainbow of colored feathers.

End of the road or adoption

After the hawk attack, Cnudde stumbled across the subject of chicken adoption as she looked for a way to replenish her flock. She learned about factory farming as a volunteer with Animal Place, the organization she discovered when searching for local adoption options. By participating in chicken rescues, she became unexpectedly proficient in chicken health care and more deeply versed in the world of chicken personhood - the rich quirks and personalities that have converted her to an animal advocate.

A software engineer, she moved to the U.S. from France in 2000 and worked in the Los Altos area for 15 years before quitting to dedicate herself full time to farm-animal-related work. Most families who want to start a backyard chicken flock acquire the birds from hatcheries, a process that culls male chicks at birth and produces birds on an industrial basis. Cnudde has become an advocate for a chicken retirement plan - adopting the egg-laying hens that are discarded as young adults at 18 months. The typical egg production practice is to kill chickens when egg production begins to decline from its peak at 18-20 months, though birds live up to a decade when left to their own devices.

She discovered a group that rescues those chickens condemned to die. Their bodies are often not even subsequently used in the food chain - egg layers are petite birds, without much meat - so they are sometimes literally wasted, sent to the dump.

"We try to divert as many as we can to rehab," Cnudde said, "and teach a chicken to be a chicken, giving them some space."

Cnudde’s group diverts as many of those birds as possible to second lives as backyard egg layers and family pets. A "retired" professional egg layer will still produce multiple eggs a week for years.

Volunteers like Cnudde pick up the birds from egg farms that are willing to release birds into retirement and then drive the birds to a rehab barn. For the first few nights, volunteers have to stand in each corner of the barn as the sun sets, declumping the panicked chickens who try to pile on top of each other; they are used to the familiar pressure of companions but can hurt themselves in the new, freer space.

"They learn to perch," Cnudde said. "You can see them take their first dust bath,and their instincts call them to a private place to lay an egg."

She provides the medical care of checking, deworming, delousing and leg-banding the rescued birds. Thus far, Animal Place has seen more than 25,000 pass through its doors, a tiny fraction of the total egg-laying birds slaughtered each year but a giant volunteer effort. It operates an adoption center in Vacaville as well as adoption events throughout California.

Know your chicken

Cnudde has been teaching in Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and Sunnyvale on everything from chicken basics to backyard enrichment and health care. Although she focuses on backyard chicken keepers, her local talks have expanded to awareness about eggs, dairy and how the American food system operates.

After seeing traumatized birds even from the organic, pastured egg farms that cater to those seeking "more ethical eggs," Cnudde came to believe that if one wants to eat eggs with a care for chickens, one must source them from a carefully tended backyard. Over time, she has entirely stopped eating eggs herself, giving away those from her flock or feeding them, cooked, back to the birds themselves. Coming to know her animals (and the food system) better in recent years led her to stop eating animal products entirely.

"You have to live with chickens or sit with them for a while to see they have personalities like people," Cnudde said.

In addition to grumpy Ginger and enterprising Marjo, she has bossy boots and cuddlers. Curry first won a special place in Cnudde’s heart by following her around during a rescue operation, managing to waddle into her lap while half-blind, following her voice around the rescue barn and perching atop her shoulder the first night.

Getting started

Cnudde recommends starting a flock with at least three birds - a pair and a spare - because the social animals need company and a predator or mishap may thin the crowd despite the best intentions.

Local municipal codes specify how many hens are permitted per thousand square feet of backyard space and whether roosters are allowed at all (only in Los Altos Hills, locally). Cnudde could legally host as many as 20 in her sprawling yard, but she limits herself to seven for now.

"That would be too many to take care of, and a lot of poop," she said, noting that composted hen poop fuels her kitchen garden.

Hens need approximately 10 square feet of outdoor space per bird and 4 square feet per chicken of indoor henhouse. The more room they have to forage, run and hide behind trees, the better, according to Cnudde. Because the birds need to be tended and closed into predator-proofed houses at night, hen keepers have to arrange chicken sitters whenever they travel, another logistical hurdle for first-timers.

"For people who really care about (egg) quantity, the rescues are really good - right now I have four that are really laying, and the youngest can do an egg a day," she said.

Cnudde started teaching expanded classes on caring for backyard chickens after tending to an injured bird whose owners hadn’t realized that it needed help. She wants chicken keepers to have the knowledge and resources to care for their flocks with confidence. Enthusiasts who want to know what they’re getting into can attend her Gearing Up for Pet Chickens class and then graduate to more medical information in Happy & Healthy Pet Chickens.

In addition to Animal Place, the Vacaville-based chicken rescue group, Cnudde has found sympathetic collaboration in chicken adoption events at the For Other Living Things pet supply store in Sunnyvale. Veterinarians at Adobe Animal Hospital in Los Altos have experience working with fowl patients.

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