Hens in the hood

Sacramento’s criminal chicken underground

Audrey Medina lives in Placerville and has three hens in her backyard coop

A couple of months ago, a woman received a code violation notice for keeping four hens on less than 10,000 square feet of property in Sacramento County. News of this led to an upwelling of support for her from CLUCK (Campaign to Legalize Urban Chicken Keeping), a county supervisor (Don Nottoli) and local chicken owners, legal and otherwise. A group was quickly hatched on Facebook. As the economy tanks and the insides of factory farms are shown on television, chickens are becoming must-have lawn ornaments.

Legal or not, chickens are the new pink flamingos.

In my small foothill town outside Sacramento, property codes don’t interfere with personal expression unless the neighbors get really annoyed, so last year I decided to get a few chickens of my own. I asked my friend Dee for some advice. At her old house in a suburban cul-de-sac, she’d kept half a dozen hens in her garden. Now she’s got 4 acres north of Sacramento, dozens of chickens and ducks, five goats, a flock of sheep and a llama. “I like those yellow hens, what kind are they?” I asked. Her chickens added bright splotches of color to her gray winter barnyard.

“Buff Orpingtons. They’re really sweet, and they’re too heavy to fly over your fence,” she said. Buffs were the hens for me. I had visions of a tiny farm: a neat garden, some fruit trees, chickens running around, and someday maybe even a little beehive in the corner.

As I waited for April and new chicks to arrive at the local feed store, FarmVille requests for electronic livestock and pomegranate trees piled up on my Facebook wall. I read Farm City, Novella Carpenter’s memoir of squat farming in Oakland. Along with chickens, turkeys and rabbits in her yard, she’s got goats on her back stairs. She found enough food Dumpster diving behind restaurants to fatten a hog. Like Dee, she’d started out with a few hens. Gulp. Would my quest for a few fresh eggs end in a Dumpster with a Hefty bag full of hog slop?

I decided to chance it, and built a coop out of a large kindling box that my neighbor Vince gave me. I made a run out of welded wire, and on the first weekend of April, I was off to the feed store.

The heated chick bins were empty. The other two stores had also run out of Buffs, but more would be coming in a couple of weeks. The national suppliers hadn’t been able keep up with demand for a couple of years. Dee couldn’t find any either. Feed stores all over Sacramento were selling thousands of chicks in a county where most backyards are too small to keep them. What the cluck was going on?

The criminal chicken underground was going on. Doghouses, playhouses, garden sheds and garages were hiding clandestine coops. Scofflaws all over town were saving money and eating healthy.

By May, I had three feed stores on speed dial. A few weeks later I finally scored. I drove home with three new chicks in a shoe box, and a bale of straw hanging out of my Altima.

All summer long, the chicks followed me around in the garden. They sat on my lap on the patio. They ate mosquitoes and ants, and pulverized my compost piles into high-grade fertilizer.

Last fall, they began to lay eggs the color of latte, sprinkled with nutmeg. As has been said, a couple of chickens in your garden doesn’t make you a farmer. But when I go out to the coop on a frosty morning and hold the warmth of a new egg in my palm, I feel like one. This year Sacramento County will, hopefully, overturn the ban on backyard hens, so law-abiding citizens can feel that same warmth, too.

Meanwhile, there are still 32 unanswered FarmVille requests on my Facebook wall. I’m going to decline the cows and hogs, but I might get a duck.