Why did the chicken cross Highland Avenue? To get home to its back yard coop, of course — one of many that have sprung up in Piedmont in recent years.
An increasing number of Piedmont residents are part of a national trend toward keeping chickens at home. They cite the nutritional value of the fresh eggs, the environmental friendliness of urban farming and the general likableness of chickens. For some families, the egg production is foremost. Others see their chickens as pets with fringe benefits in the form of eggs.
City Clerk John Tulloch said he receives a small but steady stream of inquiries from local residents about the legality of keeping chickens.
At present, it's legal to keep poultry in Piedmont, Tulloch said. The City Code allows local residents to keep any animals that aren't specifically forbidden — a list that includes elephants, wolves, cheetahs and venomous reptiles, among others, he said. Even roosters are legal, if they are quiet. However, back yard animals must not pose a health hazard or noise nuisance.
The other consideration is the chickens' outdoor home. Chicken coops are generally considered secondary structures that must have city approval, according to City Planner Kate Black.
Backyard Chicken Foes
Not every Piedmont resident is enamored with the city's backyard flocks. The Planning Commission is scheduled to hold a public hearing Aug. 13 on whether to recommend changes to the City Code to regulate the keeping of chickens within the city limits.
According to a staff report by Black, the hearing stems from a request by Wildwood Avenue resident Martha Bureau, which was accompanied by a petition signed by 26 local residents. Bureau's request notes regulations for chickens in other jurisdictions and also cites the possibility of Histoplasmosis, a fungal infection that can be carried on the feathers of chickens and that can thrive in their droppings.
The Piedmont Police Department receives occasional complaints from neighbors, most often when chickens have escaped their own yards.
Backyard Chicken Fans
Piedmont resident Julie Reichle (whose photographs often appear on Piedmont Patch) said her family began keeping chickens almost by accident. Her younger daughter Claire asked to adopt some of the chicks raised as a Piedmont Middle School classroom project.
Enter Lucy and Bella, who joined the Reichle household last spring.
"They aren't really a very good investment for the amount we put into them," Reichle said. "They only lay an egg a day in hot weather."
But Lucy and Bella have ""funny personalities," she said, and they get along well with children and even the family's Labrador retriever. They get basic chicken feed and water along with organic treats from the family's garden.
"They like spinach and grapes," Reichle said.
"They are truly free range chickens," she said. "They just cruise around eating grubs and the rosemary. I've found them on the street a couple of times."
Reichle said she's had no complaints from neighbors, although the hens do squawk when they lay eggs or spot an intruder — such as a different type of bird.
The Good, the Bad and the Poop
"The problem with chickens is the volume of poop," said Don Eidam, a Piedmont resident and financial planner who takes urban farming seriously. "Chicken poop is really good fertilizer. But if you don't compost, you'd better start."
The eggs make the work worth the effort, he said.
"The eggs are much better, and they'll last for a month with no refrigeration. If you boil an egg, and half the egg comes off when you peel it, that's a fresh egg."
The eggs aren't instantaneous, he noted.
"You have to wait until the chicks are six months old, and at 24 months, they are spent," he said. "Off and on, they will brood or molt and won't lay." But his chickens produce about 300 to 320 eggs per year, enough for this family of five with some left over for neighbors and work associates.
The Eidam family's four chickens share a second-story chicken "condo" created in part from an old sandbox. An angled ladder provides access to ground level.
Besides poop, there's a second problem with back yard chickens — predators, Eidam said.
"We lost two chickens to raccooons," he said. "The raccoons bite off first the head, then the feet, to prevent the chickens from making noise and running. It's been a good introduction to death and birth for our children."
Some benefits of urban farming are intangible, said Eidam, who also keeps bees, grows a sizable organic garden and is thinking about studying falconry.
"When it's light like this, I'm up and in the garden before I go to the financial district and turn on my business face for nine hours."
Practical and Fun
Kristin Hull, who has raised chickens at two different Piedmont homes over the past half dozen years, is serious about urban sustainability but also views her chickens as pets.
"Mine come to the kitchen door in the morning," she said. "I don't mind if they come in the house. Raising them from babies is pretty cute, especially if you hold them from day one."
Her flock has included Araucauas, Rhode Island Reds and a "black and white mystery chicken."
On the practical side, Hull said, "Chickens are great lawn mowers and eat snails and slugs, then poop some of the best fertilizer. They eat all the kitchen scraps. And their eggs have much higher nutritional content than the ones in stores."
Hull said she's had an occasional problem with neighbors' dogs coming onto her property but no complaints. She tries to check in with neighbors to make sure they aren't disturbed by her chickens.
While her chickens roam around her side yard during the day, she shuts them in at night, in a coop she built with recycled wood left over from a neighbor's construction project.
"I definitely recommend keeping chickens," she said.
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