Move Over, Rover

By Catharine L. Kaufman

If you thought you heard a cluck or a cock-a-doodle from your neighbor's yard, you're sanity hasn't taken wing. Urbanites are going Green Acres, constructing stylish and charming chicken coops in their backyards, garages and on balconies. The funky hen party is part of the sustainable movement that's good for your family and the planet. The following primer on chicken rearing and coop culture should help you get started.

The chicken or the egg
City folk have taken a shine to raising female chicks, whose multitasking talents serve as a slug, bug and weed control system that's chemical free (chicks like to nosh on assorted insects and pesky weeds). They also supply their owners with a daily feast of fresh, organic eggs and serve as fun-loving, low-maintenance pets. Hens lay about an egg a day, though it varies depending on the breed, age, diet and time of year.

How to pick your chick
Urban chicken pioneer and Del Mar resident, Lisa Lutz, hatched her first chick in 2008. She advises fledgling chicken owners to do their homework beforehand.

"Look at the breed and temperament," Lutz says. "If you want a good egg layer, then get a leghorn; if you want a loving, well-mannered pet, then the squawky, flighty leghorn is not for you. If you're into ornamental eggs, the Ameraucana lays gorgeous ones tinged with hues of blues and greens."

Flock Food Experts advise chicken owners to nourish their birds with organic vegetarian feed and spring water, as "you are what your chickens eat." Shelly Stewart, a University Heights urban chicken advocate and lecturer says the life stage and functionality of the bird will determine its nutritional requirements.

"The babies need higher protein, (while) laying hens need more calcium, and meat birds, additional protein," she says.

Stewart infuses her organic feed (a blend of cracked corn, wheat and flax known as scratch) with dried kelp as a mineral supplement, and crushed oyster shells for extra calcium.

The scoop on coops
Many of today's urban hen habitats are architectural masterpieces, from chicken chateaus to shabby chic and retro-style houses. Do-it-yourself chicken coop blueprints are available online, along with prefabs from IKEA and Wal-Mart. Or get creative and design an original, making it a family pet project. Lutz's husband calls their hen house, built from recycled roof shingles, the "Coop de Ville." Their 'girls' bedroom" is both rodent- and predator-proof, so raccoons, opossums, skunks and coyotes won't devour their pet chicks for dinner.

Chicken Laws
Different San Diego County cities have specific chicken ordinances relating to birds, noise and rooster restrictions, and the coops' proximity to residential buildings. To be safe, check your city's municipal codes. The city of San Diego limits the flock to 25 and bans roosters. Coops must be 50 feet from all residences (yours and your neighbors).

Check out Raising Chickens for Dummies and Building Chicken Coops for Dummies or visit backyardchickens.com and mypetchicken.com to see if rearing chickens is all it's cracked up to be.

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