Urban Chickens: From Barnyard to Backyard

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(Sacramento, CA)
Wednesday, August 27, 2008

CRACK!!! A fried egg sizzles in a pan.

“Once you start eating free-range chicken eggs, there’s no going back. The yolks are so vivid, like a sunflower gold.” 

This is a woman who knows that starting a day sunny-side-up with eggs like these means a life of cluck-and-dagger.

“Well, I’m just going to give you my first name, which is Sue.”

I ask if she’ll introduce me to her chicken.

“I’d be happy to introduce you to my chicken,” ‘Sue’ says. She coos, “Here, Maud! while shaking some feed to lure her. “We’ve had her five or six years. She’s just part of the family, just one of the pets.”

Is ‘Sue’ aware she’s keeping a renegade chicken?

“Totally,” says ‘Sue.’ “Sometimes, it’s fun to break the little rules. Frankly, this is such a ridiculous one.”

‘Sue’ is referring to the city ordinance that bans backyard chickens. In Sacramento, chickens are considered livestock. But to the Chicken Underground they’re pets with benefits – and not just those incredible eggs. After a hard day at work, Sue says there’s something nice about coming home to a chicken

“I find it relaxing and somewhat therapeutic. The little clucking sounds she makes… it’s almost like sitting out with a glass of wine.”

And ONE chicken is really all you need. But Gina Spadafori has nine. She unlatches the gate to a pen the size of a double garage, with lots of straw and waddle room.

“Hello, Ladies!” Spadafori says in greeting her flock. Her hens lay their eggs inside a couple of repurposed cat carriers under predator-proof netting. At “hello ladies,” they get so excited they rush the fence and force their beaks through the holes … and burble. Spadafori makes the introductions, starting with 3 Americauna hens.

“Now, they’re a South American-based chicken, so I gave them Latina names -- Paloma, Isabella and Viviana. I have a Delaware, Agatha; one Buff Orffington, that’s Harriet; two Rhode Island Reds, Beatrice and Hazel. And the last two are the Barred Plymouth Rocks, Charlotte and Hester.”

Spadafori is able to have this small flock because she live outside the city limits. She’s no small-fry enthusiast. She syndicates the newspaper column Pet Connection and has written 11 books about pets. A blog she writes helped hatch the idea that backyard chickens fit a green lifestyle.

“We talk about food miles, the meat recalls and the tomato and pepper recalls,” Spadafori says. “One of the things I wanted to do was try to grow some of my own food. I’m getting two to three dozen eggs a week, which is obviously more than one person needs, so I give a lot away.  People do enjoy getting them, they’re so beautiful.”  

They’re green, blue and pink – with speckles. And it’s all done without a rooster.

“A lot of people say, when I tell them I’ve got chickens is how do you get eggs?” Spadafori asks, incredulously. “OK, what part of high school biology did you miss? Chickens will lay, anyway. They’re not fertile! They won’t hatch into chicks.”

Eggs aren’t all you get from chickens. Pet poultry can bring out bizarre human behavior. Remember First-Name-Only-Sue back in the city limits? She’s normally a composed woman. But when she imitates her beloved chicken Roxy who laid enormous double yolkers -- Sue comes out of her shell.

Sue gets in the mood and flaps her arms. "BOLK, BOLK, BOLK, RARRRRK, RARRRRK!!!!” ‘Sue’ is pleased and laughs. “That’s not bad.”

As for Gina Spadafori, she’s no Streisand, but when she’s with her chickens, she breaks into song. It’s how she herds the hens to their covered coop to sleep.

“I sing Good Night, Ladies!” she says, not quite in tune. “And they come running in to get their corn, and as they’re eating their corn I close the door on them and they’re in for the night.” 

Urban chickens get tucked in at night all over California. They’re legal in varying number in Folsom, Roseville, Davis, Berkeley, Oakland, Anaheim and LA. Until Sacramento joins that list, the city’s stealth chickens will continue to run afoul of the law -- which doesn’t have much meat, anyway. Get caught with a backyard hen, it’s a $100 fine. You’ve already saved that in free eggs! And – get this, the city lets you keep your chicken.