Last summer, I spent a month on my brother-in-law's farm with the kids. They fed the goats, caught toads, fished and swam in the pond, and helped harvest vegetables from the garden. I picked endless baskets of peas and whole wheelbarrows of zucchini. There was talk of chickens one day, but for the time being, we tromped down the road to a neighbor's place for fresh eggs, a dollar a dozen. I had never seen yolks so yellow -- a yellow that flirted with orange. And such flavor. My friend Maureen is a pretty serious cook, and when I told her about those eggs, she was all a twitter. "Let's go in on chickens. We'll flip to see who gets the coop." Maureen "won" the flip, and it's a good thing she did. A call to La Mesa Animal Services told me that domesticated poultry and livestock are not allowed in La Mesa. Eddie at San Diego Animal Services, however, told me, "In the city of San Diego, you may have chickens if they are kept 50 feet from any dwelling and in a coop. You may keep up to 24 in a coop."
East County Feed & Supply in Santee (619-562-2208) occasionally carries chickens. Said the clerk, "Lately, we've had a hard time getting them in, and when we do, they go real quick. We had ten in just the other day, and they're all gone. We usually get mixed-breed, but sometimes they're purebred. They come from people who just want to get rid of them -- a ranch, or sometimes a school. If you want adult chickens, we have them sometimes -- when people happen to bring them in. Hens are $8 , and roosters go for $5 ."
Kahoots Feed & Pet Supply in Ramona (760-788-7785; www.kahootsanimalsupplies.com ) seemed a surer bet, since they carry chickens on a regular basis (deliveries about once a week, $4.95 per chick; call for availability), as well as food and caging supplies. The only catch was that my potential egg sources came as baby chicks, not adult producers. And there was only an 80 percent degree of certainty that my chicks would turn out to be female. Still, I was up for the risk. Assistant manager Adam Young explained what I would need and how to take care of my new babies. He started by saying that how many chicks I should buy depended on my setup. "If you're going to keep them in a hutch after they're grown, you might do three to five. But if you're going to keep them outside, penned in your yard, you can do as many as your yard allows."
Young said that "the number of chicks isn't really the important thing; it's how you take care of them weather-wise. It's cold now, so inside would be preferable for chicks. But that's not realistic; most people don't want them in the house. You can get away with keeping chicks outside as long as you have a heat source on them, like an infrared light [ $8 , plus $10 for a clamp lamp]. In this kind of weather, you need it plugged in all the time. You get infrared so that the light won't disturb their sleep patterns. They can't see it."
Besides the cold, chicks need to be protected from predators. "You want them screened off to keep away hawks or coyotes. Hutches cost anywhere from $80 to $300 , depending on the size. They've got a pullout tray for bedding -- you can use cedar shavings, pine pellets, or straw. You keep them in the hutch until they're fully feathered -- around three months, more or less, depending on the breed -- or until they outgrow it."
While they're chicks, they need a higher-protein chicken mash ( $11.95 for a 50-pound bag) than the normal fare. "You feed them that through their juvenile period. And you give them regular water from a standard water feeder [ $2.90 for a one-quart capacity, $3.90 for a gallon]. It looks like a plastic dome at the top, and it leaks water into a sphere-like pool." A bowl or Tupperware dish won't quite cut it, warned Young. "You can do it, but it's not recommended. The chicks will walk in it and defecate in it. The water feeder keeps the water cleaner and fresher for longer periods. Also, it's vital that when you first get the chicks, you introduce them to the water. Take the chick and dip its beak in the water. Otherwise, they won't put two and two together and figure out that that's where the water is. And even if you do everything right, be prepared to lose one or two. It just happens."
Once the chicks are fully feathered, the eggs are not overly long in coming. "It's breed-specific. Americanas and leghorns pump out eggs so fast -- they start maybe two months after they're fully feathered. How often they lay is also dependent on breed. Some will give a dozen a month; some will give 30. But once they start, they lay continually." Breed even determines where they prefer to lay. "You can buy a kind of hen box [ $10-$20 ], which they'll walk into to lay their eggs, or you can put down straw."
Since Maureen wouldn't be able to just let her chickens roam free, I asked about pens. "We sell chicken pens for $115 . They're four feet by three feet, and they can hold six full-grown chickens. Anything bigger than that you'd want to contain with a fenced yard or something you built yourself. But you do need to cage them to protect them."
Young guessed that Maureen and I would get "five to seven years of life" -- if the chickens stayed healthy. "Chickens can get eye and ear infections. They are filthy animals; poultry are disgusting. They don't have a concept of their own waste. A dog won't roll in his own poop, but a chicken will. It won't know the difference. The eye and ear infections can be treated with Terramycin [ $5.95-$14.95 ]. Another thing to watch out for is mites. You'll see the mites, and if you leave them untreated, the chickens will lose feathers and get dry skin. You take care of mites with a dust [ $6.45-$9 ] that you sprinkle right on the feathers."