Photograph by Thomas K. Arnold
The Mitchells’ four-year chicken journey has been a bonding experience, Carrie says. “When we got them, we just looked at them as providers of eggs,” she says. “We didn’t realize they were going to become pets, but then we named them and, well, they became our pets.”
This is a story about chickens and the ordinary people, like me, who raise them in their backyards. It’s a story that is centered around trendy buzzwords such as “sustainable living” and “urban farming” – and connected to the Covid-19 pandemic because, with so many more people stuck at home, it appears that backyard chicken farming is more popular than ever.
Illustration by Robin Arthur, robiniart.com
The Country Feed Store in Vista normally sells about 500 chicks a week, says Cat Womack, who has worked there for the last 18 years. The second week of the pandemic, she says, “we set a new record: 550 chicks in five and a half hours. That was the same time schools were closed and parents needed something to keep their kids busy.”
Robert Maudsley, a 54-year-old tech support engineer who launched the San Diego Backyard Chickens Facebook page in 2017, says that after the stay-at-home orders were handed down, “I started going from one or two new members every couple of weeks to sometimes getting 10 a day. And the only thing I can figure is that everyone’s home and looking for something to do, and raising backyard chickens is pretty easy.”
His page currently has more than 2700 members.
“Chicken ownership, for sure, is on the increase,” says Heather Thelen, who has owned and operated the Hawthorne Country Store in Escondido for 22 years. “Let’s say you’ve got a family and you’ve been thinking about chickens. Now, you’re stuck at home for several months on end, so now is the time — and the kids are home as well, to go through the whole process, watch them grow up, clean up, learn socialization.”
“Chickens make a lot of people happy,” says Cat Womack, at the Country Feed Store in Vista. “And for families, they can teach kids responsibility and really tighten the bonds between family members. It’s surprising how many kids have never seen a live chicken. It’s pretty fascinating watching kids come and get chicks, and chicken supplies, with their parents.”
Photograph by Thomas K. Arnold
The Covid-induced surge in backyard chicken farming comes after more than a decade of steadily increasing sales of baby chicks and supplies, from chicken feed to chicken coops.
Thelen says that over the last 10 years, chicken sales have increased by about 15 percent per year. “Normally, we bring in 4000 chicks for Chicks Day, our annual sale, and then 500 to 800 chicks every two weeks,” she says.
Thelen and Womack both attribute the growing popularity of backyard chicken farming to the move toward sustainable living and urban agriculture that began in the mid-2000s and accelerated when celebrities began posting photos of home flocks on social media. Lately, a number of reality shows also have featured backyard chickens, including the 2016 Amazon Original Backyard Chicken Coops, the Discovery Channel’s Coop Dreams, and the YouTube channel Becky’s Homestead, which has nearly 420,000 subscribers.
Locally, the trend started accelerating in January of 2012, when the city of San Diego amended its municipal code to allow residents of single-family homes to keep and maintain chickens. The number of fowl allowed varies depending on the size of the lot and zoning, but generally, most single-family homes are allowed up to five chickens, provided the chicken coop is in the backyard, at least five feet from side property lines and 13 feet from the rear property line.
Joe Donnelly and his wife Pam have been raising chickens in the backyard of their San Marcos home for more than a decade. The Donnelly chickens eat organic chicken feed and table scraps. “We feed them leftover lettuce and vegetables and tomatoes that are going bad.”
Photograph by Thomas K. Arnold
Today, 17 of the 18 cities within San Diego County allow chickens, with most limiting ownership to hens, since roosters, with their early-morning crowing, tend to trigger noise complaints. The only exception is Coronado, where the city council last addressed the issue in December 2011 by voting to uphold a longstanding ban on chickens and other barnyard creatures, maintaining that lots in the city are too small to make chicken farming practical. “We have to protect people who don’t want these critters next to them,” Councilman Mike Woiwode said at the meeting. If the ban is lifted, he said, “these people will lose the ability to control their environment.”
County Supervisor Dianne Jacob, perhaps the county board’s biggest champion of agriculture, applauds the growth in chicken farming. “I think it’s fantastic and healthy for people to be able to grow their own chickens, whether it’s for the eggs or to eat,” she says. “And it helps kids... learn about where food comes from and how to grow it. There’s always something good that comes out of a tragic situation like the one we’re in right now, and I think this is one of the very positive things.”
Richard Maudsley launched the San Diego Backyard Chickens Facebook page three or four months after his family got their first two chickens because “there was very little information geared toward people like us. There was only a Facebook page for livestock owners, people who raise chickens for consumption. And we’re not about that.”
With Covid-19 further fueling interest in backyard chicken farming, Thelen says that until recently, she had trouble keeping up with the demand, due to limits on chicken sales in Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties by state and federal health officials. Chickens in those three counties were under a Virulent Newcastle Disease quarantine, jointly imposed by the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Virulent Newcastle Disease is a virus that affects birds, particularly poultry, striking their digestive, nervous and respiratory systems. The latest Newcastle outbreak was detected in May 2018 in Los Angeles County. By December, the virus had spread extensively in backyard poultry in the Los Angeles basin and also infected commercial flocks. After prolonged disease control efforts, the last confirmed positive case was detected in February 2020. The quarantine was lifted on June 1, a move that once again allowed poultry to move freely within the state.
Diana Arnold puts the chickens to bed and sits with them awhile when the sun goes down. A flight attendant, she’s named the smallest and most personable one “Jet.”
Photograph by Thomas K. Arnold
“The lifting of the quarantine really helped,” Thelen says. “We can once again bring in birds from trusted hatcheries and bring in a greater variety of birds. During the quarantine, it was very difficult. We had to drive on the 8 to Arizona to avoid the quarantine area, and we were only able to bring back 300 to 500 birds, at the most, on each trip.”
Since the lifting of the quarantine, Thelen says, sales have once again been at an all-time high. The Hawthorne Country Store sells most breeds of chickens for $8 a bird from birth to two weeks of age. The price goes up by a few dollars every two weeks, maxing out at $50 when the chicken is four to five months old.
A similar pricing structure exists at the Country Feed Store. “There’s much more of an abundance of chicks right now due to the lifting of the quarantine,” Womack says. “Before, a lot of stores only had adult hens. But now we can get baby chicks in the mail again.”
Womack says top-selling breeds are Rhode Island Reds, Ameraucana, and Buff Orpington, a British breed that dates back to the late 1800s, known for their above-average size and docile dispositions. “But there are over 100 breeds, and as people become more interested and do more research, they might find other breeds that are better suited for them. Some want dual-purpose birds, for eggs and for meat, while others just want them for their eggs.”
Thelen cautions that “the most popular breeds and what we recommend are two different things. We really want to focus on people having a successful chicken experience, and certain things would deter them from that. For example, a lot of people want Silkies or Brahmas, or something really different, like Polish Crested, with big hairy heads. But we know those breeds are not pre-sexable at the hatchery, so you run the risk of rooster problems. The other thing is people want breeds they know. They will ask for a Rhode Island Red when maybe a New Hampshire Red or a Buckeye would make a better pet, because they’re not so aggressive. The Plymouth Rock is another super fun breed, and so is the Black Australorp, which does really well in heat.”
Aside from running a feed store, Thelen has long been an advocate of home chicken flocks. “We feel very strongly that it’s important for people to raise some of their own food for health, for enjoyment, and so we don’t lose those home skills that are a part of our heritage. What happens is, everyone gets comfortable, and it’s cheaper to buy at the store, so we’ve kind of gotten away from doing things ourselves.”
“Chickens make a lot of people happy,” Womack adds. “And for families, they can teach kids responsibility and really tighten the bonds between family members. It’s surprising how many kids have never seen a live chicken. It’s pretty fascinating watching kids come and get chicks and chicken supplies with their parents.”
Thelen says “there are things you can do to affect the quality of the eggs. You can get an Omega Plus type of feed and the eggs will be higher in healthy fatty acids, or a purely organic feed.”
Beyond eggs, Thelan says, “They’re kind of fun. We call them pets with benefits. I have one customer who goes out every morning and has coffee with her chickens. She loves doing it, and I can understand that. It just becomes part of your world, like petting your cat.”
A pile of dead chickens
Back in the summer of 2010, I traveled to the southern Chinese city of Guiyang for work. I had plenty of free time to explore the city of more than four million, and while walking near Qian Ling Park, known for its roaming monkeys, I came across a chicken man selling freshly slaughtered and plucked fowl from a pull cart. I was so fascinated I had my oldest son, Justin, who was traveling with me, take a picture of us.
Looking back, I still don’t know what captivated me about this man and his pile of dead chickens. I suppose chickens have always intrigued me. Years ago, as a little boy, my Mama took me to the San Diego Zoo virtually every Saturday. At the time, chickens — Rhode Island Reds — roamed freely, particularly in the long-gone Monkey Yard area. My greatest joy was feeding them bits of bread we had brought along for the goats in the Petting Corral. Other kids would always chase the chickens. This infuriated me. “Stop chasing the chickens!” I’d yell. I spent hours at the hatchery in the Children’s Zoo, where you could pick up baby chicks as soon as they crawled out of the egg.
Fast forward to 2020. Most everyone I know has started a vegetable garden, and I’m finding that a growing number of my friends and acquaintances have begun raising chickens.
So one day in early July, I’m scrolling through Nextdoor on my iPhone. I’m getting tired of people sniping at each other for not wearing masks, bemoaning the latest salon shutdown order, and complaining about dogs peeing on their front lawns. I turn to the “for sale” section, and right there at the very top is someone offering “four egg-laying hens” with coop, nesting boxes, feeder and water dish, all for $40. I text the number to see if the chickens are still available, then tell him I am leaving for the Grand Canyon for four days, and if they are still available when I return, I may pick them up.
I go on Facebook and pose the question to my friends: Should I get chickens? Within a few hours, I’ve gotten 24 responses, most of them affirmative. Observation: there’s no political divide here. Among those telling me to forget it are a diehard Trumpist and a liberal mother of three with a bad case of Trump Derangement Syndrome, both of whom say chickens attract rats and piss off the neighbors. But 16 responses are positive, including the mayors of both Poway and Encinitas.
On the drive home from the Grand Canyon, I get a text from the hen seller that says, “Still interested?” I text back yes, and a day later my 18-year-old son Hunter and I pick up the chickens, the coop, and the other accessories. Their new home: a fenced-off portion of my side yard, with plenty of sunshine and a high wall so the chickens can’t fly the coop.
Lucy means food
Joe Donnelly and his wife Pam have been raising chickens in the backyard of their San Marcos home for more than a decade. They bought their first two chicks when daughter Julia, now 20 and a UCLA student, was nine.
“We got them for Julia, two baby chicks just a few days old,” says Joe Donnelly, a 54-year-old executive with a healthcare IT firm. “She wanted to take care of them.” One was a black-and-white Barred Rock named Oreo, and the other a reddish-black Ameraucana, known for laying light blue eggs. “She was a spastic chicken,” Pam Donnelly says. Her name was Zoey.
Julia took care of the chickens in a cardboard box covered with chicken wire, kept in the garage, until they were eight weeks old. In the meantime, Joe, Pam, and Pam’s father built an outdoor chicken coop, four feet by four feet and tall enough to stand in. It included a perch and nesting boxes. and was attached to an eight-foot-long “run,” four feet wide and high.
The original Donnelly chickens lived for eight and ten years, respectively. After the second one died in 2019, Pam Donnelly says, she was going to toss out the coop, since Julia was going away for college, but relented, “because my dad built it with Joe, and it’s just the memory of my dad, who passed away three years ago.” When the pandemic was declared, Julia moved back home, and two months later the Donnellys got three more chickens: a Speckled Sussex (so called because of the white spangles on the ends of its dark mahogany feathers) named Tulip; a Black Australorp, Petunia; and a Golden Sexlink, yellow and white, named Lily. They were purchased from the Country Feed Store in Vista and the Hawthorne Country Store in Escondido.
“They’re all friendly, with mild temperaments,” says Pam.
The Donnelly chickens eat organic chicken feed and table scraps. “We feed them leftover lettuce and vegetables and tomatoes that are going bad,” says Joe Donnelly. Pam adds, “And they go crazy for snails.”
Joe Donnelly concedes one downside of raising backyard chickens is the stench. “Yes, they can smell, especially if you don’t keep the coop fairly clean,” he says. “But what we do is add a deodorizer: Stall Refresher & Pet Deodorizer from Sweet PDZ. They sell it in feed stores — it’s used in horse stalls — and that takes away the smell.”
I remember the warnings I got about rodents. Again, Donnelly has solution: “I make sure I have plenty of [rat] bait stations around, so it’s not really a problem.”
Marc and Carrie Mitchell, 47 and 45, are both in the car business. They live in Carlsbad, and bought their first chickens four years ago. “Marc is the one who brought it up. He thought it would be neat,” Carrie says. “I think what prompted it was that our son, Jimmy, was eating a couple dozen eggs a week while playing water polo. So we went on Facebook Marketplace and found one of our neighbors was getting rid of their chickens, because they were her son’s pets, and he was a teenager and had lost interest. So we bought their coop and two chickens.” Both were Buff Orpingtons.
Four years later, the Mitchells have four chickens, all of them raised since early chickhood after the two older hens were eaten by coyotes. Two are Buff Orpingtons, and two are Silkies, a “designer” breed with silky plumage, black skin and bones, blue earlobes, and five instead of the usual four toes on each foot.
The Mitchells’ four-year chicken journey has been a bonding experience, Carrie says. “When we got them, we just looked at them as providers of eggs,” she says. “We didn’t realize they were going to become pets, but then we named them and, well, they became our pets. I remember being very happy when Lucy appeared to know her name. I’d go out there and yell, ‘Lucy,’ and she’d come running right up. Then one day she was sitting in her nesting box, laying an egg, and when I shouted ‘Lucy’ the other chicken came running to me. I thought, ‘Son of a bitch! Lucy doesn’t know her name. They just think ‘Lucy’ means ‘food.’”
To fight the smell, Mitchell makes sure the coop is thoroughly cleaned once a week. As for rodents, she says, “We have dogs, so they chase them away.”
Shortly after buying their adult hens, the Mitchells added two baby chicks, both Silkies, to their flock: Nugget and Regina. Before long, Carrie Mitchell says, there was a problem.
“We went to this farm in Lakeside and let each of the kids, Jimmy and Julia, pick a baby chick,” she recalls. “As they got older, one morning around five, we heard what sounded like a boys’ voice screaming in the backyard. We went looking, and there was Nugget, learning to crow.”
Cognizant of the ban on roosters, Mitchell says, “we decided to re-home him. Julia was afraid if we gave him away, someone would slaughter him and eat him, so after about a month we finally found him a home on a chicken farm in Bonsall. These two very nice people showed up in a Porsche. We still keep in touch. They send me pictures and updates and he’s very happy. He’s got his hens.”
Mitchell isn’t alone. From the San Diego Backyard Chickens Facebook page, July 20: “Sally ended up being a Sam. We have a beautiful Brahma rooster (4 months old) that we can’t keep in the city. Does anyone want him for breeding? (No killing!) If anyone wants to trade for a Brahma hen, we’d love to do that. We live in San Diego, 92119.” The next day: “Thanks everyone, we found a wonderful home for him!”
Most people, the Donnellys and the Mitchells included, raise chickens for their eggs. “A healthy adult hen generally lays up to 300 eggs a year,” the city of San Diego says on its “Keeping Chickens” fact sheet, which can be downloaded from its website. “Five hens would supply approximately 30 eggs a week, which would meet the needs of a typical family of four. Backyard eggs contain 25 percent more vitamin E, 33 percent more vitamin A, and 75 percent more beta carotene. Home raising reduces the need for transporting eggs from farm/factory to store to home, resulting in a reduction in carbon emissions and packaging materials.”
Joe Donnelly says the eggs are “way better. What you’ll notice is the shell is thicker, and the yolk is much richer and deeper in color. When you compare them to store-bought eggs, it’s like the difference between a light beer and a really good IPA.”
Carrie Mitchell agrees. “They’re smaller than store-bought eggs, but they’re delicious,” she says. “The kids love them, and with no rooster, you don’t have to worry about any fertile eggs. It’s amazing how many people don’t know that hens don’t need a rooster around to lay eggs. They just don’t understand it.”
At our house, the concept of eating freshly laid eggs is taking a while to catch on.
On our first full day as chicken farmers, I let the four hens out of their coop around 7 am. Two hours later, Hunter goes out to check on them and excitedly runs back in the house with an egg in his hand. “We’ve got our first egg!” he exclaims. He proceeds to pull out a pan and cracks the egg, along with a second, store-bought one. The yolk from our chicken’s egg is a much deeper yellow. Hunter flips the eggs, cooks them to over medium, and then slides them onto his plate. He hesitates. “It’s a little weird, knowing where it came from,” he says. Two more eggs come our way soon after, all three grayish in color and slightly smaller than store-bought eggs. They are put into an empty Vons egg carton. My son Conner comes home from work around nine and wants an egg for his Ramen. “Do we have any normal eggs?” he asks me.
Not for eating
There are two schools of chicken farmers in San Diego County. There are those — like the Donnellys, the Mitchells, and now me — who keep a handful of hens in their backyards to produce eggs. Then there are the chicken farmers in more rural areas who raise larger flocks of fowl to eat.
The groups don’t mix, says Richard Maudsley, the founder of the San Diego Backyard Chickens Facebook page. “I launched the page three or four months after my wife and I got our first two chickens because there was very little information geared toward people like us,” says Maudsley, who lives in Santee. “There was only a Facebook page for livestock owners, people who raise chickens for consumption. And we’re not about that. In fact, either I or our two other administrators have to approve every post, because we’ve had people who do raise chickens as livestock try to post on our page, and that’s not what we’re about. We’re not going to eat our chickens.”
The San Diego Backyard Chickens Facebook page is filled with questions and answers, advice and suggestions. One person says her hen gobbled up one of her earrings and wants to know if it’s harmful; several others chime in that the same thing has happened to them, but the chickens are fine. “Well it looks like you’re gonna have to be walking around with a scooper for a while,” reads one response. Chicken owners have asked questions on how to keep their free-range backyard flocks safe from hawks or owls (aviary netting), how to ventilate a shed-turned-coop (cut a hole in the wall and install a vent cover from Home Depot), and how to care for older hens past the laying stage (be careful not to overfeed to prevent fat buildup).
Maudsley began raising chickens four years ago. “The only things my wife eats that comes from animals are eggs and cheese, and we had a neighbor who was moving and had to get rid of her two chickens,” he says. “She gave us an extra coop, and we took those two chickens in and really enjoyed the fresh eggs.”
Maudsley has had a number of his chickens die over the years. “We’ve lost a chicken to a dog, one to a raccoon attack, one to ovarian cancer, and one to a bacterial infection,” he says. To dispose of the dead chicken body, he says, “you can go to any landfill, although in our case, since two of them died under suspicious circumstances, we sent them to the University of California, Davis for a necropsy. The [Newcastle] quarantine just ended, but researchers still want to keep track of chickens that die. So for $20, you can send them in, and they’ll examine them. That’s how we found out about the chickens who died because of ovarian cancer and a bacterial infection.”
Today, Maudsley says, his backyard flock consists of three hens, and even though he runs the Facebook page for backyard chicken owners, he concedes he has no idea what breed his hens are. “I know it’s kind of sad to say for someone who runs a site about backyard chicken farming, but all of our hens were obtained when they were already adults,” he says.
A hen named Jet
After one week, the Arnold chickens have laid a total of nine eggs. I ordered a new coop from Amazon for $159 that took me three hours to assemble (and gave me a blood blister in the palm of my left hand from a screwdriver), only to find it was too small. I’m sending it back, and am scouring the San Diego Backyard Chickens Facebook page for a used coop.
We have established a routine: I get the chickens up in the morning, letting them out of their coop and bringing them a plate of cut-up apples or vegetables. My wife puts them to bed and sits with them awhile when the sun goes down. A flight attendant, she’s named the smallest and most personable one “Jet.”
We’re still trying to figure out who’s going to clean the chicken yard.