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Saturday, January 19 , 2019, 7:27 am | Fair 45º


Chickens Roam Their Roosts in Urban Backyards

More and more city residents are flocking to the growing trend of raising poultry as a food source

In her cozy yard filled with the dense growth of summer vegetables, Christa Backson is an example of Santa Barbara’s blend of self-reliance, love of local produce and obsession with foodie culture. 

But the Mesa resident hasn’t just taken to feeding her family solely off the produce she cultivates in the small yard behind her childhood home. Walk past the sprawling vines of squash and cucumbers, and the soft clucking of five hens wafts out into the yard. Backson built a small coop between her house and the fence after deciding to raise hens for their eggs.

It’s a movement that’s catching on with many city dwellers who want to get back to the source of their food.

“There’s a big movement towards self-reliance,” says Backson, who grew up in Santa Barbara but lived on a farm in Hawaii for a few years before coming back to live in her childhood home. After returning, she converted most of the yard to gardening space and subsequently added a place for chickens.

Often when she has too many eggs, Backson takes them to the Mesa Neighborhood Exchange, where her neighbors meet to trade fruits, vegetables and other goods they’ve grown and have in abundance. The exchanges exist all over town, she said, and when someone new comes along wanting to know more about raising chickens, there’s plenty of experience to share.

“Somebody new comes along and wants to raise chickens, we tell them how to break into it,” she says. “There are quite a few people who have chickens and coops, and quite a few people that go to exchanges. It’s fun for me now that there’s more people involved.”

“I kind of felt like a weirdo for a while,” she says with a laugh. “I feel like I’ve been hiding in my backyard for years.”

Backson says her chickens consistently produce an egg a day. Although that number can decrease during winter months, the chickens can keep the pace if they’re healthy and well taken care of.

According to city code, no more than 15 chickens can be kept at a time in residential areas. They must be kept in coops, hutches or cages that should be maintained and sanitary. And if they’re going to make their homes in a backyard, the code says the coop has to be 100 feet from any property being used as an institution, such as a school or park, and 35 feet away from any human residences on adjoining lots.

Mesa resident Christa Backson shows a couple of eggs pulled from her chicken coop, where five chickens live. Backson is part of a growing movement among city dwellers to raise poultry
Mesa resident Christa Backson shows a couple of eggs pulled from her chicken coop, where five chickens live. Backson is part of a growing movement among city dwellers to raise poultry. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

It’s illegal to keep roosters within city limits, but there’s no need to have a rooster if you’re looking only for fresh eggs.

“Our neighbors on that side have had chickens, so they’re used to the idea,” she says. “They’re really not that noisy.”

For someone just getting started, Backson recommends building a coop for the animals first. For her five hens, she built a coop in a fenced-off area of yard, about 12 feet by 20 feet, and capped off the top with a thin layer of netting, so the birds wouldn’t be tempted to fly out. The coop is a place for the hens to go that is safe from skunks and possums.

Chicks need to be incubated with a heat lamp until they’re 6 weeks old and have grown in their feathers to keep warm.

“I just didn’t want to deal with that,” she says, adding that she got her chicks when they were about 2 months old from Ojai Seed and Feed, but she also recommends Island Seed and Feed in Goleta, La Cumbre Feed and Western Animal Feed for food and supplies.

“The yolks are really yellow,” Backson says. “You can definitely notice and taste the difference.”

Teacher Lynn Siegel-Boettner agrees. “There is most definitely a huge taste difference between store-bought eggs and my hen’s eggs,” she says, although one can find fresh eggs at farmers markets and Mesa Produce.

Siegel-Boettner got her start with chickens when she raised chicks with her second-graders six years ago. The group waited for three weeks with the eggs under an incubator. She says watching them hatch was an exciting event for her and her students.

Backson says her chickens consistently produce an egg a day
Backson says her chickens consistently produce an egg a day. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

She has kept up that tradition, and while later incubator experiences haven’t been as successful as the first, she still enjoys purchasing new chicks, even if they’re a few days old.

“Each year, I have more and more students and neighbors to trade chicken stories with as more and more folks have found room in their homes and hearts for chickens,” she says. “Some folks are now raising chickens and turkeys.”

Through the neighborhood exchange, she says she’s able to trade eggs for things other people are growing. Neighbors like to visit the chickens, she says, and often come bearing food scraps as treats. “Some neighbors even come with wheelbarrows to gather the chicken manure for their own gardens,” she says.
Mandatory reading for newbies is the “Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens,” Siegel-Boettner says. She also recommends checking out the Web sites www.backyardchickens.com and www.mcmurrayhatchery.com. Talking to experts at a local feed store and just asking around the neighborhood may yield some unexpected but pleasant results.

“You will be surprised to learn how many chickens are already living in your neighborhood,” she says.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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