Pet hens and chicks

Being the not-so-proud owner of a gecko and a goldfish, I didn’t put another un-cuddly animal high on my list of future pets. A chicken? The thought hadn’t occurred to me until a recent visit from friends who had spent the last few years downsizing their lives from San Francisco to Santa Cruz to a tiny Canadian town in the middle of nowhere. Over a scrambled egg breakfast at my place one morning, they began clucking about the hens in their backyard and the delicious organic omelets they feasted on almost daily.

I got to thinking: I was already taking steps to live more in tune with the land. I’d also been prone to an apocalyptic thought -- or 400 -- as I watched our economy spiral into the abyss. And as far as my 5-year-old is concerned, the more pets, the better.

So, chickens.

I didn’t know a thing about them or a single person who owned any locally. Without a hand to hold through the process, I went online. The perky provided a trough of information, though not the chickens themselves. I had missed the last hatch of the season, so I Googled “Southern California chicken hatcheries.”

The roosters were still going strong at the Belt Hatchery in Fresno. Even better, the place offered a variety of breeds, including the black Australorps that my Canadian pals had praised as so gosh-darn “friendly” and reliable in laying “beautiful” brown eggs.

Not knowing an Australorp from an Aseel, I thought it was best to follow a seasoned chickener’s recommendation. But Belt said the minimum order was 20, that they would be high-maintenance babies and that the gender of the chicks couldn’t be guaranteed, meaning I could end up with some rowdy roosters and, as a result, even more chicks. If 20 was too much, Belt suggested, why not share them with friends? That would have been great -- if any of my friends could survive more than a week without a mani-pedi.

Two chickens seemed sufficient for me. I wanted to be absolutely sure they were hens, which lay eggs almost daily, even without a mate. And I wanted them to be full grown, so they could start earning their keep instantly.

I didn’t learn until later that a feed store was an alternative. At the time, I thought my options were limited to the neighborhood pet store, which also sold only babies of undetermined gender, and an animal shelter.

That’s when I inadvertently became the Inspector Clouseau of urban farming, bumbling my way through the process at unnecessary expense. Any chicken website will tell you that raising the birds yourself isn’t about saving money. For the most part, it’s about detaching oneself from the industrial food supply and enjoying the products of your pets -- the fantastic-tasting eggs and an unfathomable amount of fertilizer.

What I am here to tell you, though, is that raising chickens doesn’t have to cost nearly as much as what I spent, which was $100 for two birds at L.A.'s North Central animal shelter, $379 for the hutch and run, $31 for a feeding system and $34 for a few month’s worth of grit and mash. I could gobble the most expensive, free-range, organically fed, hand-massaged Whole Foods eggs for years and still not spend the $500-plus I put out for my rig.

If you’re wondering why I spent so much, the answer is motherhood. I don’t have a lot of free time, so I bought gear online and had it delivered to my house. I compounded the mistake by taking my son to pick out chickens at the shelter. He already had named them and they were packed in the carrier when the lady at the counter told me the adoption fee, which was “just the same as a rabbit.” A hundred bucks is a lot, but it seemed a small price to avoid a child meltdown.

Getting the hens and food from a feed store would have been less expensive, even with the cost of driving. At the Red Barn Feed & Saddlery in Tarzana, a grown hen costs $15, and the grit and mash are half of what I spent online. (Red Barn’s baby chicks costs $3 apiece, but they require a lot of care and even more infrastructure. Heat lamps alone will set you back $30.)

Were I to do things differently, I might also have gone with a different coop. I’d consider re-purposing a doghouse or a toolshed -- bought used from Craigslist -- or building the hutch and run from scratch with lumber and wire from the hardware store. Going DIY would have required various tools, about $100 in materials and a day’s worth of work. The mail-order hutch and run arrived unassembled and took a couple of hours to put together. What’s a few hours more, especially when I had to go to OSH anyway to purchase the wire, locks and other supplies to prevent break-ins from predators.

Cats and dogs aren’t the main problems; raccoons, opossums and hawks are. My hutch and run weren’t prepared for these intruders at first, which is why I ended up living with chickens in my bedroom for an entire week. After all the time and money I’d spent, the last thing I wanted was a clawed beast feasting on my expensive new friends.

While I was getting my security measures in place, I let the birds out onto my newspaper-covered bedroom floor and learned two things: Hens are quiet unless they’re feeling harassed, and they’re a total mess. When the littler of the two birds flew onto my pillow in the middle of the night, I realized they needed to move back outside. Immediately. That’s where they’re supposed to be anyway -- in Los Angeles, hens 35 feet from a neighbor’s house, roosters 100 feet. I’ve been calling my chicks hens, but that’s one challenge of getting birds from a shelter: They’re labeled by gender, but it’s actually extremely difficult to tell the sex of a chicken until it’s mostly grown. Another problem: pecking. One of the chickens my son picked out is probably a Bantam breed, most likely abandoned because he/she was used for cockfighting. Shrek is his/her name, and he/she is quite the bully. Donkey, on the other hand, is a cuddler.

So far, neither has laid any eggs in the nesting box, cozy as it seems with all the high-priced timothy hay I’ve stuffed in there. Winter is not prime laying season, and neither of my chickens is quite old enough.

It’s just as well. I need more time to bond with my brood so eventually they will let me gather their eggs -- even if my son says we’re not going to eat them.

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