More Central Coast residents are raising chickens

"Hi, ladies!” Carol Fleury calls as she swings open the gate to her Templeton garden.

Three chickens — one a big, buff-colored beauty, the others brown with bare, scrawny necks like turkeys — emerge from behind green vegetation.

“C’mere, I’ve got the apple,” Fleury tells them, holding out a red, much-munched fruit. One bird trots over and starts pecking.

Fleury and her husband, Steve, are among the ranks of Central Coast residents who raise chickens at home — in backyards, garages and gardens.

Some fowl fanatics crave farm-fresh eggs. Others, like the Fleurys, relish the way their chickens gobble earwigs and weeds, or treasure the free fertilizer that backyard birds provide.

In addition, fans say, chickens tend to be affectionate, good-natured birds — the perfect pets for poultry-loving families.“The biggest surprise has been how enjoyable (raising chickens) has been,” said Los Osos resident Bryan Brown, who has four chickens. “It has just been a thrill having them.”

Hobby has wings

As Christine Heinrichs of Cambria can attest, interest in backyard chickens is nationwide.

The author of “How to Raise Chickens” and “How to Raise Poultry,” Heinrichs has been singing the praises of her feathered friends for years. In the last two years, she said she’s seen more home poultry production.

“There’s a mystique there,” Heinrichs said. “People will say, (whispering) behind their hands, ‘I’ve always wanted chickens.’ They say it with that kind of awe.”

According to Heinrichs, chickens were once an essential part of the American homestead. As people started moving into cities and suburbs in the 1950s, however, interest waned.

Now, propelled by the same back-to-basics approach that’s repopularized vegetable gardening, chickens are enjoying a comeback.

Local feed stores report that more people are buying and raising chickens than before.

“Especially this year, the baby chick phenomenon has been unbelievable,” said Cara Crye, marketing coordinator for Farm Supply Company.

The San Luis Obispo store sold about 1,800 chicks last year between March and September, said Dick Gularte, in charge of poultry sales. This year, more than 2,400 fluffballs have flown out the door.

Although commercial chicken producers typically use just two breeds — leghorns for eggs and Cornish-rock hybrid crosses for meat — Farm Supply sells more than a dozen varieties. Popular breeds include black australorps, buff orpingtons and americaunas, prized for their blue eggs.

Demand for equipment such as feeders and waterers is also up, Gularte said.

So many people are interested in raising chickens that Cal Poly is offering a new class through its Continuing Education program. Jim Adkins, founder of the International Center for Poultry in Sonora, will teach “Raising Standard Bred Poultry” on Nov. 14.

In recent months, as many as 630 people have flocked to screenings of the documentary “Mad City Chickens” in Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara, HopeDance magazine publisher Bob Banner said. The film chronicles urban chicken owners.

On the BackYardChickens.com online forum, more than 42,000 people trade tips about incubating eggs and share photos of their fowl.

Chickens are also a hot topic for homemaking maven Martha Stewart, New Yorker writer Susan Orlean and Andy Schneider, host of radio’s “Backyard Poultry with the Chicken Whisperer.”

Why they’re popular

So, why this love of chickens?

Just ask Fleury, who became interested in backyard birds five years ago when she and her husband moved from San Luis Obispo to Templeton.

“I was so excited to have a real vegetable garden,” she recalled.

Then earwigs gobbled her newly planted seedlings. A neighbor recommended chickens as a natural pest control. These days, the Fleury household includes three hens named Mardi, Gras and Buffy.

“I don’t have an earwig problem anymore,” Fleury joked. What’s more, the chickens take care of table scraps and keep her tomatoes, peppers and melons lush with their quick-curing manure.

“It’s a reason to get up and go outside every morning before work,” Fleury said of her flock. “I feel like a city girl playing farmer. It’s fun.”

Brown is more frank about his reason for getting chickens.

“My primary motivation was chicken poop,” said the avid gardener, who studied food science at Cal Poly. “I know what it means to have good soil.”

Brown bought four chicks in April from Farm Supply. Over the past months, he’s grown to enjoy watching the birds — two Plymouth barred rocks and two buff orpingtons — run around the yard or thunder across the deck like a miniature herd of cattle.

The birds, in turn, treat him like a human jungle gym, perching on his back and legs as he pulls weeds.

Watching chickens squawk, strut and scratch for bugs “brings out a lot of creativity and a lot of fun in people,” Heinrichs said. “People are willing to … see the amusing and heartwarming aspect of them.”

Still, she added, raising chickens can pose a challenge — especially in San Luis Obispo County, where hungry pets and predators prowl.

Lee Oliphant, a gardening columnist for The Tribune’s sister weekly, The Cambrian, said wild animals are a constant concern at her Cambria home.

“We’ve learned from past experiences” with predators, said Oliphant, whose architect husband, Don Sather, designed an elaborate backyard coop with safety in mind. “I don’t let (our six chickens) out at all unless I’m right there with them.”

In more crowded areas, opposition occasionally comes from folks irked by crowing roosters and clucking hens.

Although most Central Coast communities allow chickens, there are restrictions as to the number, type and location of birds. Morro Bay’s municipal code allows up to a dozen hens, while fowl fanciers in Atascadero can have as many as 40 chickens, or eight turkeys.

Heinrichs recommends working with neighbors to deal with issues such as noise. “Fresh eggs can go a long way to smoothing things over,” she said.

Like homegrown vegetables, food purists say, they simply taste better.

“As soon as you start eating some of these foods that aren’t grocery store food, your taste buds are awakened,” Heinrichs said. “You realize what you’re missing.