.Coop d’Oeil

A dabbler's view of backyard chicken culture.

The Ecology Center’s class on “How to Raise Chickens in Your Backyard” took place at an actual residence, and not the Berkeley storefront where most of the center’s events occur. The e-mail newsletter announcing the class indicated that future chicken ranchers of America would learn the event’s location only after signing up. This suggested that something very underground was afoot, perhaps even something illegal.

The Berkeley residence in question belonged to David Morris, who has been raising chickens in his backyard since 1979. His three-hour lesson took place on a hot Saturday morning. Morris appeared to be in his late fifties and had the farmer look down: big floppy hat, jeans, long-sleeved shirt. The gentle sound of clucking and bok-boking announced the presence of fowl. Well, that, and the guesthouse-sized chicken coop.

The coop looked like a small cabin with a wooden roof and walls, but its entrance and back were framed wood surrounded with wire. Morris explained later that he prefers half-inch “aviary wire” for enclosing a coop. “If you use anything larger than half-inch wire, varmints will come in and get the chickens,” he said. “Raccoons will grab a head and eat it clear off even if they can’t get to the rest of the body.” That’s life in the animal kingdom for you — nasty, brutish, and short.

But the class began on a far more pastoral note. After about twenty students assembled on chairs or fabulously rustic straw bales, Morris introduced himself and passed out a glossy magazine. It was Murray McMurray, the chicken fancier’s Sears-Roebuck catalogue. People flipped through its shiny pages and looked at the colorful chickens available for mail-order purchase — everything from sturdy Rhode Island Reds to Mottled Houdans (foppish French chickens with fancy black-and-white feathers). It also offered an array of turkeys, geese, ducks, and game birds such as pheasant and quail.

People had a lot of questions, waving their hands in the air hoping to be called on. One of the first was about the legality of raising barnyard animals where they lived. “It depends on the particular city,” Morris said. “In Berkeley, the chickens have to be at least thirty feet from a bedroom, and there can only be a certain amount. The chickens have to be penned. You’d want ’em penned anyway,” he added, casting a watchful eye toward the coop. “They excavate, looking for bugs; they wreck stuff.”

So at least the legality question was solved.

Morris orders his chicks from Murray McMurray. His chickens are neither show animals nor pets. “These are working animals,” he said, which he raises both for eggs and meat. Catalogue shoppers can specify what gender chicken they want, with an accuracy rate said to be 90 percent. This is important because, while it may be a man’s world among humans, in the poultry world, baby, it’s another story. Hens rule the proverbial roost, and if the men don’t mind their manners, it’s off with their heads and into the old stewpot they go — at least at Morris’ idyllic backyard.

Most members of the class seemed astonished to discover just how superfluous roosters really are. The city slickers in attendance weren’t even quite sure what a rooster’s role was. “Doesn’t a rooster sit on the eggs and fertilize them?” one baffled questioner asked. Morris calmly responded that no, a rooster and a chicken have sex the old-fashioned way, with actual contact. “If you’ve ever seen it, it doesn’t look like the hen enjoys it too much,” he added. “It’s not even necessary to have a rooster if you get your chicks from the catalogues.”

In today’s mail-order chicken yard, the only purpose that roosters fulfill is to fertilize eggs — a highly optional step at best. Fertilized eggs are technically those that might have resulted in a chick had they not wound up in a refrigerator, not been eaten by possums, weasels, or dogs, and had a brood hen sit on them for three weeks. But not all chickens have maternal instincts; just because a hen lays eggs doesn’t mean she will sit on them for the full 21 days it usually takes them to hatch. Morris said he saw no difference in taste between fertilized and unfertilized eggs. Most store-bought eggs are unfertilized, but at least in the Bay Area, many stores also offer some fertilized ones.

Given his rather blasé attitude toward roosters, it was somewhat surprising to discover that Morris’ own chicken coop was filled with a surplus of baby roosters — the result of some ordering snafu. “They’re already having little fake cockfights,” he said, sounding just like an exasperated dad.

It turns out that chickens aren’t really all that far removed from their distant relative, T. Rex. “They’re mean little animals,” Morris told the class. “If a chicken gets a cut, it has to be immediately removed from the others because it will be pecked to death by the other chickens. Once I had to hold down a rooster and the other chickens saw that it was vulnerable and came up and attacked it.”

He told the story of a friend who found himself with a bunch of extra roosters: “I asked him, ‘Well, what are you gonna do?'” His friend told him he’d found a surefire way to dispose of them: “I sell my extra chickens to the voodoo ladies and they use them in their rituals.”

No one in class knew quite what to say to that.

All the while that Morris talked, the hot sun beat down on his backyard. Large, leafy shade trees provided some relief. In fact, the entire yard bore testimony to the magic of chicken guano. There were yellow tiger lilies, a cherry tree with fuchsia berries, and apple trees laden with hard green fruit.

Morris said he uses something called the “deep litter system” to keep his chicken coop from smelling like, well, a chicken coop. Chicken manure is high in nitrogen, which to the laywoman means that it gets stank pretty quickly. To prevent unfortunate smells and have healthier, cleaner chickens, the floor of his coop is made of concrete. A thick layer of hay is placed on the top; hence the bales that some of the students were sitting on.

About every two days, Morris turns the hay. “It’s not nasty at all,” he said. “It’s basically just broken-down straw.” When the straw has absorbed all the poop and ammonia that it can, Morris takes it out of the coop to be composted and puts down a fresh layer.

He also mixes corn into the hay, because the chickens like to peck at it. The chickens are also fed chicken feed and table scraps — albeit nothing containing meat, which could lead to salmonella — and are given ground oyster shells for extra calcium, which makes for strong eggshells.

Commercial chicken growers and manufacturers raise only about five varieties of bird. If it weren’t for chicken fanciers such as Morris, other more exotic breeds might have died out. Morris mentioned that one of the most popular varieties was the Cornish Roaster. “It’s a huge chicken that reminds me of Baby Huey,” he said. Indeed, the picture in the catalogue was that of a white-feathered looming chicken that appeared much larger than any other bird.

Someone in the class asked if there was a difference in taste between roosters and hens. Morris said there really wasn’t. He boasted that his chickens tasted better than the store-bought kind, not only because of their good food, clean surroundings, and abundant fresh air, water, and sunshine, but also because they live longer than most commercial poultry. “You can eat a chicken after six weeks, but I like them to have a chance to fatten up so they have better flavor.”

Finally, someone asked the inevitable question: How does Morris kill his chickens? “With a very sharp ax,” was his matter-of-fact reply. The class shuddered and was silent.

“I know people who started raising chickens for food and became vegetarians because they came face to face about what eating meat was all about,” he said. “My feeling is that as a meat eater, I should be part of the process.”

No one said anything. Everyone seemed to respect that simple notion.

There was a lull in the conversation. The three-hour class was almost over, and everyone had absorbed a lot of information. Finally, someone asked to see the chickens. Morris led the class over to the coop, and there they were, all fat and sassy with glossy feathers. A large group of adolescent white chickens with lustrous feathers strutted around like mini Mick Jaggers. They looked out at the world with beady eyes and shook their crimson combs. “Those are the roosters,” said Morris with a resigned sigh.

At least they looked delicious.


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