| May 2012
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By Corrie M. Anders
Something to Cackle About: The hens in this brood on Eureka Street, shown dining on lettuce, are among many Noe chickens laying eggs for their community. Photo by Corrie M. Anders
Rai Sue Sussman and Bernie Corace can always tell when their next-door neighbor runs out of eggs. The neighbor throws an empty egg carton over the fence and into their back yard.
“That’s a sign it’s time to give her some eggs,” laughs Sussman.
Luckily, there are plenty to go around. For the past two years, the couple have been raising a flock of chickens at their home on 25th Street and playing their part in the growing urban farm movement.
“When it comes to agriculture, the greatest principle is keeping it local,” says Corace, “and there is nothing more local than our own back yard.”
Though Sussman, 37, loves to get her hands dirty, she works as an attorney by day, specializing in criminal appeals and military law cases. Her partner, however, is a fulltime man of the soil. Corace, 40, owns Dirty Hoe Landscaping, a residential landscaping firm based in the Mission District.
“Both of us have been concerned about industrial agriculture for a long time,” says Corace.
In 2010, when they decided to move in together, their first priority was to find a house with ample space to grow vegetables.
What clinched their decision to rent on 25th Street was the presence of a dove coop, derelict and forsaken, at the rear of the property. The minute they saw it, “we thought immediately about having chickens,” says Corace.
“It was almost prewritten for us because of that dove coop,” Sussman agrees.
It wasn’t long before they rebuilt and expanded the hutch, and invited a pair of hens to nest.
The couple’s reward has been an abundant supply of eggs. “We eat a lot of quiches and frittatas,” says Corace.
‘Nice Docile Animals’
No one keeps track of how many chickens that families like Sussman and Corace raise in San Francisco, where the health code permits four per household. But the growth in recent years of the slow food movement, which promotes local and sustainable food practices, has definitely reintroduced backyard chickens to Noe Valley.
Though not problem-free by any means, chickens offer eggs, meat, and companionship. Enthusiasts say they also provide endless merriment.
“I love having them, and the kids love them,” says Tiffany Loewenberg, 40, whose back-to-the-earth ardor is worlds away from her work as executive director of the Noe Valley Chamber Music series. “I like animals and we don’t have a dog or a cat…and I thought it would be fun to have chickens and see what it was like to have them.”
Loewenberg’s husband, Todd David, 42, a financial investor and neighborhood activist, says he “grew up in the suburbs in New Jersey, and the thought of having chickens never crossed my mind.”
But David admits he’s been surprised at how much he enjoys the “nice docile animals”—not to mention “eating a lot of omelets with fresh eggs.”
Poultry in Motion
Their son Isaac, 4, treats the birds as pets and plays with them in the family’s back yard on Eureka Street. He likes to jump on a small trampoline while holding one of the chickens in his arms. He’s also trained a hen to jump in the air and snatch bits of lettuce from his hand.
“It’s the funniest thing,” Loewenberg says of the bird’s acrobatic feat.
A couple of years ago, Loewenberg was browsing the Noe Valley Farmers’ Market on 24th Street when she spotted a teenage boy holding a box containing two chickens he wanted to give away.
“He said, ‘These are my pets and I have to move back to France. They’re nine months old and already laying,’ and I thought, this is perfect,” Loewenberg recalls.
Loewenberg took them home, and with the help of a neighbor, she and David converted the children’s small playhouse into a chicken coop.
Their brood of two grew to six after the family succumbed to the pleas of a friend who wanted to give up her four chickens. The friend was “going back to work and was trying to simplify her life,” says Loewenberg.
When not in their coop, the birds exercise in a fenced chicken run, which fronts a small cottage the couple own. (Since the cottage has its own address, they are not in violation of city law.)
They’ve Got Personality
Corace and Sussman purchased their first two chickens from a farming store in Point Reyes. They later got a second pair from a friend. One of the original four birds has since died. Another has physical problems and is not expected to survive, so the couple recently went to Half Moon Bay to purchase two pullets—young females—to replenish their clutch.
The flock spend their days scratching and pecking while ranging freely in a seven-by-ten-foot yard that is fenced in to protect a bountiful garden filled with lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, carrots, beans, squash, and Swiss chard.
The chickens each have their own personality, Sussman and Corace say. There’s Wanda, a black Australorp (an Australian breed), who is intelligent and mischievous. Rhoda, a Rhode Island Red, is “very sweet” but is not the brightest in the peep. Gilda is a Red Sex-Link hen that tends to be “very aggressive” and can be a “jerk” at times. Then there was the regal and elegant Whoopi, also an Australorp, the bird that died.
“There is a great amount of personality and intelligence from breed to breed and from individual chicken to individual chicken,” says Corace, who once got into a “heated argument” with a friend over the issue.
And the birds are good egg producers. The couple once recovered 28 eggs from their nests in a single week. The hens usually average five eggs per chicken per week during the prime spring and summer laying season.
“We garner a lot of good will giving away fresh chicken eggs,” says Corace. And “we give our landlady eggs when we pay the rent each month.”
Their chickens delight in table scraps. Still, the couple each month purchase feed whose cost ranges from $5 to $10 per chicken. In purely economic terms, that’s about break-even, when compared to organic store-bought eggs at $5 a dozen.
Not Just Chicken Feed
Chicken-raising is not all food and fun. Owners have to worry about fowl-hungry raccoons, disease, and chicken mischief—they’ll scavenge a yard bare in no time if they escape their perimeter.
“The chickens destroyed our yard,” Loewenberg remembers, not fondly. “They were free-range chickens for a year, and we ended up with a mudslide in the back yard. We had to hire gardeners for chickens that were now costing me money.”
Both families say they have built secure habitats to avoid problems with raccoons, which often roam Noe Valley at night. They also have taken steps to keep their birds from disturbing their neighbors.
Chickens “sleep like church mice at night,” says Corace. But they wake up at the crack of dawn, literally, and so must their human bosses in order to silence the loud cackling of impatient chickens.
Corace says he’s up at first light and, before he showers, before his first cup of coffee, he gets “food for the girls and open[s] up the door to the coop” and lets them out into their yard.
“Then I come in and have my coffee,” he says, adding, “if you like to sleep in, chickens probably aren’t a good choice for you.”
Everyone Pitches In
Chicken chores are a family affair at the Loewenberg-David house. Their son Noah, 10, has the evening task of locking the animals into their coop and freeing them in the morning. Isaac joins in the gathering of four to five eggs daily, and daughter Alana, 7, “is my all-around helper,” says Loewenberg.
Chickens aren’t necessarily high-maintenance, but there are daily and weekly routines. The major tasks are providing food, fresh water, and good sanitation.
“Once a week. I change out their hay [bedding] and clean out the coop,” says Loewenberg. “They create a fair amount of poop, and I compost that and spread it around the garden.”
Corace and Sussman refresh their henhouse bedding of wood shavings on a similar schedule. And once a week or more, they rake and turn over the soil so the birds can easily forage for worms and insects.
The chickens eat well at both addresses. They dine on organic pellets specially formulated for laying hens, crushed oyster shells to provide enough calcium for their eggs, table scraps, and yard vegetation.
Every couple of weeks, David fills an automatic feeder with pellets, and the fowl feed themselves. Corace, who fashioned a feeder from two half-gallon milk jars, fills the containers as needed.
The hens also get a treat of chicken scratch, made from cracked corn and seeds. The scratch is scattered on the ground, allowing the birds to hunt and peck to their heart’s content.
Some Are Hen-Pecked
Chickens, like politicians and teenagers, can be awfully mean to one another, their guardians say. They have a pecking order that’s rigidly maintained.
“They break up into little cliques,” says Corace. “They will get in trouble together, but when one gets busted, they will isolate and abandon that one.
“They’re like middle-school girls,” he jokes.
But when all is said and done, chickens have enough redeeming qualities that many people want to take them home.
Says Corace, “There’s the sense of entertainment and pleasure of just watching a chicken being a chicken.”
Rules of the Roost
There’s a popular belief that urban dwellers are not allowed to keep roosters—the male chickens that are known to be loud, boisterous, and a before-daybreak alarm clock.
“The rules have changed. We are now allowing roosters,” says Nader Shatara, a senior environmental health inspector in the city’s Department of Public Health. “If there’s a noise issue, the police may be addressing that.”
The health code says residents may keep up to four small animals, whether chickens, ducks, or cats, as long as they do not create “undue nuisances to neighboring residents.”
The code also requires that poultry coops must be kept at least 20 feet from a habitable dwelling. The pen must be at least three feet off the ground, and kept clean and free of rodents.
For information, call 311 or go to www.sf311.org.
Don’t Be a Dumb Cluck: Think Before You Buy a Chick
Noe Valleyans Bernie Corace and Rai Sue Sussman have a few tips, some they learned the hard way, for city dwellers who want to raise poultry.
* Talk to someone who already has chickens. Read up about chicken-raising.
* Determine which breeds are appropriate for you. Some birds are quieter than others, and some breeds are more kid-friendly.
* Purchase chicks from a reputable source. Make sure the seller inoculates and determines the sex of the chick.
* Provide enough room for the chickens to roam around. Make sure their habitat is protected from dogs or raccoons.
* Consider the whole life span of a chicken, particularly the time when your aging chicken stops laying eggs.
The website www.backyardchickens.com offers lots of advice for newbies. —Corrie M. Anders