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Flying the Coop: Why urban farmers should do research before raising chickens

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Angelenos have been keeping chickens in the city for ages, but now, there's a whole new generation of "urban homesteaders" who are finding it's not all fun and free eggs.

Keeping chickens in Los Angeles is really nothing new, but with the rise in popularity of "urban homesteading," more and more Angelenos are deciding to raise chickens in their backyards.

And why not? Home-raised chickens can provide fresh, better-tasting eggs, and they help keep insect populations down in gardens. 

Colleen Hennessey is the Urban Farm Manager at Taking the Reins in Atwater Village. It's a local nonprofit that teaches adolescent girls life skills through horse riding and care. Hennessy says chickens are a great addition to their garden that lies just behind the stables.

But for Hennessey, the chickens are much more than just garden accessories.

"These guys are pets to us," she said. Chickens, like any other animal, are a lot of work.

Michael Holland keeps chickens at his home in Altadena. He's had chickens for more than 15 years and says many new chicken owners may not know what they're getting into. 

"It requires a certain amount of care and maintenance, a certain amount of expense. You don't start raising chickens thinking you're going to save money on eggs," said Holland. "Maybe that's where some of the faddists are starting to fall by the wayside. Because they realize, 'Oh, this is work.' It's not romantic; it's work."

Even within the same household, sometimes there are conflicting views on chicken keeping. Michael's wife, Anne Louise Bannon, is not a big fan of the chickens. 

"I was a little endeared to them until they started pecking each other and cannibalizing each other. They're really mean little suckers. And I don't even eat eggs, which is funny, but I do appreciate that Michael likes them," Bannon said. 

Then there are chicken owners who have no idea what they've gotten themselves into.

Susie Coston is National Shelter Director at Farm Sanctuary, an organization that takes in chickens and other farm animals that urban homesteaders no longer want.  Coston says often people who buy chickens don't realize they might be getting some roosters in their flock and, in a lot of places, zoning does not allow for roosters. 

"People can order 50 hens online, and they get peeps — little chicks — in the mail. Out of those 50 or 60 peeps they get, they may have five male, and then they're stuck with these roosters they're not allowed to keep," Coston said. 

Coston also says that many backyard chicken keepers aren't doing their research before purchasing their animals.

"The other big group we get in is people who say, 'Oh, I thought they were going to lay eggs longer.'  And it's a hard one, because, if you're seeing an animal just as something that's giving you a product, once that animal no longer gives you that, they become useless to you. We see these animals as being individuals, and they're really wonderful companions," Coston said. 

Back at Taking the Reins in Atwater, Devyn Heart holds a member of the flock. Even though she's only 13, Devyn is the resident chicken expert at Taking the Reins and knows all about different breeds and their personalities. 

"The pecking order is kind of funny here. Barred Rocks are on the top. They usually eat the most, and they bully everyone," she said. 

That's the thing about keeping chickens in a city: Like Devyn, you really have to love the animals as pets first, and egg-producing garden workers second. 

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