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Five Degrees of Separation 

A chicken-farming primer for city slackers

Wednesday, Apr 5 2006
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A few months ago, somebody stole my pet chicken, Clifford. I’d stowed her overnight inside a cat carrier placed in my Hollywood co-op’s unlocked laundry room, instead of leaving her in her backyard pen, to protect her from the cold. Several neighbors expressed dismay at the theft, and I could tell that their grief was sincere. Clifford was the building’s mascot, a stocky Rhode Island Red who chatted with passersby, and sat contentedly on the arm or shoulder of anybody who offered such a perch. In three years of life, she never laid a single egg. By any poultry standard, she was a useless chicken, but she possessed a kind of character that added a certain comfort to the place.

No stranger to the fine art of chicken hatching, I pulled out of storage a pair of plastic incubators that I’d bought online years ago, washed them in mild bleach and prepared to hatch six new eggs. This required vigilance. The incubator’s temperature needs to be held between 99 and 103 degrees Fahrenheit in order to sustain life. I found myself obsessed with the unassailable, empirical reality. I’m a theater critic, saturated in a world where truth is hitched to perception and opinion, motive and intent. But here the line between being and nothingness hangs from the indisputable measure of red mercury, a sliver wobbling between two small, straight lines on a piece of paper. I found myself checking the sky to see if a chill had set in, or an unexpected Santa Ana temperature spike that would invariably penetrate the tinier worlds of two plastic incubators, and the still-tinier worlds of the eggs within them. Life crashes in and around us, while we try, with limited success, to contain it. One night, I noticed that the temperature had shot up to a lethal 104 degrees and a black shadow appeared from inside one of the eggs, surrounded by a red ring of death. Whenever I hear of our diplomats walking out on climate-control negotiations, I keep seeing that shadow with its cord, like a ring around a dead planet.

In the end, three chicks made it out of their shells. I gave two to a friend and named the remaining infant Fortinbras — one of Hamlet’s few survivors.

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We hope our answers to these Frequently Asked Questions about chicken ownership will inspire you to start your own coop.

Is this legal? The city of Los Angeles Municipal Code Section 53.59 forbids the housing of chickens within prescribed distances from a human dwelling: for a hen, 20 feet from the owner’s property or 35 feet from any neighbor’s property, and 100 feet for a crowing rooster from anybody’s property. The last time I had any contact with L.A.’s Department of Animal Regulation (DAR) over the issue of my chickens, the official told me that DAR has better things to do than enforce this ordinance unless there are issues of noise or public health or a complaint from a neighbor. I’m one of many who’s been raising hens for years in violation of code, and with the full knowledge of the authorities. However, I’ve never owned a rooster in L.A. who wasn’t eventually sent to the big house for his loud opinions.

Where do I find a live chicken? Birds awaiting slaughter can be rescued throughout Chinatown, at many poultry outlets along Washington Boulevard between Los Angeles Street and Long Beach Avenue, and at John’s Feed Store (323-585-6890) on the corner of Florence and Alameda. The advantages of obtaining an adult bird are that the gender is known with certainty, the bird will probably have been vaccinated, and you can live with the satisfaction of having saved a chicken. The disadvantages become evident when you try to explain to your neighbor how you saved that chicken while he’s firing up the barbecue amid the larger context of 8 billion chickens killed annually for food in America alone.

You can also purchase day-old baby chicks from many feed stores, such as Malibu Feed Bin (310-456-2043) or John’s. The gender of the chicks has usually been determined with 90 percent accuracy by experts. The chick’s gender is impossible for a layperson to know. The infants will need to be kept warm (95° F) in a brooder — which can be something as simple as a cardboard box, lined with sawdust or cedar, with a small clip-on lamp (purchased at Staples or Office Depot for about $10) hanging inside. As the chicks feather out, you need to lower the temperature by reducing the wattage of the bulb. Start with a 60-watt bulb, reducing it to 40 watts, then 25 watts. The chicks will show you their range of comfort by how close they hover around, or avoid, the lamp’s heat. If they’re too cold, they’ll chirp with such shrill ferocity that you won’t be able to sleep until you remedy the situation.

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