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.
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.
Is avian flu a concern? As much as an incurable bird-flu pandemic is dreaded, it hasn’t materialized. According to the Centers for Disease Control, across eight countries avian flu has claimed 103 lives — a tiny fraction of how many Americans die each year from non-avian flus. The few human deaths have all been attributed to the mishandling of dead or dying birds. In eastern Turkey, an 11-year-old girl contracted the flu after using the week-old decapitated head of a chicken as a toy ball. To be safe, build some kind of roofing over your chicken pen to protect your birds from migratory waterfowl, which may be responsible for spreading the disease. In the unlikely combination of events that the disease arrives here, and your pet or flock suddenly becomes ill, contact the county Health Department.
What does a chicken eat? Almost anything. Chickens don’t have teeth, so they also swallow small rocks, which get stored in their crop (a pocket between the beak and the stomach) to help break down larger chunks passing through. Chicken food purchased at any feed store consists of ground corn supplemented with vitamins and minerals. If you have infants less than 2 weeks old, ask for specially formulated “chick starter” to get them off to a good launch in life. If you have laying hens, you should either be feeding them laying mash, which has calcium supplements to support the egg shells, or mixing crushed oyster shells (also available at feed stores) into their food.
What is the average life span of a chicken? Five to seven years. On commercial farms, laying hens are slaughtered after two years, when their productivity starts to decline; roasting chickens live 14 weeks; fryers, six.
When does a hen start laying eggs? At about 5 months of age. For her first two seasons, she’ll lay an egg every 30 to 34 hours. If she’s outdoors and perceives the days getting shorter, her system will shut down for the winter, and resume in the spring, when her pituitary gland senses an increase in daily light.
Does my hen need a rooster to lay eggs? No. She only needs a rooster to lay fertile eggs for hatching. The vast majority of eggs purchased in supermarkets are not fertile. Some health-food stores carry fertile eggs. There is no nutritional difference between a fertile and a non-fertile egg. Once your hen lays eggs, you have to wait about a half-hour for the shell to harden to eat them, but it doesn’t get any fresher than that. If you aren’t going to eat them within a day, you should refrigerate them.
Can I turn my chickens loose in my home? Yes, if you enjoy cleaning chicken shit off the sofa and tabletops. Adult chickens should be maintained in an outdoor pen with a floor of sawdust or cedar chips, with room to run and perch, a nesting space, and protection from local predators such as raccoons, coyotes, opossums and hawks.
Can I talk to my chicken? Of course you can.
Will my chicken answer? Yes.
Will I understand my chicken’s answer? I don’t know.
What should I name my chicken? Chuck. Zeus is also good.
How do I hold my chicken? If you haven’t raised it from a chick, gently seize and hold both feet in one hand, and support the body under the sternum with the other. Baby chicks can easily be trained to jump onto your hands and perch on your fingers. Show the chick your hands first, and then slide them in under the chest and raise them up. The chick will happily jump aboard, and will remember this trick through adulthood. Never swoop down on the bird from above and grab it by the wings: Chickens are pre-wired to know that they’re prey, and all you’re doing is imitating a hawk and triggering panic.
Can I hypnotize my chicken? Yes. Gently hold the bird’s beak to the ground; then, using a finger (if on sand or dirt) ?or chalk (if on pavement), draw a straight line extending away from the beak. You’ll be able to release your hold and the bird will remain in a silent daze for up to a minute.
Is there any good reason to hypnotize a chicken? No.
Are there other ways of obtaining chickens? Yes, you can hatch one in an incubator, if you wish to fully appreciate the wonder of life and its origins. For this you will also need fertile hatching eggs.
Where can I find fertile hatching eggs? I usually get mine from Ken Arno (818-774-0744), who has a free-range farm outside Van Nuys. After Clifford was stolen, however, it was the middle of winter, and Ken’s chickens weren’t laying. John’s Feed Store has a year-round supply of Rhode Island Red hatching eggs, trucked in from Texas. Fertile eggs from a health-food market are typically too old to yield live chickens.
Where do I find an incubator? At flemingoutdoors.com, for about $20, you can buy a simple “still air” plastic incubator that holds three chicken eggs. Last month, after three days of incubation, six eggs in two incubators were showing signs of development — the network of arteries around a spiderlike center that appears when you hold the egg up to a flashlight’s beam. Humidity needs to be sustained by keeping one of the incubator’s hollow legs filled with water, and the temperature kept between 99° F and 103° F for 21 days. The eggs must be turned two to three times a day to prevent the embryo from sticking to the shell. After the 18th day, you triple the humidity and stop turning the eggs, as the chicks are positioning themselves for the hatch. A ?7-watt bulb generates the heat, strips of tinfoil strategically added or removed from atop the plastic dome regulate the temperature, while a thermometer attached to a 2-inch-long strip of card stock — gently nestled on the top of one egg — measures the five degrees of separation between life and death.
Which came first, the chicken or the egg? The egg, obviously. What a stupid question.?
For more writings by Steven Leigh Morris about chickens and chicken hatching, go to: www.laweekly.com/a-considerable-town/10998/chicken-hearted; www.laweekly.com/a-considerable-town/10689/cock-tale-a-spiteful-rooster.