Chicken coops, once uncouth, are springing up in Santa Cruz backyards


Four babies arrived at the Branciforte Avenue home of Holly and Jeff Akiyoshi early last summer. The new parents held their breath. They wanted girls.

The Akiyoshis got their wish within a few months — not a rooster in the bunch.

The loud-mouthed males are banned in the urban areas of Santa Cruz County, but hens don’t require so much as a permit. Whether it’s the economy, a desire for sustainable living or the appeal of farm-fresh eggs, a growing number of county residents appear to be catching on to the idea of backyard coops. And they’re in places where chickens haven’t traditionally been kept, at least not for the past half-century.

“I’m planning on getting two hens each year, so we don’t have any dry years,” said Holly Akiyoshi, whose flock now numbers 11 and is laying half-a-dozen eggs a day in the heart of the Eastside.

Scotts Valley Feed sold 3,000 chickens in 2009, up from 150 to 300 just four years earlier. Spring started in February this year at the store — chicks usually don’t go on the shelves until April — and already 1,500 have found homes.

“We got 300 and sold them out in 45 minutes,” said co-owner Christine Richie. “The hatcheries were caught off guard.”

Jen Dumford, manager of DIG Gardens in Santa Cruz, reports an increased interest in heritage breeds — the cold-hardy Speckled Sussex, the Rhode Island Red — from customers who want to add more variety to the color of their hens’ plummage and resulting eggs.

But unlike growing parsley, keeping chickens isn’t necessarily cheaper than buying eggs from the store. There’s the expense of creating a sturdy coop — a necessity. Chickens are natural foragers who can live off bugs and greens in the wild, but urban chickens need to be given feed. A 50-pound bag of organic scratch runs about $30 and lasts a month or two, depending on the size of the flock, and the birds can sometimes require supplements like ground oyster shells to ensure hard eggs.

So with organic eggs at the market starting at roughly $2.99 a dozen, why bother with a coop? Because for many, chickens are less of a farm animal, more of an all-in-one family pet — one that helps with the compost, offers a feeling of self-sufficiency and requires minimal care beyond the owners’ watchful eye.

More here.