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Backyard chicken coops strut their stuff

Amelia Naim-Hansen has four chickens that live in her specially designed A-frame coop. Naim-Hansen is participating in her second Tour de Cluck on May 25. Sue Cockrell/Enterprise photo

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From page A1 | May 16, 2013 |

Check it out

What: Fourth annual Tour de Cluck, a bicycle chicken coop crawl

When: 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday, May 25

Where: Starting at the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame, 303 Third St.

Tickets: $15 general, $10 students/seniors, free for kids under 12; some tickets still may be available at the Davis Food Co-op, Ken’s Bike & Ski, Hibbert Lumber and The Avid Reader in Davis, and The Clayground in Winters

Info: www.tourdecluck.org

With a peck and a scratch, Sunshine, a white leghorn chicken with a bright-red comb jiggling on top her head, rustles and jabs through freshly laid bark in Ron and Gloria Purnell’s back yard.

Just a few feet away, Sunshine’s comrades follow suit — strolling out of their open coop door to the new bark.

With every step, each chicken’s head bobs and pivots in sync, with their feet in search of grubs. Their scaly legs and claws extend forward and briskly fling the bark a few feet behind them onto the lawn to expose the moist soil beneath.

The Purnells’ oldest chicken, a brown araucana named Chirps, stands up straight with her neck extended upward and erect in aggression, sending Cheeps, a shy, red Welsummer, running back to the Purnells’ homemade coop.

“One friend of mine referred to them as dinosaurs with feathers,” said Ron Purnell, whose pen is one of 17 chicken coops featured on this year’s fourth annual Tour de Cluck Bicycle Chicken Coop Crawl on Saturday, May 25. The bicycle tour gives chicken owners and admirers an opportunity to see some of Davis’ most inventive and practical coops.

The Tour de Cluck is much more now than a one-day coop tour; it’s a monthlong celebration of all things chicken. Several Chicken Skool educational events are planned, including a talk Monday evening by a UC Davis expert on the humble chicken’s important role in battling global malnutrition and poverty.

“The education portion of it is something that has been pretty successful for us,” said Neil Ruud, this year’s Tour de Cluck coordinator. “We’ve had a lot of people who are curious about keeping chickens who end up coming to the tour, finding out the best ways of doing it and getting ideas from the chicken coops they see to incorporate them at home.”

The Purnells — along with their sons Zack, 11, and Joe, 6 — decided to raise chickens as pets in their back yard five years ago as a way to supplement their family’s egg purchases.

“It was kind of a nice, entry-level experience to learn more about taking care of animals,” said Gloria Purnell. “We’ve really enjoyed it. I’ve enjoyed it the most.”

Several coop designs

The Purnells’ coop underwent several incarnations before arriving at its current configuration three years ago. The family experimented with a small portable coop, known as a chicken tractor, that allowed them to let their chickens graze and fertilize a small section of the yard at a time.

After deciding the coop was too confining, they tried different stationary coop configurations before Gloria’s husband built a larger run and covered perching area.

“Coop design is something that’s really become some kind of an art form, especially with the burgeoning of urban poultry,” said Richard Blatchford, a post-doctoral scholar in the UC Davis department of animal science, who specializes in animal behavior and avian husbandry.

Theorized to have descended from dinosaurs and reptiles, chickens have been domesticated for more than 10,000 years, Blatchford said, and have only a few essential requirements.

“Their behavioral repertoire is still almost identical to their wild ancestor,” said Blatchford who, with others from UCD, will be answering questions at the Farmers Market next Saturday during the Coop Tour. “Being highly preyed upon, terrestrial animals, … they are highly driven to go somewhere high at night.”

According to Blatchford, perches or ramps can fulfill this requirement.

Meet their needs

Since chickens are accustomed to perching in trees and bushes to sleep and preen, the coop should be partially covered for shelter — which also keeps their food dry.

Coops also serve as a shelter from unwanted pest that may harm flocks. Blatchford said securing the perimeter of the coop below ground from burrowing animals and providing a netting or roof of some kind will stave off dogs, cats, raccoons, opossums, hawks and other animals interested in chickens or their eggs.

As the Purnells’ mother hen, or bully, Chirps demonstrated that poultry have a rigid social hierarchy enforced by pecking — hence the term “pecking order.”

Blatchford said the dominant hen would peck the head of the subordinate individuals to establish order initially, and rarely have encounters afterwards.

“Generally some aggression is OK,” Blatchford said, “There is very little aggression once that hierarchy has been worked out.”

Even with more than 200 coop owners in town, Davis Assistant Police Chief Darren Pytel said chicken-related noise complaints are not a significant problem. Coop applications are available at the front desk of the Davis Police Department, 2600 Fifth St., and require a $2 application fee.

Garden partners

The Purnells and other chicken lovers have discovered that raising urban chickens can be of help in the garden.

“They have completely decimated the snail population in the yard,” Gloria Purnell said.

Chickens often seek insects for their high protein.

“They are opportunistic carnivores,” Blatchford said. “They are very good at fulfilling dietary requirements, so they will pick at lots of different stuff to fulfill whatever they are looking for.

“A lot of people will get them as gardening partners for weeding or for pest control,” he added. “If you have a wide variety of plants, they probably won’t do too much damage, but they will also pick at your vegetable plants.”

Amelia Naim-Hansen, a second-year veteran of the Tour de Cluck, has changed the way she gardens to appease her feathered friends.

“It’s kind of like baby-proofing your house,” said Naim-Hansen, who owns four chickens. “I’ve gotten pretty clever at finding ways to prevent them from destroying the yard.”

Naim-Hansen said she and her partner recently installed raised beds for their vegetables, which worked until the chickens discovered the bounty growing in them. They constructed small cages that fit over the raised beds out of PVC pipe and mesh, which also can be used as pens when Naim-Hansen wants to take the chickens into the front yard to graze.

“They are happier when they have their freedom,” she said.

Naim-Hansen also grows plants for both her family and the chickens to eat. Among the chickens’ favorites are fava beans, which do not seem to be harmed by their pecking, she said.

“I plant that for me and for them,” Naim-Hansen said.

Find those eggs

Chickens’ reproductive systems respond to light, Blatchford said, meaning they typically lay one egg per day in the summer and slow down their egg production in the winter.

According to Blatchford, if you don’t provide chickens with an actual nesting area, they’ll find the next closest thing.

“If you want them to lay in a particular area, it’s better to give them something they are looking for,” said Blatchford, who recommended a secluded, shaded place for hens to lay.

“If you let them out, they will find a better place to lay than in your coop,” he said, “You will have to do an Easter egg hunt every day looking for eggs.”

A hen can harbor salmonella in her gut and can shed the bacteria in feces. For this reason, Blatchford said chicken owners should always practice good food-handling techniques around fowl — wash your hands.

“People should be aware that could be an issue,” Blatchford said, “but they shouldn’t be scared.”

Blatchford attributes Davis’ interest in backyard chickens to the local food movement and their relatively low maintenance.

“I wasn’t entirely happy with how factory farm chickens were kept,” said Naim-Hansen, who grows much of her own food. “I wanted high-quality eggs.”

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