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SLO County chicken enthusiasts share pro tips for keeping backyard birds as healthy pets

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While a dog, cat, or fish might seem like the safe and traditional options when looking to add a new member to the family, a free-range feathered friend might pique the interest of those wanting a more unconventional pet.

Barbara Bullock, a longtime SLO resident and a member of the Central Coast Feather Fanciers, has been raising chickens since she was a young girl and claims they're the best animals to keep as pets—and she encourages others to give them a chance.

"[Chickens] are very sociable; they recognize people, faces, and behaviors," Bullock said. "Chickens just really get to know their person, other family members, and love to follow you around your yard."

POULTRY PALS Once chickens are comfortable in their surroundings, they can act as guard "dogs" against strangers and unknown animals by squawking loudly. For this and other reasons, Barbara Bullock, of the Central Coast Feather Fanciers, claims they make the best pets. - COURTESY PHOTO BY TARA NEELY
  • Courtesy Photo By Tara Neely
  • POULTRY PALS Once chickens are comfortable in their surroundings, they can act as guard "dogs" against strangers and unknown animals by squawking loudly. For this and other reasons, Barbara Bullock, of the Central Coast Feather Fanciers, claims they make the best pets.

Central Coast Feather Fanciers is a club dedicated to the advancement of poultry breeding and exhibition, according to its website. Bullock said the group's members aim to help those in SLO County "with breeding and showing poultry while also encouraging newbies to check out the hobby."

While the alluring nature of keeping chicks might come with a variety of eventual benefits such as free eggs, the county has semi-strict regulations on where locals can keep a backyard flock. Veterans in the poultry industry also highlight how important it is to keep their areas clean so chickens remain healthy.

According to SLO County's municipal codes website, community members don't need to apply for a permit if they're going to have fewer than 20 chickens on their property. They also aren't required to have a certain amount of square feet for the birds' designated space.

However, Kelsie Crane, consultant and founder of Coops and Roots, said that while SLO doesn't have a requirement for how much space chickens need, it's ideal to provide a decent-sized coop and enough room for them to flap their feathers and run around.

"We ideally want to see 10 square feet per chicken if that's possible and a coop that provides safety from overnight predators," Crane said. "You want your coop to be really secure because nobody wants hawks, foxes, or even bears to get into your coop, so it's important to be careful with that."

Coops and Roots is a local coop cleaning business that specializes in the care of chickens in SLO and Santa Barbara counties.

Crane said that believe it or not, a pecking order is a real thing, and when more space is available, there tends to be less chicken drama.

"Try keeping the chickens in a healthy environment so that they're able to move about and maintain a healthy pecking order," Crane said. "When a chicken has an injury, they tend to be the ones getting picked on by the rest of the flock, so having enough space in the coop is going to subside any [bullying]."

Bullock echoed this sentiment and said that the more room chickens have, the healthier they will be and the longer they will live.

"You don't want a mess—the flies, the smells—you've got to keep them clean in order to prevent those problems," Bullock said.

Crane said one thing first-time chicken owners need to remember is that just like a dog or cat, routine health checks are important to ensure the birds' longevity.

"Look into their skin through the feathers, go under the nesting pads or into the places where the hens are laying their eggs to see if there's any kind of pest infestation there because those are the warm spaces where chickens tend to spend a lot of time," she said. "Pretty much just go from beak to tail."

Crane also said to make sure that the coop itself has proper ventilation by using the right materials.

"I always say to use pine shavings over straw or hay because pests like straw or hay because it has an opening in the middle and it's kind of hollow inside," she said. "That's a place where little bugs will make their homes or breed, so pine shavings are usually a better route because it also keeps the smell down."

Bullock said a common mistake that a lot of new chicken owners make is not finding the best place to purchase their chicks—because that makes all the difference.

"Research and ask a lot of questions to make sure you're getting them from a healthy breeder. Don't just go online and get them from the first place you see," Bullock said. "There are breeders out there that just breed and you want to make sure that they're healthy. Check for vaccination records just like your dog or cat."

The last big takeaway is that feeding the chickens what they are supposed to eat, and not just table scraps, will keep them strong, Bullock said.

"They need good nutrients, good feed, and if you're expecting eggs from them, then you need a lot of calcium," she said. "Most feeds and grains today are made and produced to make sure that the birds have the right nutrients."

Bullock said overall just have fun with your new chicks, which will grow up and eventually make the perfect guard "dogs."

"They'll recognize you and come running, but they will also alert you if a stranger is in your backyard by making really loud noises," she said. "It's the best of both worlds." Δ

Reach Staff Writer Samantha Herrera at [email protected].

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