Today, my illegal chicken Victoria laid her first egg. I suppose the egg is illegal too. It's large and brown and my roommate's daughter will get to eat it because she won our bet on which day the first egg would come. According to a study done by Mother Earth News, this egg will be healthier than anything you find in the store - even the cage free organic eggs. That is because of the chicken's diet. Most egg laying chickens in this country eat only chicken feed. My chickens eat that too, but they also dine on kitchen scraps, bugs, and grass. That means their eggs will have more vitamins, better fats, and less cholesterol than the eggs in the store. If you want to buy an egg that is as good as Victoria's, you have to get to the La Mesa farmer's market early enough to buy them, for $5 per dozen.

La Mesa is pretty common in its chicken rules. It does not forbid chickens outright (although it does forbid roosters) but you can only have chickens in certain zones. In most of La Mesa, you cannot legally keep a chicken. Many cities around the U.S. are changing their chicken laws, typically allowing a family to keep about 3 to 8 hens (no roosters) in a clean, well-maintained coop. Salt Lake City went even further, allowing homeowners to keep up to 15 fowl if their lot is smaller than a quarter acre, or 25 fowl if their lot is larger than that. Usually after a city allows chickens, the response is: "Wow, that's no big deal at all!" (Although some respond with "Gee, I want some chickens too!")

My family did not enter into illegal chicken keeping lightly. We first asked the city to change the chicken laws and then we worked with City Council for about a year on the issue. City Council seemed receptive to looking into the matter, but was in no hurry to do so. In the meantime, we were paying $5/dozen on eggs - or more. So this past December, we got four buff orpingtons, a breed known to be docile and friendly, from a local farm. We named them after royalty: Elizabeth, Victoria, Diana, and Kate. I built them a coop, which we call Cluckingham Palace, and they've lived in our backyard ever since.

My roommate, who was less into the idea of chickens than I was, was pleasantly surprised by the chickens. He thought they might try to escape, or we might have other problems such as noise or smell. But we don't. I fill the bottom of the coop with straw and after about a month, it still doesn't smell. At that point, I toss the dirty straw into the compost pile, not because there's a problem with odor so much as because I want compost made with chicken manure for our garden.

One of our "hens," Kate, turned out to actually be a William (since I bought them unsexed and they were juvenile at the time, which means you don't know who's a boy and who's a girl until half crow and the other half lay eggs). We had planned for that contingency in advance, so we found him a new home quickly. Neither of us would mind letting someone take a rooster and eat it, but our boy was a really friendly, nice little rooster, full of personality, so we found him a home that won't eat him.

The benefits of our venture into urban chicken keeping both showed up in the same week. Our first batch of compost made with chicken manure was done this week and I added it to a bed in our garden where I plan to grow our tomatoes. And then, today, Victoria gave us our first egg.

The reaction we've gotten to our chickens from neighbors has been a good one as well. The chickens are far less of a nuisance than dogs that bark or poop in neighbors yards or the traffic and fire engines that blare up and down our street. They eat pests I find in the garden and they turn our bugs, kitchen scraps, and weeds into valuable resources - eggs and fertilizer. Plus, they are friendly little girls who are now part of our family.

The hardest part has been explaining to the kids why we are breaking the law. And why are we breaking the law. I know why we have chickens, but why is it still illegal?

If you are interested in keeping chickens in La Mesa, or if you want to see what a small chicken coop with a few chickens in it looks like, smells like, or sounds like, please contact me. You are more than welcome to come over to see our coop and meet our girls. And then, if you think it's no big deal - or a great idea - then please let Mayor Madrid and the City Council know what you think.

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Tags: agriculture, chickens, urban

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Comment by william adams on April 7, 2012 at 3:44pm

Good ol' conservative La Mesa, where so many residents rant about too many regulations and government intrusion, are big supporters of gun ownership, yet a few hens are a threat! (sarcasm)  Its just so hypocritical. If you need any support in this cause, please let me know.  Its ironic how densely populated cities are leading the movement towards urban farming, including keeping a few chickens, but roomy suburbs are resisting such change.  

Comment by Tiffany Shepherd on March 27, 2012 at 6:44am

Hi Jill,  Any news lately on the La Mesa chicken issue?  We would love to get a few hens for egg-laying, as well.  How are your chickens doing?  

Comment by Jill Richardson on April 3, 2011 at 11:42pm

Thanks. My take is that if people are already illegally keeping chickens (and several are - not just me) then it's in the city's interest to have a conversation about it in the open and then set the parameters around what chicken keeping should look like in our city.

About your chickens - what breeds do you have? I just got some Ameraucana chicks (who will lay blue eggs) and they are soooo wonderful. Just the friendliest, sweetest little chickens I've ever met. We also got a Wyandotte chick along with them who is not very friendly at all. I've jokingly nicknamed that one "Dinner" but we'll see. Both my roommate and I are vegetarians and I don't even really like eating chicken. But he does.

Comment by The OBriens of La Mesa on April 3, 2011 at 1:12pm
Congratulations on your First Egg! We are fortunate to live in one of the few 'Zones' that allow Chickens in La Mesa and have enjoyed the many benefits of our  Egg Producing chickens for about two years. We get bout 4 eggs a day now from 5 Happy Hens. Getting closer to food source will become more and more imperative as time goes on. Hopefully this City Council ours will see this as well and stop dragging their collective feet on a rather simple issue. Of course the more Rogue Urban Chickens we have the harder it will be for them to do this.

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