Pleasanton Weekly

Cover Story - April 22, 2011

Easter chicks -- all year long

The adventure of raising chickens in the back yard

by Story and photos Jerri Pantages Long

Most families have only one Easter egg hunt per year.

Not the Esparza family of Pleasanton: Every day, year round, they seek out eggs in their own back yard because 9-year-old Emily Esparza has begun raising chickens as a 4-H Club project. Now the chicken "family" includes three bantam (miniature) hens, plus three chicks that will grow to full size.

Emily discovered her fondness for chickens while visiting her Aunt Missy (Dantzig), who also lives in Pleasanton and raises chickens. Once Emily decided that she wanted chickens of her own, the whole family became involved. One of Emily's Christmas presents was a book about chickens, plus the promise of acquiring live ones.

Which comes first...? It turns out that the answer to that old riddle should be neither chickens nor eggs, but a place to keep them safe.

Emily's father, Tony, built an attractive chicken coop with the help of her brothers Matthew, 15, and Nathan, 13. They went online to see examples of other people's chicken coops, picked out one they all liked, and tried to follow the photos showing the stages of construction that took one year to complete -- but the Espazas had only three weeks to finish the job.

"Unfortunately, the website did not include detailed plans or lists of supplies, so they made lots of trips to the hardware store," said Emily's mother, Jennifer, with a laugh.

It was a race against time: When Emily joined Abbie 4-H Club, she learned that an excellent source of chickens would be the Pacific Poultry Show in Stockton in January. That meant a tight deadline for creating a suitable home for the about-to-be-adopted chickens.

An excellent source of information about all-things-chicken is www.BackYardChickens.com, abbreviated BYC. It suggests that a chicken coop should provide 2-3 square feet of indoor space per chicken, plus 4-5 square feet per chicken in an outdoor run.

The indoor part is usually raised on legs to provide dry, safe places for the hens to roost and nest. That also means that they can use the shady space beneath the hen house for moving around and pecking at feed, bugs or weeds.

There are an amazing variety of chicken coops, some with shutters, turrets or gingerbread trim. A quick look at posted messages on BYC tells one how widespread this hobby has become. In fact, the cities of Seattle, Wash., and Portland, Ore., each sponsor "coop tours." People pay a fee for a printed guide listing backyard chicken coops to visit and "talk chicken" with the owners. The money is donated to local charities.

The Esparzas wanted to make sure that Emily's chickens would be safe from predators, so they dug down for a foundation that would prevent raccoons from burrowing under the enclosed run. The top is covered with wire mesh so that hawks cannot swoop down to endanger the chickens.

A ramp leads from the ground to the entrance of the hen house, and the flock can be securely tucked in for the night, sleeping on the roosting rod. Also inside are nesting boxes, where the chickens go to lay their eggs. A small side door makes it easy for Emily to search for eggs and to keep the nesting boxes clean and sweet-smelling with wood shavings.

Once the coop was ready, painted white and embellished with a flower box at (people) eye level, the Esparzas set off for the poultry show. Emily's 4-H leader advised her to start with bantam hens at least a year old.

Bantams are a quarter to a half the size of other chickens, which would make them easier for Emily to hold in one hand, with arm extended, if she chose to show them at the county fair. Downy female chicks become feathered pullets from 2-12 months, then hens as they mature enough to lay eggs.

Once at the poultry show, there were a bewildering amount of choices, according to Jennifer, and they sought out a 4-H member for help. BYC shows pictures of 52 breeds, which come in more than a dozen different colors.

"We learned to examine the chickens' wings, to make sure they were not broken; their eyes, to see that they were clear and alert; and to count their toes," said Emily's mom. "Chickens in that setting, inside small cages, should actually look a little stressed, not docile with a head tucked under a wing."

The seemingly calm poultry may actually not be healthy, they were told.

Family flock settles in

"Now we get about two eggs each day," said Emily proudly, as she introduced LeBeef (a Bantam Polish hen with a striking topknot of black-and-white feathers), Paquita (a Bantam d'Anver with gleaming red-brown feathers), and Jazmen (a Bantam Modern Game Hen with a distinctive, long-legged gait). Her brothers named the first two, and Emily named the third after one of her friends.

What is the best part about owning chickens?

"Actually, I really just like to play with them a lot," said Emily with a smile.

That's what the chickens seem to like, too, each following Emily until she picks it up and cuddles it. LeBeef is particularly fond of riding around on Emily's shoulder, like a parrot with a fluffy Easter bonnet.

Each morning before school, Emily and her father check to make sure that the trio of hens has enough fresh water in the hanging metal container. The adjacent feed container usually needs to be replenished only once every three days. On weekends, Emily and Tony spend about 45 minutes thoroughly cleaning out the coop.

After school, Emily delights in letting out the small flock to roam the back yard under her watchful eye. They make murmuring noises not unlike the cooing of pigeons, sort of a poultry purring sound, as Emily gently picks up each one.

For a special treat, she can feed her chickens "scratch," which is a mixture of dried corn, milo (a grain sorghum with white, yellow or pinkish seeds) and wheat.

"They really like it," she said. "They will fly onto my lap to get it."

Another treat that is an amazing example of recycling is eggshells. When Emily found evidence of a shell-less egg in the nesting box, she was told that it meant her hens might need more calcium. She added it to their diet in two ways: bits of oyster shell mixed in with their feed and also crumbled shells from the eggs eaten by the Esparzas. It takes three of the small bantam eggs to equal two standard eggs.

Now that Emily has had a quarter year of caring for chickens, she is embarking on a new adventure: raising chicks. The family has acquired two Barred (black and white) Leghorn chicks (Cindy and Henny Penny) and a Buff Cochin (Buffy) that looks like a poster chick for Easter.

For their first 2 months of life, chicks must be kept in a brooder -- a small box or cage heated by a light bulb. The Esparzas have dedicated a bathtub to this part of the project.

The temperature of their nest-like enclosure can be decreased from 90 degrees by 5 degrees each week, as they begin to sprout feathers, according to BYC. When they are fully feathered, they can be moved into the coop. These three newcomers will quickly dwarf their bantam coop-mates, because they will grow to be at least twice as big.

The trio of chicks already is being welcomed into the family.

"When we are watching TV, we take turns holding each chick, petting it, so that they will get used to us," said Jennifer.

Family tradition

Emily is a fourth-generation chicken-keeper.

"My grandparents had chickens when I was growing up," said Emily's father. "I loved them as pets. This project of Emily's has been a ton of fun. Even cleaning out the coop is like therapy."

Watching Emily tenderly care for her flock, one can tell that this might be her best Easter ever.

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