Meet San Diego’s Hideaway Hens
Backyard chickens are growing in number across San Diego as interest in local food production increases. But city rules still make it hard to keep them legally, rendering them outlaw birds.
photo by Sam Hodgson
On a quiet San Diego cul-de-sac, behind a house perched at the edge of a canyon and concealed by a thick canopy of trees, Oscar and Owl, fugitive hens, are in hiding.
They’ve been lying low since January in a makeshift coop, a ramshackle pen nothing like the palatial wood-frame setup they once called home in North Park. But it’ll have to do for now. Oscar and Owl can’t go back.
They’ve been banished.
Theirs is a sad story of two chicks whose lives started with promise but went terribly wrong. They were raised in a small backyard in North Park by a house full of young, environmentally-conscious roommates eager to embrace the growing urban agriculture movement. Oscar and Owl lived happy, egg-laying, bug-scavenging existences.
Until the city of San Diego caught up with them, forcing them into hiding, to bounce from one home to another, to endure social ostracization, violence and finally, isolation. They became poster chickens for local food advocates who think it’s time San Diego changes its rules to make it easier to keep backyard poultry.
Those rules are not unusual. Many cities nationwide restrict urban chickens, usually for health reasons. But some cities like Los Angeles have long allowed them, while others, such as Seattle, have more recently loosened their laws, recognizing that chickens can help maintain gardens and produce local food: fresh eggs.
That was the plan for Oscar and Owl. Their story begins at a country store in Escondido, where one day, three years ago, 27-year-oldKaya de Barbaro and her roommates pulled open a drawer filled with chicks, just a few days old, all fuzz and for sale. The roommates scooped up two, their little wings flapping, and drove them to North Park, to a rented house on a residential street. The roommates built a coop in their garden, a home for the two chicks, who became part of the family and pitched in the only way they could: They ate bugs and digested leftover kitchen scraps into nitrate-rich manure that the roommates used for fertilizer.
After a few months, they even started paying rent: one egg a day. Life was good.
But one day in May 2009, everything changed. A letter came in the mail from the city of San Diego. Those hens were illegal, it said. City health rules allowed chickens, but only if kept at least 50 feet from the nearest house. At de Barbaro’s home, that was impossible. The yard was small and surrounded by neighbors. Oscar and Owl would have to go.
The roommates were devastated.
There was one possibility. The law made an exception if the city’s public health director decided the chickens didn’t pose a threat to human health. But the city hasn’t had a health director for years. So there was no one to approve a special permit, even though de Barbaro had gotten a petition signed by all her neighbors — except two. They lived in a two-story house with a view of de Barbaro’s backyard from their second-story window. Chickens don’t belong in the city, they told her. The situation looked grim.
As luck would have it, de Barbaro had met a woman nearby who also kept hens illegally, because in plenty of San Diego neighborhoods it’s impossible to keep them more than 50 feet away from a house. The woman agreed to take in Oscar and Owl.
But there, they found themselves at the bottom of the pecking order. Other hens harassed them and plucked their feathers, drawing blood. Their bright red wattles turned an ashen pink. It became clear the abuse was traumatizing them. They’d grown jumpy and skittish. When de Barbaro visited, she could hardly pick them up.
“That broke my heart,” de Barbaro says. But she and her roommates didn’t want to give the chickens away. They stayed there more than a year, until the woman moved.
Then they were uprooted again, this time to a house whose location de Barbaro wants kept secret, owned by a woman she met through an online network of chicken lovers. De Barbaro and her roommates visit Oscar and Owl a couple of times a week. They’ve mostly recovered. Their wattles have regained their hue. A canyon separates them from nearby houses. But they’re just a few feet from their new caretaker’s house. So they’re technically still illegal.
“We’re trying to keep it quiet,” de Barbaro says, stroking Oscar’s feathers during a recent visit.
In a way, Oscar and Owl were just unlucky: Someone complained. Across San Diego, growing numbers of residents are openly flouting the law by keeping chickens, motivated by principle and a burgeoning interest in the role chickens play in the cycle of local food production: They clear gardens of pests, eat leftovers, produce manure and lay fresh eggs.
At her house in Talmadge, Brook Sarson keeps five in a sprawling pen she constructed of clay and netting. They’re technically illegal, but her neighbors don’t mind. They watch them when she’s out of town. Her children’s school has two hens. In City Heights, Rich Macgurn keeps six, not quite 50 feet from his house. In Little Italy, Jennifer Tavernier has three. Hers are legal because her coop is 50 feet from her house, surrounded by parking lots and an architectural firm.
Robert Vacchi, deputy director of neighborhood code compliance for the city, says the law regulating chickens is so old he doesn’t know exactly what health concerns prompted it. The city only enforces the rule if it gets complaints, he says. That’s what happened with Oscar and Owl.
But a growing chorus wants the city to adopt less stringent rules for backyard chickens. A coalition of advocates pushing for community gardens has also identified legalizing backyard chickens as a priority.
While many San Diegans skirt the law openly, others shroud their fowl in the secrecy required by their decision to disobey. One La Mesa food advocate was happy to speak with us—until she got a letter from her city demanding she get rid of her backyard chickens.
She’s negotiating. But it’s possible her hens, like Oscar and Owl, could soon be forced into quiet exile.
Adrian Florido covers neighborhoods for voiceofsandiego.org, a nonprofit news organization that partners with SDM.