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California's vibrant agricultural character extends to the backyards of big cities as residents keep personality-packed pet chickens for an egg bounty in return. Municipal laws throughout the state not only dictate how many chickens can be kept per parcel -- if they are allowed at all -- but detail what kind of buffers need to be in place between a coop and the nearest neighbor. Cities also can charge licensing and permit fees and dictate the proper dimensions for a backyard coop.
California state law pertains to commercial hens, requiring that they be kept in cages large enough to spread their wings -- and the state also requires that any out-of-state farmer who wants to sell eggs in California meet the requirement.
The Humane Society of the United States, which lobbied for the California law regulating hens on commercial farms, notes that one of the problems of backyard chicken ownership is that many municipalities ban crowing roosters -- and sometimes sellers of fluffy chicks don't sex them right. Adult chickens often can be found for adoption at shelters, through animal rescue organizations or even classified ads.
Chickens need secure living environments with protection from natural predators and temperature extremes. And though urban chickens give their owners a steady supply of farm-to-table eggs, it can be difficult to find a veterinarian in town who treats the birds.
California laws on chicken coops vary by jurisdiction. In the capital city of Sacramento, for example, roosters are banned and no more than three chickens can be kept on residential property. A coop has to be in the backyard, must be at least 20 feet away from the nearest neighbor and must be between 15 square feet and 42 square feet in size with a roof. Feed has to be stored so it doesn't draw rodents to the property, and chicken poop and feathers have to be cleaned up every 24 hours.
Down south in Los Angeles, the buffer increases to keep chicken coops 35 feet from the neighbors and 20 feet from the owner's home. There's no limit on the size of the flock, and roosters are allowed as long as they're kept 100 feet away from the nearest neighbor.
However, in farm-rich central California's San Joaquin Valley, chicken owners in cities surrounded by farmland as far as the eye can see have faced hurdles trying to get officials to approve backyard coops. Those opposed to allowing chickens in backyards have cited the risk of the birds getting loose or spreading disease in addition to the noise and waste concerns.
It's important for chicken enthusiasts living under city ordinances to keep on top of the law. Pressure from residents has led to some cities easing their backyard bans, but residents complaining about noise or odors also can show up at city council meetings to try to sway officials in the other direction.
Mind the Rules
Owners of chicken coops need to carefully follow ordinances and make sure that noises or smells aren't disturbing neighbors. Complaints made to city or county officials usually result in animal control officers coming out to check your property, and they can issue violations for noncompliance.
Cases may get bumped up to criminal court if officers observe signs of neglect, abuse or any indication that roosters are being used for fighting.