A growing number of Napa households are adding family members of a different kind: winged, feathered and egg-laying.
In backyards in the city of Napa and elsewhere in the county, chickens are joining the more obvious animal companions of suburbia: cats, dogs and rabbits.
Whether city folk adopting a rural hobby, or country-born Napans returning to their roots, a growing number of families are spurning supermarket eggs for those collected from their own henhouses.
“Hi, girls!” Heather Troedson called out brightly on a recent morning to her half-dozen feathered friends as she carried a bowl of bread bits and raspberries. The hens trotted out from their 16-by-6-foot abode — an enclosure tucked in the corner of the Troedsons’ backyard fence at their north Napa home — to swipe the scraps, then jogged onto the lawn or sought soil patches to rub themselves in for their daily “dust bath” grooming.
Raised on a half-acre property north of Napa, Troedson spent much of her childhood helping raise chicks in a nursery that her parents rigged with heat lights, where their hens produced eggs to sell at farmers markets. Eight years ago, she revived the tradition for her own household.
“I grew up with them, so I thought we’d get ourselves some eggs,” said Troedson, 44, who teaches sixth grade at River Middle School and distributes eggs to a half-dozen fellow teachers. “And my two kids are in 4-H, so I thought they could get into this.
“There’s definitely a difference with the fresh eggs,” she said. “I gave the assistant principal some fresh ones, and she looked at them and asked, ‘Are these OK? They’re so orange and thick!’ And I said, ‘Honey, that’s a fresh egg — totally different from the supermarket ones!’”
Troedson is no longer alone with her fowl; her home is one of at least a half-dozen within a block where hens roam the grounds, producing an egg or more per animal during the warm months.
“I turn ’em loose and they go out all day, then they go back (into the coop) on their own at night,” said Dick Newberry, 68, a retired fireman who got started eight years ago by housing a pair of hens in a former dog kennel. “They keep the bugs down and look for snails and slugs, always looking for food.
“I enjoy having them and my daughter loves them,” he said. “Makes it enjoyable to watch them grow, to see what they can turn into. They can be pretty vocal, but I’ve got no complaints from the neighbors; I think they enjoy the sound of the country.”
No county statistics record the number of families raising chickens outside their homes, according to the Napa County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office. But the renewed interest in backyard egg production is a firm reality to Bobby Wilson, who estimates that the number of chicks sold by Wilson’s Feed & Supply in Napa, which she co-owns, has jumped from about 600 in 2008 to nearly 2,300 last year.
“Chickens have always been popular here; it’s just that now the numbers have boomed,” Wilson said of the chick trade at the Yajome Street store, which opened in 1974.
Nationally, the popularity of urban and suburban chicken raising is reflected in the growth of BackyardChickens.com, an online forum for small-time fowl owners that went online six years ago with 50 members and now is nearing 200,000. Its founder, Rob Ludlow, has spread the forum’s variation on the eat-local mission even wider, writing guides on raising chickens and building coops for the “For Dummies” how-to book series.
Even in Napa’s largely privileged environs, a taste for locally raised food and small-scale, sustainable farming may not be the only reason for the rise of home poultry raising, Wilson speculated.
“Right around 2008, when the stock market tanked and people started losing jobs, we noticed a huge increase in people raising birds, growing their own vegetables, (thinking) we can at least feed ourselves if everything else goes down,” she recalled Wednesday. “It’s something you can do whether you have a lot of property or very little — a manageable way to raise more food for your family.”
Keeping a handful of chickens offers homeowners a taste of animal husbandry even in small, suburb-size spaces much too small to house cattle, goats or other livestock. The opportunity to bring up food-producing animals in coops rarely more than 20 feet to a side — often built using salvaged wood — has been an entry ticket even for the least likely of enthusiasts.
“I’m from Chicago originally, so I’d never done animal husbandry of any kind,” Sarah Neidhoefer said last weekend while serving a squash and melon rinds to her 10 hens behind her house in Yountville. “I felt intimidated, especially seeing that I had four kids.”
When her family took the plunge in 2006, however, two neighbors who already raised fowl helped put together Neidhoefer’s henhouse. Over the years, the collection of like-minded, fowl-owning households has evolved into an informal collective, with families routinely watching one another’s flocks when a family goes on vacation, or dispensing advice on care and feeding.
Often, a chicken-owning household’s children are the best ambassadors for interested neighbors, Yountville chicken owner Penny Proteau said while watching Neidhoefer’s daughters, Helen, 11, and Beata, 10, check on the birds.
“My goal is to always have the children have a large input introducing the chickens to their neighbors,” said Proteau, who keeps her hens outside the home of a Yountville friend. “The kids want to hold the chicks and pet them, and to hold them domesticates the chicks in no time at all.”
“It’s nice that there’s enough critical mass that you can get help, ask people questions and learn as you go,” she said. “Things I don’t know, Penny knows. When I’m gone, Penny watches the birds. It’s not overwhelming, but without the others it would be.”
Local backyard hen owners described buying from 30 to 80 pounds of feed monthly, supplemented with cast-off produce and whatever insects, snails and other small animals the fowl can dig up.
Even if a household only breaks even on the chickens they raise, “we know where the eggs come from and we know the care they’ve received,” said Proteau. “And there’s value in that.”
But the greater challenge for many is not the birds’ diet but their safety, especially from raccoons and hawks, in an area where natural threats to domestic fowl are never far away.
“The sad thing about chickens is they don’t have much brain power,” Troedson said wryly. “One will get attacked by a possum, and others will ignore and be going, ‘Be quiet, be quiet!’”
Home ownership of roosters is banned in Napa and much of the county because of the risk of noisy crowing and aggressive behavior. Agriculturally zoned properties in the unincorporated parts of the county can become home to up to 100 male chickens without a permit — but their possessiveness of hens leaves owners such as Mary Hudson ready to do without them.
“Roosters tend to be protective of their hens,” said Hudson, who acquired her current all-female flock three years ago, replacing an earlier group with a male at its head. “I have a nice relationship with these birds, but the last group, they mostly kept to themselves.”
Collecting brown and blue-green eggs from the henhouse on a recent Sunday, she took time to describe the birds almost in the manner of grandchildren. At her ankles pranced Frances the Ameraucana; Mary Ann and Ginger, an Ameraucana and Buff Orpington, respectively, named for “Gilligan’s Island” characters; and a Blue Laced Red Wyandotte so aggressive and pushy toward her coopmates that Hudson named her Betty Draper, after the imperious antiheroine of the “Mad Men” television drama.
For all the links between home chicken raising and culinary and social trends, Wilson, the Wilson Feed co-owner, suspected the hobby ultimately is filling a more visceral need for many of its converts.
“I think it surprises (families) how much they enjoy them,” she said. “It give families something to do together. Everybody’s lives seem to go in different directions, and this gives them something to center on.
“The way life gets so crazy for people, this sort of provides them something they were looking for even if they didn’t realize it.”