Benefield: Want to try out raising chickens? You can, thanks to this Sebastopol archaeologist
In the course of our lives, most of us have at one time or another rented a car, or an apartment, or maybe a pair of skis.
But a chicken?
Eric Strother of Sebastopol wants to change that.
Strother, who by day works as an archaeologist, launched Rent Backyard Hens in January, as a way to introduce others to his fondness for the fowl life.
“I’m a geek when it comes to chickens,” he said. “I love the whole ambiance of them. They are just funny. I would love to share them with people who don’t have that experience.”
But going hog wild with chickens is a commitment — of time, of money, of care — so Strother followed a model that is thriving in other parts of the country: hen rentals.
Strother said he heard a piece on NPR about hen rental businesses popping up on the East Coast.
“People were really digging it,” he said. “I Googled to see if anybody was doing anything out here on the West Coast and I didn’t see anything.”
Strother said he did “a little market research” and got to building some portable coops.
He’s now got 15 Golden Comet hens that he’s raised from infancy and now rents out two at a time.
Customers can rent a handcrafted portable coop that looks halfway like a barn, halfway like a tractor; two egg-laying hens; a watering device and enough feed and bedding to last the rental period.
Strother rents in nine Bay Area counties for periods between one and three months.
In Sonoma County, hens (not roosters) are allowed in most areas, barring Rohnert Park, he said.
And he’s willing to help customers make sure they live in a place where having backyard chickens is OK. He also helps them navigate what rules are in place for how many and where they can be housed.
Things like homeowners association covenants can affect who can keep backyard chickens.
He also gently suggests checking in with neighbors to take their temperature on the idea.
That said, chickens are credited by some as being a neighborhood bond. They seem to easily draw kid love and conversation at a time when many people could use a shot of both.
If you love the chicken life, Strother encourages customers to graduate into raising chicks of their own and crafting a more permanent coop.
And for those for whom the relationship isn’t all they dreamed of? That’s OK, too. They can simply return the hens and coop — no harm, no fowl.
“Some people want that experience,” Strother said. “Some people want the experience of the companionship of pet hens, some people want to try it out to see if they want their own chickens.”
And some people, in this age of soaring grocery prices, are interested in a couple of fresh eggs each morning.
“Once you have had eggs from your own hen, it’s really hard to go back to store bought,” Strother said. “They taste different, they are healthier.”
But potential renters should also consider things like predators, yard maintenance and even something like avian flu, which is causing havoc on chickens in some places.
But on the whole, keeping backyard chickens is gaining popularity.
Chicken ownership took off during the pandemic, according to AARPP, which chronicled the trend.
The pandemic caused many to rethink where they lived and how they lived. More people were at home, more people were cooking and baking and more people sought companionship during isolation from other aspects of “normal” life.
Chickens check all the boxes, Strother said.
“They make great pets,” he said. “They have funny little personalities, they remember you. They are hilarious.”
Plus, have you ever seen a chicken run? It’s a mood lifter for sure.
But like some pets, they need a little minding. Turns out chickens take the concept of free range pretty seriously.
“They are opportunists,” Strother said. “Tomatoes, strawberries, they will go after blueberries. If you want an area pristine, keep the chickens away from them.”
Glenn Ouye lives in Bennett Valley and has never owned chickens. He was curious, so he went for it through Strother’s Rent Backyard Hens.
But he also had what he called “ulterior motives”: weeds.
Turns out Ouye had a patch he couldn’t seem to tame, so he thought hens might do the trick.
“They loved the weeds. It was great,” Ouye said.
But Ouye came to be fully entertained by his new little garden workhorses.
“They are very curious,” he said. “They come running up to you. We’d sit outside and talk to them.”
“They want to be where you are,” he said. “If you are outside in a chair, they want to be kind of right around you. It’s kind of cool, really.”
Ouye’s two chihuahuas got along with them well enough. One didn’t give them the time of day and the other was afraid of them. The dynamic made for fine yard mates.
Strother said chickens do well with domesticated pets, but he suggested being watchful over the relationship.
Ouye’s only dig on his new friends was their personal hygiene at times.
“They poop where they eat. They poop wherever they want,” he said.
But it was easy enough to sweep up, he said.
Strother’s hens have had their wings clipped, so they won’t take flight into a neighbor’s yard. But they are able to pop up onto furniture or low lying fences and posts.
Mostly they eat, wander around and hang out.
Strother gives customers his cellphone number, in case they run into issues with the hens. It hasn’t happened.
Instead, he gets texts with pictures and videos of the hens doing wacky things.
“They are hilarious,” he said
Ouye agrees. When he returned his two hens to Rent Backyard Hens after the rental period ended, he didn’t immediately consider going out and buying his own.
But he may. He’s still thinking about it. Which is exactly what Strother intended.
“It’s fun,” Ouye said. “It’s a really good experience and you are not committed forever.”
You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @benefield.
Columnist, The Press Democrat
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