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Cotati’s a hangout for a flock of chickens

Nick Collins has an unlikely but lovable mascot at his downtown Cotati automotive shop. A handsome Rhode Island Red rooster named Randy struts his stuff at A Downtown Auto, dining on lettuce, tomatoes and chicken scratch and acting like he owns the place.

The rooster with a bit of wanderlust crossed the busy four-lane roadway near Highway 116 and Old Redwood Highway about six weeks ago, making an adventurous departure from the rest of the feral flock that resides in and around the nearby Walgreens and Peet’s Coffee & Tea parking lot.

“He comes when I call him. It’s just hysterical,” said Collins, who has watched roosters, hens and occasional chicks roam the area for the 20 years he’s been in business.

But, he said, “It’s the first time I’ve had a rooster as a shop mascot.”

Collins can thank a sturdy rooster named Grandpa, the late patriarch reportedly responsible for the fowl that roam the neighborhood. Pete Worley, 60, was the steward of Grandpa and his hen, who “started propagating” on an old farm once located adjacent to Walgreens.

“That started it,” said Worley, who lived at the residence from 1980 to 2006, when the property was red-tagged and he didn’t have the funds to renovate the farmhouse and redwood barn where the flock had its beginnings. The structures eventually were torn down.

Worley moved to a much smaller place in Rohnert Park, unable to bring some 20 hens and 20 roosters that resided on the property long before neighboring Walgreens or Peet’s came to town.

The hardy fowl were left to live on the land, with Worley making visits to check their welfare, as he still does. The birds predate the neighborhood businesses, with no modern-day mystery to the debate, “Which came first? The chicken or the egg?” They’ve been around for decades.

Locals barely notice the clucking and crowing in the parking lot and neighboring open spaces where mature trees, blackberry bushes and grass provide ample roaming space.

The birds seem to prefer the action around Walgreens and Peet’s, where foot traffic and vehicles don’t seem a concern. The free-range fowl roost in trees and bushes around the businesses, nest in the dirt and landscaping bark and contentedly scratch for insects along the parking islands. Water bowls are placed around the parking lot to keep the birds hydrated.

At Larsen’s Feed & Pet Supply Center on Gravenstein Highway, clerk Hailey Munk says it’s common to sell bags of chicken scratch to people who keep a volunteer watch over the brood.

Proprietor Alice Larsen, long familiar with barnyard animals and fowl, said the chickens are mostly harmless. Even the roosters, sometimes feared as aggressive, typically are calm.

“Sometimes you’ll get a mean one but most of them are pretty good unless they were mistreated when they were young,” she said.

Cotati’s gregarious group of about two dozen chickens - more or less at times - is oblivious, unfazed or simply accustomed to the comings and goings around them. Many are within inches of passersby, seemingly comfortable with people.

“They’re just part of the landscape,” said Cotati Deputy City Clerk Lauren Berges. “Somehow they’ve thrived there.”

While locals are used to the parking lot flock, unsuspecting folks are caught off guard by the sight of the multi-hued birds with signature wattles and combs making their home around a busy intersection. Some have called the police department, worried about the birds’ welfare.

“For visitors, it’s shocking,” Berges said. “There’s lots of concern for the chickens.”

Known as much for its annual accordion festival as its distinctive hexagonal downtown plaza, Cotati’s quirky congregation of chickens also has people taking notice.

Online Yelp reviews of Peet’s and Walgreens include photos and videos and mostly positive comments about the birds. They add an element of whimsy for those grabbing a fresh-brewed cup of joe or picking up a prescription.

Cotati, the centrally located city regarded as the “hub” of Sonoma County, offers a rural landscape with its flock of Leghorns, Bantams, Black Australorps and mixed-breed chickens.

“Cotati was an agricultural town and this keeps that flair,” said Rohnert Park resident Jeff Moore, out for a morning beverage. “I don’t know any other coffee place where they have chickens running around. I think they’re great.”

Moore, 47, grew up in Cotati and remembers walking his dogs in the area when roosters, hens and chicks were a common sight.

Today they are a bit unexpected for visitors but provide some fun. Rick Minervini, administrative coordinator with the Cotati Chamber of Commerce, can’t imagine anyone objecting.

“I couldn’t think of anyone who thinks they could be an annoyance,” he said. “Everyone thinks they’re kind of funny and cute.”

Cotati historian Prue Draper is among those charmed by the chickens.

“It’s a neat sign of what Cotati used to be and still is, in a way,” said Draper, a Cotati resident for more than 60 years. “I have a special soft spot in my heart for those chickens.”

She feeds them on occasion and has watched as mothers with young children in tow stop by to scatter grain and watch the birds feed and frolic. In a way, Draper said, the chickens pay tribute to Cotati’s past.

Although Petaluma was once known as the “Egg Capital of the World,” Cotati has its own respectable poultry history. Early landowners were encouraged to establish chicken ranches in the area, and many did. Like Petaluma and Penngrove, Cotati’s mild climate was ideal for raising chickens in the days before air-conditioned factory farms.

Though seemingly out of character along a busy roadway, today’s flock is socialized, something that doesn’t surprise Worley. His Grandpa rooster “was a basic Cotati rooster. He was a mellow dude.”

He likes to believe there’s a bit of Grandpa among the flock, though he acknowledges many roosters and hens have been dropped off over the years.

No matter their origins, the birds are right at home.

“There’s still a little bit of country here,” Minervini said.

Contact Towns Correspondent Dianne Reber Hart at sonomatowns@gmail.com.

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