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When chickens come home to roost next door

Whether it's barking dogs, music or cackling hens, how much of a neighbor's noise do we have to endure?
Backyard chickens are everywhere in Los Angeles

Jason Smith rented an in-law cottage in Granada Hills this spring not knowing that his next-door neighbors included a duck and a dozen hens. He discovered this on his very first morning in his new home when he was awakened before 6 a.m. by a barnyard racket.

Smith emailed me his outrage and a recording of the clucking, and to be honest, I wasn't initially sympathetic. L.A. is a jungle of cultures and lifestyles, and the city moves to different rhythms. My daughter's soccer games have taken us to parts of the county where raising chickens is a form of subsistence farming, and red-breasted hens are the neighborhood songbirds.

But I imagine the music is less enjoyable if the chickens live next door. Whether it's barking dogs, loud music or cackling hens, how much of a neighbor's noise should any of us have to endure? So last week I checked in to see how Smith was coping.

"It's not going well," he wrote back. He had begged for relief from several public agencies including L.A. Animal Services, but the chickens were still clucking.

It's not like he lives in a pasture, Smith said. It's a residential neighborhood. But still, "a citizen's right to maintain chickens supercedes a citizen's common law right to quiet enjoyment of one's home," he concluded in disgust.

Chickens, I learned while looking into the matter, are everywhere in Southern California. If you go to animal shelter websites, you'll find chickens and roosters up for adoption right alongside the dogs and cats.

"It's definitely growing in popularity," said Russell Sykes of Chickens Galore in Norco.

So who exactly is buying his hens?

"It's everyone from the survivalists to the conspiracy theorists to…"

OK, wait a minute. Survivalists and conspiracy theorists are buying backyard chickens?

Yes, Sykes said. To be clear, he said, most of his customers are hipsters who think it's cool to have chickens as pets, or who want to live organically, eating fresh eggs and plowing chicken manure into garden compost. And he's had customers from "Hollywood and Beverly Hills" who are spending $20,000 to $30,000 on backyard coops. And you just know, don't you, that those people are hiring chicken nannies to do the dirty work?

But let's get back to the survivalists. Sykes said it's a small segment of his clientele, but yes, there are people who want to have their own food source in case "there's a government takeover," or because they just don't think the food supply chain can be trusted.

One of Sykes' competitors, Celeste Tittle of Ham and Eggs Ranch in Norco, did not disagree. (Yes, Ham and Eggs Ranch. In addition to poultry, she sells pot-bellied pigs).

"It began when the economy went bad and everybody was all upset and worried, and people started to create spaces underground, worried about an apocalypse," Tittle said.

Every time I see a flock of hens now, I'm going to wonder if maybe Chicken Little was right.

I found two websites offering information and running dialogue on personal poultry. One is called Backyard Chickens and the other is Los Angeles Urban Chicken Enthusiasts. Laura Bonilla, also of Norco, is one of the ringleaders of the latter group.

"The only reason I moved to Norco was because of the chicken situation," said Bonilla, who left the poultry-prejudiced town of San Dimas and now has five roosters and 24 hens on her half-acre property in Norco. She said members of her group are lobbying for relaxed laws in towns unfriendly to chickens.

When Bonilla told me she is a spiritual coach and hypnotherapist in addition to her poultry advocacy, I considered asking if she could hypnotize Jason Smith to sleep through the noise from his feathered neighbors, or perhaps hypnotize the chickens into giving up clucking, but I thought better of it.

Smith, by the way, is an actor who is working on a documentary about voting, but I wonder if he'll ever finish it with all the distractions. Although the law forbids more than one rooster per home in Los Angeles, chickens are generally legal if they're 35 feet from a neighbor's dwelling. In Smith's case, the chickens are 39 feet from his bedroom window.

"That's a really arbitrary number," Smith said of the 35-foot law.

He told me he has tried working things out with his neighbor, to no avail.

"The neighbor even offered me eggs one time," said Smith, "but I'm a vegan."

Smith said he suggested that the neighbor bring his chickens indoors at night and put diapers on them, but that didn't go over very well.

I made two trips to Granada Hills to investigate, once at 5:50 a.m. to consider whether the noise would wake me up too (probably), and once to meet Chris Miramontes, an L.A. city firefighter and owner of the chickens.

Miramontes said he and his wife and three children are trying to limit their supermarket runs. He told me he's not a survivalist, but he got into raising chickens and organic farming through something called the Survival Podcast. The website sums up its mission like this: "Helping you live a better life, if times get tough or even if they don't."

Miramontes said he wants to be a good neighbor, and he got rid of a duck and three hens to cut down the noise. But he's got eight hens left, and he's legal. And if the question is what came first, the chicken or the neighbor, the answer is the former.

"I feel like I'm being bullied — told what I can and can't do on my own property," Miramontes said.

The city attorney's office — which by the way is investigating chicken complaints in Sherman Oaks — has referred the Granada Hills poultry case to the LAPD's Noise Enforcement Team to see if the clucking exceeds legal limits.

But I don't see this ending well for Smith, who committed to a 12-month lease in April. If Laura Bonilla is willing to give it a try, hypnosis might be his only hope.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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