There are a lot of rogue chickens in Sacramento.
One year after the City Council passed an ordinance permitting residents to keep up to three egg-laying hens in their backyards, the number of permits for the animals purchased from the city is far below projections.
That's not to say there are fewer hens roaming backyards than city officials thought there would be when the law was adopted. Some estimates put the city's chicken population in the hundreds – far more than the total licensed since the law went into effect last November.
"There are a lot of chickens living in this city," said Gina Knepp, the manager of the city animal shelter.
Anecdotal evidence seems to support Knepp's assertion.
Western Feed and Pet Supply – one of the largest pet supply shops in the city – sold 490 baby chicks between February and June of this year, said store manager Lisa Coelho. The store was nearly overwhelmed by the demand in some weeks, especially for Ameraucanas, which are coveted for laying blue-green colored eggs.
"We knew it was going to be good," Coelho said of the sales total. "But it was bigger than we expected."
Business has also been brisk over the past year for Greg Howes and his partner, Brian Fikes, co-owners of Two Flew the Coop.
They've sold more than 30 elaborate chicken coops and consulted more than a dozen new chicken owners on backyard layouts and breed selection.
Standing in his backyard in the Elmhurst neighborhood this week, Howes celebrated the year-old law as his chickens hopped among rosemary bushes, decorative Adirondack chairs and a miniature windmill. For years, chicken owners like him had kept their animals hidden away.
"We always lived in that fear that someone could come take them away," said Howes, who added he has kept chickens in the city for more than 20 years. "There were a lot of underground chicken keepers. It's nice to have the legality part of it down."
Howes said he "strongly encourages" chicken owners to license their animals. So far, he appears to be in the minority.
As of this month, 39 city residents had purchased permits to keep hens, according to a city staff report released last week. Those residents licensed a total of 102 chickens. City officials had estimated as many as 100 permits and 300 licenses would have been purchased by now.
Over the past year, the city has responded to 414 chicken-related complaints, which resulted in citations totaling $6,650. Residents with unpermitted chickens face potential fines of $100 per bird. Those fines are reversed if a permit is purchased within 21 days.
Knepp said it's accepted among animal control experts that most people don't register their pets. There's even a formula used by those in that field calculating that just 17 percent of dog owners register their companions.
But, Knepp admitted, "I don't have a formula for chickens."
Advocates who helped persuade the City Council to pass the ordinance have urged city officials to set up a system for licensing chickens online, saying that would lead to greater registration rates.
There have also been complaints over the costs; a household permit is $15 and annual licenses cost $10 per hen.
Susan Ballew, a member of the Citizens League for Urban Chicken Keeping (CLUCK), said the low rate of licensing could also be a result of residents suddenly feeling comfortable keeping a once-outlawed animal.
"People have become complacent," she said.