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"Isn't he handsome," cooed a neighbor, peering through a fence in the Oak Hill Park neighborhood where a controversial rooster resides. The neighbor was speaking to Lendri Purcell, for whom the rooster's daily serenade presents an annoyance modulated by feelings of acceptance.

"It's really irritating to hear him at five in the morning," says Purcell. "But we really like our neighbors and don't want to be a pain." Purcell's is among the more accepting responses to the rooster's presence, perhaps partly because she keeps chickens herself and often wonders what she'll do with her own hens once they stop producing.

Several posters on an Oak Hill neighborhood internet bulletin board have called for the rooster's removal, but few know where it actually resides: Its throaty, reverberating call is both hard to miss and tough to pinpoint.

For a town that once heralded itself as the egg basket of the world, there doesn't seem to be much love for the rooster in Petaluma. In fact, many people believe roosters are banned within city limits. Not true, as a careful examination of Petaluma's municipal code on animal regulations shows that homeowners may keep up to 20 domestic foul.

And many do. Indeed, the number of households enriched by keeping chickens is on the rise. Backyard egg farming is increasing in Petaluma according to Don Benson, owner of Rivertown Feed. "It's definitely grown in popularity over the last five years," explains Benson. "Chicken feed and supplies are probably the fastest growing segment of the feed business. People seem to like them as pets, and it's also a way to produce sustainable food."

For many of these burgeoning back yard egg farmers, roosters are a non-issue, explains Petaluman and self-described "chicken whisperer," Jared Rock. "The chicks you buy retail are already sexed; it's only when you hatch your own that it can be an issue."

Rock, who maintains a flock of 18 hens with his wife, Amy, should know. He opted to slaughter a rooster that he hatched and raised, an experience he didn't take lightly. "We hatched chicks in an incubator — we ordered 36 eggs and half of them hatched." But taking the DIY approach did have an unintended consequence: "We got more than we bargained for, including a rooster — so when it started to crow we turned him into food. It was pretty intense, not in a bad way, but it was strange to watch an animal breath its last breathe." The rooster didn't go to waste, feeding the Rocks and their infant son for several meals.

Natasha Juliana, founder of the sustainable living non-profit Eat Grassroots, views backyard chickens as an integral part of her garden. From a sustainability standpoint, Juliana sees backyard chickens in an overwhelmingly positive light. "It's a win-win. They are a sweet pet that will eat my compost and in return give me eggs and fertilizer."

Juliana has even seen the trend extend unexpectedly to her "vegan friends (who eat no meat or dairy) but were so impressed with the sustainability and humanity of my backyard chickens that they are now the proud caretakers of four very spoiled chicks."

One thing Juliana advises potential chicken owners to consider is the potential mess. "They will eat everything and poop everywhere! Over the winter we let them roam free in our whole yard but… it became clear we had to contain them. So we fenced off the back portion of our yard. Wdsfhat was once a struggling lawn has now been turned to a wasteland."

While Juliana's chicken coop has a tidy, utilitarian aesthetic, the Rocks' coop is like a dust bowl era &‘Hooverville' for chickens. "I call it the chicken shanty," says Rock with a smile. "We built it with mostly free, reclaimed materials, which kept the cost down."

Not known for its security, the Rocks' coop has one regular escapee. "One chicken, who we call Houdini, got loose and made his way into a neighbor's house. Our neighbor liked her company so much, she let her spend three nights before she brought her home."

As strange as it sounds, Amy Rock offers a precedent for keeping chickens inside the house. "There really are indoor chickens — I read about it in a magazine, and it's also in the movie "The Natural History of the Chicken." People who live in the city dress their chickens in home-made diapers made from coffee filters and keep them in the house."

Barring chicken diapers, the construction of a coop is one of the larger start-up costs, with hens themselves selling for a reasonable $20 each.

"You should only buy mature hens from someone you know," cautions Rock. "Their prime laying period occurs in the first three years of life."

Even with a fairly large flock, the economics are more or less a wash: "Feed can be a big cost, but we save money by bringing in leftover food from my work. Even so, the money we get from selling the eggs only pays for the feed that we do buy."

(Contact Liam Nelson at argus@arguscourier.com.)

Petaluma students head back to school

Laura Dimech helped Ana Gallardo pick out some back-to-school clothes at Kohl's during a recent shopping spree event hosted by Kohl's and the Petaluma Active 20-30 club.