Rituals: The Super-Subversive Laguna Beach Chicken Coop Tour

Hunting and pecking through one of Orange County’s most unusual annual traditions

Years ago, our preschool needed someone to take home the proceeds of a science experiment, and overnight, I became a Chicken Mama. If you’re thinking Chicken Mama is anything like Cat Lady, you would be right.

Trust me, I never thought I’d welcome chickens into my backyard. I’m so afraid of the bird flu, I have a neighborhood-sized pack of medical
masks at the ready. But I watched those little chicks hatching,and I watched all the kiddies falling in love with the pale yellow fur balls, and I fell in love, too. In a wave of endorphins, I agreed to take home a dozen chicks.

Tearfully entrusting the fluff balls to our family, the teachers assured us the chickens had been “checked out” (part of the science experiment?) and were all most assuredly female. This is when I learned that preschool teachers aren’t always the best judges of bird gender. One morning as the chicks got a little bigger, I woke up to a cock-a-doodle-doo that’s forbidden under city law. Then another. Clearly, not all of them were hens. But that’s another story.

Having chickens is like having preschoolers. Once you have them, you discover friends with chickens. And they’re the nicest friends. Social media isn’t even how we find each other. It’s person to person. We, uh, sniff each other out. We cluck-cluck at cocktail parties. We trade the latest information on drop boxes and organic feed.

So when I heard about this unobtrusive, unadvertised, semi-subversive chicken coop tour that happens every November in Laguna Beach, I had to find out more.

 

The Tour de Coop is so grass roots and on-the-down-low that, as I’m writing this, the organizers know only that it will take place in November, usually starting at 9 a.m. the first Sunday of the month. The group is not seeking to grow and doesn’t want publicity. But for the third year now, scores of coopsters will climb on their bicycles and ride, sometimes pushing up long, steep hills, biking 10 miles to three parts of Laguna to visit one another’s coops. Although you can find details on Facebook (Laguna Beach Tour de Coop), it’s not a fundraiser, and it’s mostly word-of-mouth.

Organizers also want to emphasize that it’s not just about chickens. It’s about people who are going against the materialistic grain and seeking lives of simple integrity in Orange County.

The tour started when Reem Khalil, a curly-maned fiber artist who won’t give her age except to say she loves Joni Mitchell, decided she wanted a coop. She started biking around Laguna looking for backyard coops with her daughter Zia, then an infant. Hoping to get ideas before she built her own, Khalil was surprised to find just how many coops there are in Laguna Beach.

The one she eventually built sits behind her blue-and-white 1920s cottage. The 4-by-6-foot coop is made from recycled wood and decorated with found pieces of wooden signs, flower pots, red lanterns, tin prayer flags, and a blackboard where the family shares messages. She keeps a moonstone in the coop to emit feminine energy and encourage the chickens to lay eggs. The nesting area is made from the house that belonged to her late dog. Two chickens share the coop, Chicky Mama, an Americana, and Queen Victoria, an heirloom Golden Moran.

She and Zia, now 3, usually hang out with the chickens when they’re ranging in her backyard. “We wake up early and have coffee with the girls,” she says, including the chickens in her circle. “We try to be out when we let them loose. We don’t want to be visited by the hawk spirit.”

Khalil continued to ride her bike around Laguna looking at chicken coops, and more people joined her. The next year she made it a semi-official event. Now in its third year, the group has grown to nearly 100 participants and about 15 coop owners.

 

Feeding her chickens, Khalil shows me where she grows vegetables and catches her own water. Many coopsters are part of a larger environmental movement. “The purpose of the tour is to build community and encourage one another to live a sustainable lifestyle,” she says. “It’s getting back to the basics, and it’s beautiful.” She said some Laguna residents have started a movement to return to the 1800s, using drought-tolerant plants without irrigation, or dry farming, in their yards.

At the top of Bluebird Canyon, I found another coop, modeled after a red barn. The wow factor at Sandy Jones’ coop wasn’t the coop itself, but her eight chickens. Each is stunningly different such as a black-and-white variegated, silver-laced Wyandotte, and a frizzled black cochin whose disheveled feathers look like it just woke up.

Three of her four kids have left the nest, so I ask her if the chickens tapped into her nurturing spirit. She nods. “Every spring, I think I’m not getting another one. Then spring comes along, and I need another chicken.” She says she’s lucky to live in a chicken-friendly city—only a few miles to the south, the city of Dana Point has banned chickens in residential neighborhoods.

“I collect all races of chickens,” she says. “When I can’t find them, I order the eggs on eBay.”

I ask her if she, like me, occasionally gets a rooster with her eBay eggs. She does.

I tell her I found a home for my roosters, and over the years I stopped keeping the birds in my yard. I miss the fresh eggs, but there’s something I miss even more: how it connected me in a basic way with so many others all over Orange County.

Be There!
A date was not set for this year’s Tour de Coop by press time. Check http://conta.cc/1Wh8AXd to confirm. The group meets at the Willowbrook Campus of Anneliese Schools, 20062 Laguna Canyon Road. Coop information, bike maps, water, and light refreshments are typically available.

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