OAKLEY -- City leaders agreed with residents who turned out this week to lobby for the right to keep up to three chickens in backyards.
Oakley council members haven't adopted the proposed changes to an ordinance that governs the type and number of pets allowed, but after hearing arguments on both sides of the potentially factious issue, they sided with those who say the birds' benefits outweigh the potential drawbacks.
Mayor Jim Frazier was absent.
"It always seemed strange to me that somewhere along the line it was decided only dogs and cats can be good pets," said Rick Horrocks, who attested to the companionship chickens can provide.
Two unrelated developments prompted Oakley officials to consider clarifying the rules, which deal with a variety of animals.
During public workshops the city held this year to explain why it's rezoning hundreds of parcels, many people questioned inconsistencies in the way the city determined the minimum lot size required to have a horse.
The issue of whether chickens belong in neighborhoods came to the fore in January after a couple of dogs dug under a fence and killed two chickens.
The city decided to tackle both matters at the same time, which in the case of chickens meant clarifying a municipal code that doesn't specify what animals are considered household pets.
Although it addresses how many dogs and cats may live at a single-family residence -- three and five, respectively -- the code doesn't limit the number of chickens and rabbits people also commonly keep for enjoyment.
The changes council members are considering will specify that occupants of single-family homes may have three chickens and three rabbits. Roosters will remain off-limits.
But not everyone is pleased with the prospect of living next to several hens.
Chicken attract lice, escape into other yards and leave droppings everywhere, opponents said.
"It stinks; there's no other ways to put it," said Norman Ruddick, adding that rabbits have a way of multiplying and nibbling on neighbors' plants.
"It just doesn't make sense to have farm animals in a residential area."
And Robert Ramos, who surrendered his dogs after they attacked his neighbor's birds, believes that allowing chickens in suburban areas is to invite more of the same trouble.
Others pointed out that chickens' wings can be clipped to prevent them from flying the coop and insisted that their waste only smells if there are a lot of birds and it's allowed to pile up.
Chicken manure is an excellent natural fertilizer, they said, and the birds themselves are an effective alternative to pesticides.
"They're bug-eating machines; they're the best form of pest control you can get," said Robert Lee Harris, noting that they devour snails and "roly-poly" insects.
What's more, they make far less noise than barking dogs and, unlike many vicious canines, chickens don't kill people, others said.
If the two sides agreed on anything, it was that people are responsible for cleaning up after their pets.
Councilwomen Carol Rios and Pat Anderson echoed the same sentiments.
"I do believe this is an issue about owners," Anderson said.
Councilman Randy Pope noted that another section of the municipal code prohibits chickens and other traditional farming activities from creating a public nuisance.
The council is expected to approve the modified rules at its April 26 meeting.
Rowena Coetsee covers Oakley. Contact her at 925-779-7141.