FAIR OAKS, CALIF. — San Juan Capistrano has its swallows. Rome has its starlings. Fair Oaks has chickens.
Few places so prize and protect their feral fowl as this quiet outpost amid the bustling suburbia of eastern Sacramento County.
The town's wild poultry -- reputedly dating back three decades to the original free-range rooster and three hens -- now number more than 200, according to one unofficial census.
Chickens have the run of Plaza Park, the grassy downtown square. They squawk, beg for scraps and roost on playground equipment or century-old storefronts. They jaywalk with abandon, halting rush-hour traffic. Cocks and pullets alike strut into nearby neighborhoods, rooting among knobby oaks to cluck and cock-a-doodle-do.
This being America, locals hold a festival each fall to celebrate the chicken.
It's one of the few times humans vastly outnumber the barnyard birds on the streets of Fair Oaks.
"We adore them," said Sandy Lidstone, a longtime resident. "They're an integral part of the village."
One dearly departed hen is remembered for nesting on the laps of customers lounging outside the Stockman bar. Another had the habit of laying an egg nearly every day in a planter box. A loyal patron would retrieve it and crack it into his beer, bartender Judy Jackson said.
Jackson bubbled with civic pride over a short article in People magazine about the Fair Oaks flock: "Our chickens are known nationally."
Not everybody feels such fondness. Some residents complain about predawn wake-up calls by roosters, chicken droppings on storefront sidewalks and tales of mean birds pestering toddlers at the playground.
To them, the pecking order is out of whack.
"They're pretty rogue," said Christa Oberth, a lifelong Fair Oaks resident. "It's not particularly quaint and charming when they start crowing at 3 in the morning."
Or drop in on a party. While attending a friend's wedding reception at Slocum House, the town's most celebrated eatery, Oberth watched with both mirth and dismay as a big rooster jumped onto a table, sending champagne glasses flying.
"Oh my God, they've everyplace," said Steve Abbott, a retired high school English teacher. "Some people think it's cute, that the chickens add to the semi-rural appeal. I think it's disgusting."
Over the years, Abbott repeatedly lobbied Sacramento County health and animal control officials to stem the poultry proliferation, mostly to no avail.
At times he took matters into his own hands, capturing a few marauding birds with a fishing net. He once threatened to go to court over a boisterous banty rooster harbored by a neighbor.
Ultimately, his patience spent, Abbott sold his home of 40 years and moved one town over. He cites Fair Oaks' chicken proliferation as his No. 3 reason for the move (behind wanting a one-story house and fewer lawn-care responsibilities).
As most folks tell it, the first birds arrived with Hugh Gorman, an artist who moved to Fair Oaks in 1977 with his four chickens.
At first, Gorman recalls today, he fielded pleas to keep his flock cooped up. But ultimately, Gorman relented to his free-spirit sensibilities and released the foursome.
The rest is history.
Each year a new flotilla of fuzzy yellow chicks could be seen scurrying after their mothers.
Other chickens joined the mix, Gorman said, among them post-Easter escapees from a local feed store and barnyard rejects dumped at the town limits.
Now, the chickens are a functional part of the Fair Oaks ethos and ecosystem, Gorman said.
They eat bugs and provide entertainment, distracting residents from their worries about recession and slumping 401(k)s.
Even the community tragedy of the rare hen that falls victim to an errant motorist, he said, is a circle-of-life moment.
"They're self-replacing speed bumps," Gorman said. "You run them over and they grow new ones."