Editor’s note: This story was featured in the 2023 June print issue.
When Andrew Dolan turned nine years old, his parents surprised him with pet chickens. His dad, a former 4-H kid, had been eager to get the family into raising livestock. The family’s recent move to a new house on three acres of land just outside of Roseville, California was the perfect opportunity.
“My parents said they had a ‘special surprise’ in the backyard,” Dolan said. “Inside this little metal shed there were six baby chicks. The rest is history.”
Thirteen-years-later, Dolan has become known as the “Chicken Guy” – one of Cal Poly’s beloved on-campus characters. The agribusiness senior brings his chickens to social events and to Dexter Lawn, where he sells their eggs to students.
Dolan’s three chickens – Sunnydaze, La Bou and Peaches – live in a specially constructed enclosure in his backyard in San Luis Obispo. When Dolan returns home from his morning classes, he lets the hens out of their hutch to roam throughout the enclosure while he collects their eggs and refills their food and water. The chickens are free to explore until sundown, then it’s back into the hutch for the night.
Dolan gets two or three eggs a day between his “three girls,” as he calls them. When his hens started laying too many eggs for his household to consume, it was an easy decision to open for business.
“Why not sell these eggs that I have that people can actually see, and meet the birds that the eggs come from?” Dolan said.
Changes in the market have consumers ready for cheap eggs. An avian flu outbreak in 2022 has caused egg prices to reach record highs in this year. Hens in California took a big hit due to Proposition 12, a 2018 statewide measure that requires cage-free enclosures for animals in agriculture. With more open space comes more movement – and an increased spread of disease – among livestock.
Ricky Volpe, an associate professor in Cal Poly’s agribusiness department said, “We’ve had record numbers of egg-laying hens in the United States destroyed. The capacity to produce eggs is a small fraction of what it normally is.”
The scarcity of chickens caused wholesale egg prices in California to jump to over $7 a dozen at the beginning of this year, according to a report by UC Davis. Dolan sells a dozen eggs for $5.
The price isn’t the only factor that has people flocking to his business. Dolan’s hens are Easter-eggers, mixed-breed birds that lay in hues of pastel blue, green, and sometimes pink. The chickens themselves are also a draw, Dolan said. Customers enjoy eing able to meet the producers of their food.
“Locally grown, Cal Poly learn-by-doing, you support local businesses,” Volpe said. “Consumers have a willingness to pay for that.”
Dolan, however, said his low prices aren’t necessarily a business tactic.
“I care more about the community outreach or forming those relationships with people and providing them with a quality product more so than the money part of it,” he said.
There’s also the novelty of the birds. Chickens aren’t a dangerous animal, but are still uncommon enough to spark amusement from the public.
“I get a lot of firsts from people,” Dolan said. “People will be like, ‘Oh, I’ve never seen a chicken out on Dexter or held a chicken before.’”
How about partying with a chicken?
Dolan caused a stir when he brought Sunnydaze to St. Fratty’s, an infamous annual party among Cal Poly students to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Cal Poly Barstool, a popular Instagram account showcasing collegiate shenanigans, posted a video of Dolan on his roommate’s shoulders, holding his bird overhead as the crowd chanted “Chicken! Chicken!” The post has over 7,000 likes.
“It was kind of like, ‘Okay, y’all have seen the chicken, go ahead and follow her on Instagram if you want to keep up with her,’” Dolan said.
Although taking care of the birds may seem incompatible with a college student routine, having a chicken for a pet isn’t too different from a cat or a dog, Dolan said. He takes his birds on walks downtown or brings them in the car for coffee runs. There’s feeding, cleaning, and upkeep involved. Each hen has her own personality and role in the family unit.
“La Bou, she’s kind of the feisty one, and kind of like the boss girlie,” he said.
Sunnydaze is “the timid one, kind of like the youngest child in a sense.”
The family changed when his fourth hen, Woodstock, died after getting lost in a rainstorm this past March. After reaching out to the community on Reddit and Nextdoor and searching in the rain, Dolan found her a few days later outside the police station. He said he cherished the last couple weeks he spent with her.
“It was really cool getting to find her after three days of just being out in the cold and rain, just finally seeing my girl again in one piece,” he said.
Dolan’s chickens are as present in his virtual life as in his actual life. He posts their antics on the Instagram account @slo_chickendaddy. His Tinder profile reads “the guy with all the chickens.” He even has a chicken tattoo on his bicep.
“It’s something I know I’ll never regret ever,” he said.
Graduating from Cal Poly this spring, Dolan said he wants to continue expanding his agriculture business. He plans to bring Peaches to walk the stage with him, since La Bou came with him to Bike Night downtown and Sunnydaze appeared at Saint Fratty’s. That is, if the university lets him. But if not, Dolan’s parents have accepted pet-sitting duties.
“And then we’ll get to hold the chicken during the ceremony,” Steve Dolan, Andrew’s father, said. “Or it will poop all over his gown, which, he won’t care, we won’t care. He’s graduating anyways.”
Whether Peaches walks or not, the birds are a fitting symbol for his transformation throughout college, according to Andrew’s mother Cyndi Dolan.
“He’s had a pretty introverted personality until college, so I think this helps him,” she said. “I’m thrilled that he’s taking them on campus and giving him an excuse to talk to people and just open up a little more.”