In 2007, Olivia Collins, a ten-year-old girl in South Portland, Maine decided she wanted to keep chickens in her family’s suburban yard. There was one big problem with Olivia’s plan: at the time, keeping chickens was illegal in South Portland. Rather than settle for a more conventional pet, Olivia turned community organizer and petitioned her city council to change the regulation banning backyard flocks.
And it worked: just a few months after the girl’s request, South Portland passed a new ordinance allowing residents with city-approved, predator-proof chicken coops to keep hens as pets.
In 2009 in Bozeman, Montana, after a fowl-loving couple had their illicit suburban backyard chickens forcibly relocated, a group of urban chicken aficianados banded together to form the pro-urban chicken advocacy group, C.L.U.C. — the Community Led Urban Chicken Movement — to try to convince the town to change its chicken code to allow city residents to apply for permits to keep small flocks. They succeeded.
Of course, C.L.U.C. in Bozeman should not be confused with CLUCK, the Coalition of Lawrence Urban Chicken Keepers, or CLUC, the Citizens for the Legalization of Urban Chickens in Cedar Rapids. Or CLUCK, the Canadian Liberated Urban Chicken Klub of Calgary. Or (for a change of pun, er, pace) COOP, the Chicken Owners Outside (and in) Philadelphia.
In fact, small pro-chicken citizens’ groups are cropping up across the U.S. and Canada, working to change municipal ordinances to allow urban and suburban residents to keep egg-laying hens as pets.
And as the urban chicken trend gains ground, city officials are finding harder and harder to say no to backyard hens. Locavores who want to lower their eggs’ carbon footprint, environmentalists who want to reconnect with the land, libertarians who want to live self-sufficiently, animal lovers who oppose factory farming and foodies who just prefer the taste of fresh, homegrown eggs have all joined the ranks of the urban chicken movement. Even Martha Stewart is a proud suburban chicken owner.
Clearly, keeping chickens in residential yards has gone mainstream. But urban chickens aren’t just the latest fashionable pet trend — according to many advocates of urban farming, the growing popularity of backyard flocks could make real, positive impact on the sustainability and resilience of our food system.
With concern over climate change causing a wave of media scrutiny over the miles food travels to get to city dwellers’ plates, urban chicken advocates are often quick to point out that eggs layed just outside a kitchen door have a carbon footprint that approaches zero.
Chickens eat kitchen scraps, keeping them out of landfills, and efficiently turning them into high-nutrient fertilizer that can feed backyard vegetable gardens, producing even more locally-grown food. Chickens kill and eat garden insect pests, too, lowering chicken keepers’ need for toxic pesticides.
And chickens raised lovingly, thoughtfully and humanely in a residential setting where they are fed natural, healthy greens and grains not only live much happier, longer lives than factory farmed chickens — they also produce less pollution, and more nutritious eggs and meat.
If you have considered starting your own backyard chicken flock as a move toward a more direct, sustainable relationship with your food, but given up on the idea because local laws ban the birds from your community, you may want to think again. There may already be a group of urban chicken crusaders in your area working to repeal that backyard chicken ban.
Photo by thegreenj, from Wikimedia Commons. Used under Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license.