What’s the Squawk about Backyard Chickens?
The number of communities allowing backyard hens keeps growing, but not every community welcomes the egg-laying critters. One woman who loves her hens lives in two communities. She’s the aunt of one of my Care2 Causes colleagues. Here is her story:
There’s a city ordinance where she lives that you can’t keep chickens on your property, but her property backs up to the next town (where you CAN have chickens), so she keeps them just over her property line. Her neighbor called the cops about it once, and she took them back in her yard so they could clearly see that the chickens were not, in fact, in her town.
Urban Hens and Food Security
All around North America municipalities are struggling with the issue of backyard chickens. Jaelithe Judy wrote two years ago:
And as the urban chicken trend gains ground, city officials are finding it 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.
Of course, food security and the pleasures of just-laid eggs are only part of what municipalities and neighborhoods are taking into account as they debate the issues. They are also discussing animal welfare, predators, noise and sanitation.
Next: Animal Welfare
A common objection to allowing hens in city yards is concern for animal welfare. Comments on Calgary Takes Chicken Owner to Court explored some of the main arguments:
I want to say yes to allowing people to raise chickens in their backyard but I have to say no since most people can barely pick up after their dogs. I can just imagine what the environment for the chickens would end up looking like and by extension the poor care they would receive. Kath R.
If they are going to allow any more animals to be kept by humans they need to implement specific rules to ensure that the animals are treated humanely. There are far more people who would keep chickens in order to exploit them with no consideration for their welfare than those who are looking to help support their family in a well researched, ethical way. The laws are there for the protection of the animals. It is too bad that not all humans can see past their own agenda to acknowledge that. Robin R.
Fred K proposed some solutions:
While I’m supportive of ‘urban farming’, I feel that those who choose to add animals to their urban farm should obtain a simple (and cheap) license based on passing an animal husbandry exam specifying both the welfare of the animals and the compatibility of the animal enclosures with the urban environment. Dog and cat companions would not be counted as they should be separately permitted. The idea is to insure that urban animals are kept humanely in clean enclosures and not neglected.
Learning how to take care of backyard chickens is not difficult, with so many resources available online, through extension offices, and in libraries. Some sort of licensing or inspection or both seems a small price for ensuring the welfare of chickens in the city. Jurisdictions such as the District of Saanich on Vancouver Island have good examples for registration and instruction.
In terms of how chickens will be treated, it is an unfortunate reality that there are people who abuse cats, dogs, gerbils and children. Some people will abuse chickens. Others will tire of the daily demands and turn them over to already burdened shelters. On the other hand, banning chickens based on the actions of those who should never have them in the first place seems heavy handed unless it is applied to cats, dogs, gerbils and children as well.
Next: Predators, Noise and Sanitation
My first farm was on a small, suburban acreage. Predators included marauding dogs, ferile cats, ravens and hawks, a few neighbors’ children and one scrappy bantam rooster. Urban chicken growers who live near wooded areas may find they have opened a restaurant for coyotes, foxes and bears. Weasels and rodents can squeeze through what seem impossibly small spaces.
The issue of predators is very real. The safety of an urban flock requires planning and vigilance and an acknowledgement that even careful planning is not an ironclad insurance policy.
A safe coop to retreat to at night is essential. So is a thorough assessment of the yard to see where predators might enter. We used to have chicken wire over an area outside our coop, similar to the one pictured in the header photo. The hens could quickly find shelter when predator birds were around.
The chickens we pastured never strayed far from their rolling hen house. They could retreat there quickly and would also squawk loudly if anything threatened. Vigilant neighbors helped too. Even so, we lost a few chickens to predators.
Noise and Sanitation
I’ve lumped these two together because the first is a non-issue for hens. As Sylvia W. commented, “honestly the sounds hens make are both relatively quiet and quite soothing.” Roosters, whose early crowing can shatter the soundest sleep, are generally not allowed by urban bylaws.
Sanitation is more of an issue but only if the hens have too little space and are neglected. If they can wander in an adequate yard, they deposit their droppings widely and scratch the dried dung into the soil. That’s something dogs and cats don’t do no matter how much space they have to roam.
Hens treat slugs, earwigs, and aphids as snacks, which keeps the soil far healthier than a dose of pesticides. They do the same with seedlings, of course, so planning is in order. The small silkie and mille fleur hens were my favorite garden allies. When they wandered through an established vegetable patch, they chose the tender weed shoots over the tougher, more mature tomato stalks.
Regular cleaning of nest boxes and coops will stave off some of the nasties such as mites and parasites. With regular maintenance, a chicken coop will not send nose-wrinkling fumes wafting toward the neighbors. Nothing goes to waste, as their old bedding and manure slowly cook into valuable compost.
Next: Resources for Chicken Owners
Resources for Raising Backyard Chickens
If you have experience raising urban chickens or good or bad experiences with hen-harboring neighbors, share your ideas, resources and observations in the comments section.
If you are contemplating acquiring a backyard flock, here are some resources for both information and fun.
- BackYard Chickens – Tips, tools, and a community to interact with
- Urban Chickens – Lots of resources for the chicken friendly and a map where you can add your flock
- Backyard Chickens – Advice from a municipality that allows them
- Where are chickens legal? – If you know of others, contact the site, Toronto Chickens
- Urban Farming Field School - One example of the kind of training available for urban food production, including city chickens
- YouTube – Videos cover every aspect of choosing, raising, and caring for backyard chickens
Related Care2 Stories
All photos via Flickr Creative Commons: Chicken coop photo from email@example.com; coyote photo from daveynin; silkie hen photo from Danny Doxtator; white chickens photo from www.thegoodlifefrance.com