A Chicken in Every Backyard

The urban quest for fresh eggs

tomatochicken_spotFBy Mary Bailey.

“A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.”

– Campaign slogan of Herbert Hoover’s 1928 run for US presidency.

Ask nine people what they think of chickens in the backyard and you’ll get nine responses, ranging from crazy happiness at the thought of their own eggs, to complete and utter disgust at the thought of it.

On the yes-to-hens side of the debate is a group called the River City Chicken Collective, a loosely organized group of citizens who would like to be able to keep hens for eggs.

“It started with Ron Berezan,” says Laura Klassen Russell, a member of the collective, professional and gardener with young children. “He was working with me on a landscaping plan for our yard and I was complaining to him that I couldn’t have chickens.

“This wasn’t the first time he had heard this, and he said ‘enough, let’s organize a meeting.’ We put together an informal group of volunteers and asked the city to allow us to set up a pilot project to study various sites and collect data on hen care, the challenges posed by the weather and to involve the neighbours regarding noise and odour.

“I see hen keeping as an extension of gardening, as hen droppings make beautiful compost,” says Laura. “Their natural inclination is to scratch, to take dust baths, to peck for worms; they like to perch at night in a dark place to lay eggs. They are social creatures — they need to be around other chickens. It’s also a question of how you can put your city property to good use.”

Dig a little deeper and you’ll often find that the vociferous anti-chicken point of view is really not about chickens and eggs. Rather, it’s more about a particular view of city life.

One that doesn’t allow for much hand-labour or DIYed-ness. Perhaps the anti-chicken faction think of hen-keeping as the slippery slope — the long slide into marginality, of having to grow eggs instead of having the money to buy them. First it’s chickens in backyards, then it’s cars on blocks and toilet-bowl planters in the front yard. There go the property values. For them, it offends on an aesthetic level.

Yet, growing your own has become uber-chic. As usual the Brits lead the way — think of Tamasin Day-Lewis and Jamie Oliver on a soft-focus gambol through the pasture, picking up pretty blue eggs from under their heritage breed hens brought back from extinction through one Christmas special.

The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in the middle and, as usual, is in the eye of the beholder. Your backyard paradise of wild and nearly wild plants is somebody’s else mess that must be destroyed, and so on it goes.

I may have a soft-headed view of why I think chickens are good (aka they make cool sounds), but the people who actually think it’s a good idea are quite hard-headed. They have thought it out. They have done the research.

“People misunderstand the ease at which chickens fit into the urban landscape,” says Laura. “Really, what we’re asking for is a ‘few hens, pets with perks.’ Both the CFIA and the CDC regulatory agencies have guidelines for backyard chicken owners.”

My neigbour has dogs who sound as though they are suffering from an excruciatingly slow and painful strangulation when they get excited — so much so that heads pop out of back doors to see what the ruckus is all about. Do I fire off an email to bylaw? Of course not. They are cute dogs and their owner is a nice man. But really, this could not be worse than the soft cluck cluck of a few hens.

Others feel the city is already burdened, and don’t want taxpayer dollars going toward enforcement of chicken/egg infractions. Fair enuf. But you could make that case for just about anything the city does spend money on, though I’m sure we’re all in agreement on water, sewer and garbage pick-up.

There will be infractions. Someone will attempt to run an illegal back-alley egg business. Someone else will stumble upon signs of gruesome chicken carnage while out for their morning run and be traumatized for life requiring long-term psychological care paid for by the city. That will be front page news just like the cat hoarder lady. (No that wasn’t me. Contrary to rumour I have a perfectly reasonable number of two, licenced, cats.) But, this is what we’ll hear about. In the meantime, there will be several chicken pens in several backyards and in a few community gardens going about their business and not causing a peep of trouble for their neighbours or community.

There are issues to be resolved. What happens when the hen stops laying? It could be early in its up to 14 years or so lifespan, to give a more literal meaning to the phrase ‘the old hen who lives down the block.’ Where do you take them to turn them into Sunday dinner? Can you? What if they kill each other in a pecking frenzy? Again the pro-chicken-in-backyards people have answers. Other municipalities have done this already — it’s not terra incognita. The collective has been working on the chicken file for several years.

“We’ve had a number of discussions with city administration. We also met with zoning at some point. Then someone decided, due to redevelopment of the MDP (municipal development plan), a pilot project wasn’t possible at the moment. We’re waiting for whatever body is created out of the food/ag strategy and we’ll continue to talk with the city administration.”

Laura isn’t sure if we even need a pilot project now. They want to go ahead with helping to draft the bylaw.

“Whitehorse has urban chickens; cities like Vancouver have demonstrated that chickens fit into the urban landscape.”

Isn’t this what living in a city is all about? To welcome diversity in thought and appearance, and to have tolerance for our neighbour’s foibles and pets. We allow people to keep snakes and rodents and rabbits. Are chickens really that much of a stretch?

Let’s support River City Chickens and others in their efforts for backyard hens. Let’s see if we really can keep chickens in the backyard in our climate. Otherwise we’ll never really know, and we’ll have lost another way to connect with food we grow ourselves and our rural roots.

Would I have a backyard chicken run? Actually, no, I kill houseplants. But I hope somebody close-by does. Perhaps I can adopt one of their hens and buy fresh eggs. If it’s anything like my experience growing tomatoes, they’ll cost about $5 each. But they’ll be from the neighourhood, still warm, and that will cause me inordinate pleasure.

Mary Bailey would name her hens Ella, Oprah and Amy if she had some.