Fowl Fight

Feathers fly over backyard chickens

Fowl Fight

In the pecking order of environmental causes, chickens are poster girls for the urban agriculture movement.

City folk, already removed from the land by huge swaths of concrete, asphalt, and tightly packed housing, are becoming increasingly concerned about their food supply, its quality, and their link to it.

They’re supporting farmers’ markets and growing their own vegetables in community gardens. Now they’re flocking to the idea that a couple of backyard hens might lighten the environmental load imposed by industrial food producers, strengthen their own connection to the land and, if nothing else, give them tasty omelettes for breakfast.

Alas, this may be possible in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and nearly 100 other major US cities that permit backyard flocks. But in Canada, only two big cities, Vancouver and Victoria, currently allow residents to have chickens. So if you’re in Toronto, Ottawa, or Calgary, you may well be breaking the law when you decide to install a little egg factory in the backyard.

Feathers flying in Calgary

This has some people in a real flap. Paul Hughes of Calgary, a food activist and self-described conceptual artist who openly defied that city’s anti-chicken bylaws, was fined and ordered to send the hens packing.

He refused to do so and filed a court challenge, and the case was adjourned in December to allow him time to raise funds to hire a lawyer. Hughes was one of more than 150 Calgarians given a reprieve as council considered a one-year trial run in urban chicken keeping, but this was shot down last summer.

He is the only person in Calgary to be charged with keeping chickens unlawfully, however, and says he is prepared to take the challenge to a higher court.

“I want to end this fight for once and for all, for all Canadians,” he says. “If we decide we want to raise our own food … we should be able to do that. The right to food has to be respected.”

Hughes says he is basing his case on both the Canadian Charter of Rights and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights “Right to Food” provisions. Hughes founded the Canadian Liberated Urban Chicken Klub (CLUCK) in late 2009, and it has grown to more than a dozen chapters across Canada, as other communities fight for the same right.

Laying low in Toronto

Meanwhile, Toronto Chickens, a mother of two teenagers and keeper of three chickens, won’t go public with her identity because she’s fearful of losing her access to fresh, clean eggs if city inspectors find out who she is. (Toronto Chickens has a website chronicling her chicken-rearing adventures and has been interviewed anonymously by major Toronto newspapers and magazines, and the CBC, which all have shielded her identity.)

Roosting in Vancouver

Heather Havens, the self-proclaimed Chicken Lady who helped Vancouver hammer out its backyard-chicken bylaw, has a theory on why there’s so much cackling back and forth over the issue. Havens, an animal scientist who now lives in Portland, Oregon (where backyard chickens are also legal), says she developed her theory while researching chicken bylaws across North America.

Old hen thinking

Banning chickens inside city limits was primarily a reflection of public attitudes at the time, Havens says. Just about everyone had chickens until the ’50s and ’60s when prosperity, the rise of prepared foods, and the rush to build suburbs created a mindset that modern cities should be homogenous, clean, and tidy.

Modern was the opposite of rural, in that world view. Chickens were seen as old-fashioned; they were dirty and didn’t fit into a tidy vision of the future. “It seems that the smaller cities are the ones that started banning chickens after World War II. New York City and Los Angeles have never banned ‰ chickens, and they are very old cities,” Havens says.

Clucks in the city

The main arguments against having chickens in the city—noise, smell, rodents, disease—have been successfully dispatched in the many communities that have allowed chickens to once again roost within their borders.

Noise
Chickens aren’t noisy unless there’s a rooster among them, so most communities do not allow them.

Smell and rodents
As for smell and rodents, these can be taken care of by regular cleaning and a secured food supply, something any pet owner would do routinely for animals in their care.

Disease
The fear of hatching diseases such as avian flu is also unfounded. Havens says research shows beyond a doubt that the real source is the factory farm, where chickens spend their entire lives crowded into cages and in such close quarters that their stress levels are high and their immune systems compromised. By contrast, backyard chickens enjoy the life of Riley,
with room to stretch, peck, scratch, and roost.

The new urban chick

Toronto councillor Joe Mihevc, a backyard-chicken advocate, says there’s a “ton of reasons” to permit chickens in the city, not the least of which is our changing attitude about food and where it comes from.

He calls it an urban food revolution, a growing awareness that our industrial food supply is rife with environmental, social, and health downsides. “We’ve been led to think that urban areas are places for culture, for the arts, and for business, and that rural areas are for food. But we’re beginning to understand that it’s a paradigm that presents many, many problems.”

For example, we don’t grow food; instead we declare war on dandelions and pour on the poisons to have perfect lawns surrounding our homes. Then we import food from far away to feed ourselves, Mihevc points out. “That’s just not sustainable,” he says. Instead, we should be looking to European cities, which encourage residents to grow up to 30 percent of their own food.

We can do this, he says, by putting the soft areas around our homes to better use than growing grass. We can grow food there, and that includes having chickens. “Growing food in your front yard used to mean you were poor, but now we see that this can be quite beautiful,” he says.

Toronto may get cracking

Mihevc says Toronto city staff will present council with full reports on backyard chickens for discussion and debate in 2011. “I expect it will be a bit of a rough ride,” he says about getting a pro-chicken bylaw approved, but he is confident that if council proceeds gently and slowly, Toronto could have chickens on a trial basis by next year.

“Animals have always been a part of human life, and chickens are a part of that. It also helps put more people in touch with how our food is grown,” he says.

Vancouverites just scratching the surface

In Vancouver, meanwhile, the new pro-chicken bylaw hasn’t exactly created a huge flock of applications. Three months after the bylaw came into effect, only 22 people had applied for chicken permits, a number that seems at odds with the intense interest the issue is generating all across North America.

That doesn’t mean only 22 households have chickens, however, says Ross Moster, convener of villagevancouver.ca, a website aimed at creating more sustainable ways to live in the city. Moster, who has helped organize more than 20 Chicken 101 workshops in the city, figures there are at least 400 coops in the city, half existing and half new, since the bylaw was adopted.

Havens says those who are not applying for permits, required under the bylaw, are forced to become outlaw chicken owners because Vancouver’s regulations are much too strict. “It’s not a good bylaw,” she insists.

But Moster, who agrees council has “erred on the conservative side” with its regulations, is more sanguine. “We’re happy we’ve been successful in getting [chickens] legalized. The fact the bylaw is what it is, isn’t the end of the world … Perhaps in a year or so, we can take a look at what the de facto reality of chicken keeping is in Vancouver and lobby for revisions.”

For now, the view for Vancouver residents appears to be sunny side up, something many other Canadian city dwellers are hoping to have as well.


Helpful resources

torontochickens.com
Basic information on keeping chickens, plus information on where chickens are legal, how to approach your local council for action on backyard chickens, presenting arguments to council for keeping urban chickens, how to organize petitions, chicken regulations, and sample bylaws.

CLUCK: Canadian Liberated Urban Chicken Klub
An organization that is fighting to bring chickens to cities across Canada. Some communities such as Calgary have a CLUCK exchange on Facebook; others such as Ottawa have seized on a blog as the way to organize and share information. Other Canadian cities with CLUCK chapters include Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Regina, York, and Kitchener.

Keeping Backyard Chickens—The Basics; Vancouver Metro Edition
Heather Havens’s helpful resource is available here in PDF form: dailyeggs.com/chickenlinks.html#Urban%20Chickens.

Although it was written before Vancouver’s bylaw went into effect and it does focus on specifics such as feed stores and veterinary service in the Greater Vancouver area, Havens’s guide is a very good basic outline of what is needed to start your own backyard flock. Plus she provides a great list of books and websites for would-be chicken farmers.

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