Urban Chickens–an opportunity

April 29, 2010 at 10:12 pm 8 comments

London, Ontario has the opportunity, in the next few days, to actually act like a world class city and take an active step in improving our sustainability and food security rather than playing catch-up years from now.  We have the opportunity to improve our resilience by changing the unfounded bylaws that ban laying hens in our city.

Cities all across the United States currently permit chickens to be raised within the city limits. Here’s a short, and by no means inclusive list:

“World-Class” cities that permit urban chickens:

  • Los Angeles
  • Seattle
  • Miami
  • Atlanta
  • Chicago
  • Las Vegas
  • New Orleans
  • San Fransisco
  • Salt Lake City
  • Washington
  • New York City (which, like Chicago, permits unlimited chickens, provided cleanliness is maintained)

The State of Georgia has even introduced a bill to pre-empt local ordinances and make urban chickens legal state-wide, “to protect the right to grow food crops and raise small animals on private property so long as such crops and animals are used for human consumption by the occupants, gardeners, or raisers and their households.”

Canada is slower to adopt urban homesteading, and this is where London has an opportunity to show our leadership. Niagara Falls, ON; Richmond, BC; Guelph, ON; Esquimault, BC; and Victoria, BC have passed bylaws permitting urban chickens, while many cities (including Toronto, Ottawa, and Halifax) are pushing for the same. Residents in Waterloo, ON who were raising chickens prior to their recent tied vote on the matter are permitted to keep their chickens.

Benefits of backyard chickens:

  • healthy, pesticide-free eggs
  • improve local food security
  • great way to teach children about food (a study in the UK found that nearly 2/3 of school children struggled to identify the origins of the everyday foods they eat–many thought that sheep lay eggs).
  • chickens reduce municipal waste by consuming kitchen scraps–from carrot peels to pizza crusts
  • chickens provide excellent nitrogen-rich compost for the garden, reducing dependence on fossil-fuel-based fertilizers
  • reduction of greenhouse gases through decreased food transport
  • chickens reduce back-yard pests–by eating them!
  • Chickens are people-friendly, social animals that make great pets
  • Small-scale backyard food-production contributes to vibrant urban communities by promoting sustainability

Now, urban chickens are an issue that makes many people react emotionally, to the exclusion of facts. Here’s some help with those:

Popular concerns about chickens

* Noise:

Roosters, not hens, are loud. Roosters are not necessary for egg production, and should be banned in cities, where they would be a nuisance. Hens, on the other hand, are quieter than most dogs.  Chickens cluck softly. Occasionally they will show off after laying an egg (a hen lays roughly 2-4 times a week), clucking slightly louder than their normal.   “Normal noises are not audible past 25′, the loudest noises, which last a couple seconds at about 50′” [source]. Try to imagine how far a sound of that quiet would carry from inside a coop in someone’s backyard. Now imagine how far away you can hear your neighbour’s dog barking, and how long it barks.  Do you still think noise is an issue?

* Smell:

It’s understandable that people don’t want to have the stink of shit ruining their enjoyment of life.  Shit stinks if it’s left lying around.  The smell that most people associate with chickens comes from large (unsustainable) operations, where many chickens shit continually but are rarely mucked out.

If every household in medium-sized city (20,000 households) owned six birds each, you’re still looking at a little over 160,000 pounds of phosphorous spread out across an entire city. Compare this to the industrial chicken industry practice of housing 150,000 birds in a single 500-ft long chicken house (that’s 200,000 pounds of phosphorous from one chicken house), and you see it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison regarding the concentration/disposal of the poop. [source]

No one’s asking to keep a factory farm in their backyard; the proposed bylaw would limit the total to 4-6 chickens. Here’s a little context: a single dog weighing 50 pounds produces more waste than 5 chickens [source] (but unlike dog waste, which is so dangerous that it has to be disposed of off-site, chicken waste can be safely composted and used to fuel gardens). Just like cleaning your cat’s litterbox or dog run keeps your house or yard from reeking, proper care of chicken coops prevents smells from being an issue. Chicken areas should be cleaned at least as often as a litter box is emptied. Our current animal control bylaws cover animal neglect, but do you really think that the civically engaged people pushing to change the bylaw and are ethically motivated to sustainably feed themselves are going to neglect their birds?

* Salmonella

The idea that we shouldn’t be allowed to produce our own food for fear that we might accidentally eat shit is almost to absurd to address.  So here’s how to clean eggs. Maybe people shouldn’t be allowed to grow their own organic carrots in case they don’t wash off the manure. Maybe we should ban people with babies from making food, in case they get baby poo in their food. As a quick aside, commercial beef is fed chicken shit. Just so you know. So don’t tell me we should leave food up to the “experts.”

* Bird Flu (etc)

Here’s a question: if a bird flu risk were a legitimate reason for preventing urban chickens, why is it legal to keep an unspecified number of backyard pigeons in London? I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have a neighbour with 4 laying hens than one with a flock of pigeons.

You know what spreads bird flu? A giant, unsanitary building crammed with hens standing in their own shit, rubbing up against their sick and wounded neighbours. That’s the reality of factory farms, not backyard chickens.

the sources and spread of new strains of avian influenza are more strongly related to large-scale chicken and human activity as opposed to the conventional school of thought that blames small-scale production, live markets and wild fowl [source]

Urban chicken owners are actually part of the solution.

To reduce the emergence of viruses like H5N1, humanity must shift toward raising poultry in smaller flocks, under less stressful, less crowded, and more hygienic conditions, with outdoor access, no use of human antivirals, and with an end to the practice of breeding for growth or unnatural egg production at the expense of immunity.[source]

Urban farmers invest a lot of time and money into raising their chickens, and will notice if one gets sick. Because it’s so small scale, they are also very motivated to make sure their hens are in peak health, or they lose their investment.

* Rats

Rats aren’t attracted to chickens. In fact they avoid chickens, which will attack any rat or mouse they see.  What rats are attracted to is food. Just as rats will be attracted to garbage that is properly contained, they are attracted to open feed containers.  No one wants to share their chicken feed with rodents and squirrels, so feed is stored in closed containers, perhaps even inside the house. The small portion of food that is left in chicken enclosures will attract no more rats than leaving out bird seed or a bowl of cat food for outdoor cats.

If you don’t believe me about chickens, believe the people who get paid a lot to know what they’re talking about.

Here’s an excerpt from the letter that Donald E. Hoenig, State Veterinarian for the Maine Department of Agriculture wrote

on June 18, 2007 in support of an urban chicken bylaw in his state:

I believe that the public health risk posed by allowing small numbers of backyard chickens in South Portland is minimal and can be controlled by good husbandy.  This means that their housing, feed and water, carcass disposal, and manure management are maintained using best (agricultural) management practices.
Avian influenza and other diseases may transmitted by contact with migratory waterfowl or shorebirds. This contact with backyard poultry can be minimized or eliminated by good management (adequate fencing, well-maintained feeders, closing birds in at night).

There are two areas of caution in keeping poultry in an urban environment to avoid issues which could result in nuisance complaints from neighbors. The most salient of these concerns is the possession of roosters which should be prohibited.  The second is manure management.  Flies and odor are a common cause of neighborhood complaints. Again, using best management practices to maintain the sanitation of the coop through frequent clean-outs as well as keeping it well-secured against predators by the use of adequate fencing is also essential.  I think the inclusion of a provision in the ordinance for the neighbors to rescind approval of the backyard poultry as well as the ability for the local health officer to remove the birds at any time would also head off potential problems.

Additional Reading (PDFs):

Residential Urban Chicken Keeping: An Examination of 25 Cities,” by K.T. LaBadie, University of New Mexico

Balking at Bocking: Urban Chicken Policy in Canada,” prepared by Jacqueline Jolliffe for JustFood Ottawa


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MMM. Pure, adulterated milk Perspective

8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Thomas Kriese  |  April 30, 2010 at 9:51 am

    This is a nice resource page. I like how you’ve structured the arguments and sources. Keep up the great work!

  • 2. Arzeena  |  April 30, 2010 at 10:19 am

    Just to clarify, Richmond, BC allows for chickens but the minimum lot size is half an acre. Even for just 1 chicken. Hardly “urban”. We tried to change this by-law last year but with no success. Hopefully we can try again soon.

    • 3. livinglime  |  April 30, 2010 at 5:44 pm

      that’s actually kind of offensive. I hope your counselors will listen to reason instead of rumour!

  • 4. thewayout  |  May 6, 2010 at 10:41 am

    You don’t need permission from the man to have chickens in your backyard, you just need to get your neighbors on board with you!! Global non-compliance can lead to radical change for the environment and the pyhsicie of the human mind. I have my own flock of chickens in London Ontario, and no bylaw person has bothered me because I keep the people close to me supplied with fresh eggs and thus they keep me free from the law which is just the law of amorality!! It also helps that I’ve copyrighted my name and each use of it cost the user $500,000 per use. This works great with cops if your a speeder, you can see them shi$ing their pants when you hand them that document. Don’t fight, just do and be free, cuz the more you fight the more you fight.

  • 5. Gary Mitchell  |  August 26, 2010 at 2:51 pm

    I lived in Alabama and had ducks and geese in our backyard, while living in the city. It was fun and we never ran out of eggs. Thanks for posting this link. Great stuff.

  • 6. danial mills  |  January 25, 2011 at 4:48 pm

    London needs to make this happen!
    I raised rabbits last year, and will again this year
    but a few laying hens would made life sweet!

  • 7. Lucinda  |  June 8, 2012 at 7:15 pm

    It would be wonderful if cities would also make if feasible for people to keep bees. The future of agriculture as we know it may well depend on it.

    • 8. livinglime  |  July 4, 2013 at 2:00 pm

      Lots of cities already do!


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