A hot-button issue is packing town halls and council chambers across the country. It’s not the budget crisis, fiscal cutbacks or increased taxes. It’s the right to raise chickens in your own backyard.
Essentially, the issue is a referendum on the split between urban and country life. During World War II, backyard chicken coops and “victory gardens” planted with fruits and vegetables were considered patriotic. After the war, however, cities and suburbs passed ordinances banning livestock and poultry. Chickens disappeared, gardens shrank and manicured lawns increased. Today, many health- and wallet-conscious eaters want to turn their lawns back into vegetable gardens and raise chickens, bees and even small goats.
Where does the line get drawn between sustainable food production and residential areas? Should families, regardless of where they live, be allowed to raise food for their own consumption? Vegetable gardens are usually greeted with enthusiasm, but what if you till up your front yard and turn it into a vegetable patch? Should neighbors have to give their OK before you make that decision? If large dogs are allowed in your town, why not small goats, which would provide fresh milk? Edible gardens, bees and goats each have their advocates and detractors, but chickens are the current flash-point.
Opponents of backyard poultry voice similar arguments across the country: Chickens will disturb the peace and quiet, barnyard odors will drift over the neighborhood and cause property values to decline. Chickens will fly the coop, causing extra work for animal control officers. Some of the strongest dissenters grew up on farms. “I like chickens, I grew up with chickens,” they’re apt to say. “But I know from experience that chickens don’t belong in the city.” Large flocks in farmyard settings — even without the overcrowding and unsanitary conditions that are so widespread — are very different from the modest backyard chicken coops asking for a legal pass.
Chickens are not the noisy ones
In reality, roosters, not chickens, are the noisemakers, and they’re unnecessary for egg production. The main reason for roosters, which almost all urban communities ban, is to produce more chicks. Reasonable fencing requirements can easily eliminate chickens on the run, and while there may be some irresponsible poultry owners, there are likely as many irresponsible dog and cat owners in any given community. Finally, instead of house values going down, chickens may give added value. When friends of mine recently sold their suburban home outside of Minneapolis in less than a week, they said their backyard chicken coop clinched the deal.
I’ve been raising chickens for almost five years. My four hens have unique personalities, cuddle in my arms and follow me about. Hens are quiet, and produce no more waste or odor than cats or dogs. My chickens have eliminated the slugs that nibbled my hostas and do their best to keep the rest of the bug population in check. Their eggs are more nutritious and flavorful than anything I can buy in the supermarket.
Most urban or suburban communities that permit backyard chickens limit the number of birds that can be raised. To ensure the peace, it’s important that chickens be given a minimum of 10-square-feet per bird in the coop and run. It’s also imperative that owners provide a predator-safe well-maintained environment. Small-holed fencing, such as hardware cloth, buried 6 inches deep will keep hens safe in the run and coop, even from burrowing critters. Clean feeding areas will prevent any rodent problems. Backyard hen owners should carefully research the birds they select, choosing breeds that work well for small-scale ranging or enclosure. Buff Orpingtons and Barred Rocks are among chickens that are more docile and less vocal — and better suited to city life.
Reasonable restrictions can keep people on both sides of the fence content.
Janice Cole is the author of “Chicken and Egg: A Memoir of Suburban Homesteading With 125 Recipes” (Chronicle Books, 2011). She is a food writer and editor and blogs regularly about her chickens at Three Swingin’ Chicks.
Photo: Janice Cole and her hen friend. Credit: Erik Saulitis