Calgary’s city council just voted to ban them.
Toronto doesn’t allow them either, forcing some homeowners to hide them in basements and garages and hope their neighbors don’t turn them in. But in Vancouver, Montreal, Victoria, Kingston, Ont. and many other communities, they are welcomed and hailed as a way to contribute to a sustainable and healthy food system.
We’re talking about chickens coming home to roost in Canada’s urban areas.
Proponents say that having backyard hens also reduces municipal solid waste because hens eat table scraps, and that the hens will also eat weeds and bugs. “Hens are people-friendly, nonaggressive and always entertaining to watch,” says Urban Agriculture Kingston, which successfully lobbied to bring backyard hens to their community.
Kingston’s regulations for backyard chicken coops are typical of what most hen-loving municipalities allow. A maximum of six hens are permitted (just four in Vancouver) and all hens must be at least four months old. Roosters are prohibited.
Applicants in Kingston must tell their neighbors about their plans to obtain a hen coop and then apply for a permit. There are regulations that determine the size and placement of coops, and they are not allowed in front or side yards or within 7.5 metres of a church or business or within 15 metres of a school.
Hens must be in their coops from 9 pm to 6 am and kept in an enclosed hen run when not in the coops.
If the idea of planning and building a chicken coop is a bit overwhelming for would-be city farmers, some companies offer rental hens. In Guelph, Ont. a firm called Backyard Bok Boks will rent you three laying hens, a waterproof chicken coop, wood-chip bedding, a predator-proof electric fence and local delivery and pick-up for $349 on a two-week rental package.
A U.S.-based franchise called Rent the Chicken now has now expanded to Freetown, P.E.I. and the Toronto area. Rent the Chicken’s standard package runs from June until October, providing two hens, a chicken coop, all the information you need to take care of your chickens and more for $375.
“Due to local chicken owning laws, renters are actually purchasing the hens,” says the Rent the Chicken Toronto website. At the end of the season the hens will be bought back for $1, or you can adopt them.
Not everyone is on board with the idea of backyard chickens, including some animal welfare advocates. They say that once the novelty wears off, some amateur farmers don’t care for their chickens properly. In the U.S., some animal shelters report that rescue calls for chickens increased when backyard coops became more popular.
There’s also the matter of what happens to the hen once it stops laying eggs. The hens lay about one egg a day until they are about 18 months old and then production slows down and eventually stops. But chickens can live to be about 15 years old.
Many urban farmers treat their chickens like pets and don’t want to see them on the dinner table, but having unproductive hens cuts down on your egg supply. Many municipalities do not allow hens to be slaughtered in backyards.
“Chicken coops smell disgustingly vile,” Toronto City Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker told the Toronto Sun. “The noise that may occur, the slaughter that may occur when people want a fresh chicken in the pot. As much as I love chickens, they belong on a farm, not in your backyard.”
There has also been concern about avian influenza, or bird flu.
In its 2010 report, Kingston Backyard Hens: An Eggcellent Idea Whose Time Has Come, (http://uakingston.webs.com/backyardhens.htm), Urban Agriculture Kingston says, “The type of avian influenza that is contagious to humans has not been found in North America. Bird flu is spread by contact with the contaminated feces of wild migratory waterfowl. So the key issues are sanitation and contact with wild birds. Unlike rural farm birds which might co-mingle with migratory birds or drink from a shared pond, backyard hens are contained in an enclosure and watered inside this enclosure.”
A U.S. site, My Pet Chicken says that if you keep chickens, you probably don’t need to worry too much about avian influenza but you should be informed about it. Another good site for information on the topic is The HappyChickenCoop.com.
At least two Canadian municipalities, Kitchener, Ont. and Edmonton, embarked on long-term studies of the issue in 2015. Even places like Calgary that recently rejected the idea have probably not heard the last of it. As Mayor Naheed Nenshi told the Calgary Herald, “Once every five years we talk about this stuff.”