Out of the coop

Across America, cities are reversing laws against raising chickens, allowing covert hen-keepers to come clean and a new wave of backyard farming to begin. Jill Richardson reports.

Adam Hiner is getting his chickens back. So is Philip Dunn. Both had been keeping the animals illegally in San Diego, California, and were forced to get rid of them by the city authorities. But, after a long campaign by residents to legalise backyard chickens, on January 31 this year the San Diego council voted to allow homeowners to keep up to five hens (no roosters).

For one chicken owner, Kaya de Barbaro, the change comes too late: after being told to get rid of her two hens, de Barbaro moved them to a location remote enough that no neighbours would see them and complain, and one was eaten by a coyote.

“I can’t wait to have them back,” said Hiner. “It just goes to show that people can make a difference.  My first reaction when we had to get rid of them was to go to war with the neighbour who turned us in, but luckily my sister had a more effective reaction – go out and create a positive change in the community.” His sister was one of the many people who attended city council meetings and spoke out in favour of legalising chicken-keeping.

San Diego is not alone. A growing number of US cities are changing their laws to allow residents to keep a small number of backyard chickens. Typically, US cities impose a “de facto” chicken-keeping ban. That is, they require you to have so much land in order to keep chickens that few people are actually able to do so in practice. In San Diego, for example, would-be chicken keepers were required to have 50 feet (15.2 metres) between the birds and any residence, including their own house. Some take a more extreme approach: Detroit is one of the few cities with a complete ban – no chickens, no exceptions.

“I think after world war two, North Americans had this idea that we were going to be modern now, and keeping livestock in the city was not modern,” said Jennifer Cockrall-King, author of Food and the City: Urban Agriculture and the New Food Revolution. “It was modern to go to the store and buy your food.” In the second half of the twentieth century, many US cities passed ordinances prohibiting backyard chickens, bolstered by public assumptions that chickens create noise, bad smells and carry disease.

Once again, however, the tide appears to be turning. As interest in gardening and producing one’s own food has swelled in the United States, many have started to question the wisdom of outlawing city chickens. In Madison city, Wisconsin (where the law changed as early as 2004) a group of renegade chicken-keepers formed, calling themselves Chicken Underground, while in Sacramento, California, the crusade has been led by the Campaign to Legalise Urban Chicken Keeping, or CLUCK.

Over the border in Canada, the city of Calgary made news when it slapped mayoral candidate and Calgary Liberated Urban Chicken Klub president Paul Hughes with a citation for urban chicken keeping. In the press coverage of his tangle with the law, Hughes took the opportunity to point out the absurdity of a situation where he can legally keep all sorts of exotic and even dangerous pets, but not chickens.

Activist efforts have paid off. In the past few years, several cities have had a change of heart about urban agriculture. San Diego’s new ordinance even allows residents to keep two miniature goats and two beehives. And even though the city council passed the measure unanimously, it was not without controversy. “I’m sure our neighbour will still complain about our chickens,” said Hiner. “Only now, if he does, the city won’t take action because the law is on our side.”

Some urban chicken owners lived in rural areas before moving to the city, and are experienced at keeping chickens. But many more are getting the animals for the first time and might have thought having chickens in the city was a crazy idea only a few years ago. Tressa Everts of Concord, California remembers when her son first asked her for pet chickens. “At first I said we had no space, but the more I thought about it, the more it seemed a good idea.”

The number of chicken permits handed out in Madison, though still low, gives some idea of the growth curve. When chicken-keeping was first made legal in 2004, only four people got licenses from the city. In 2011, 125 chicken licenses were granted and in the first three months of this year, the council gave out 96. Meanwhile, membership of the world’s largest online forum for backyard chicken-keepers, San-Francisco based has boomed. Created in January 2007 with 50 participants, it had 25,000 members by March 2009 and today boasts 125,000 signed-up enthusiasts.

Why do chickens have so many passionate advocates in US cities and suburbs? Chicken owners like Everts keep them for eggs – she would never eat one of her chickens – and as personable, fun pets. She enjoys building her flock with rare and unusual breeds. “No two chickens in my flock are the same, so every one looks different. And they all know their names,” she said. But some owners do plan on eating their chickens. In San Diego, there was enough interest to fill up a hands-on chicken slaughter workshop held by a local nursery.

Both Hiner and a southern California woman who wishes to be identified only as Linda (her chickens are, alas, still illegal) also see them as a boon for gardeners, as they eagerly consume insects and weeds and their droppings provide high quality fertiliser. Linda waited for more than a year while trying to work with her city to change the law, but ultimately decided to get five baby chicks a few months ago. “The longer I have them, the crazier I think it is for chickens to be illegal,” she said.

And often, city dwellers find that their fears about smell, noise and disease from backyard chickens are unfounded, or greatly reduced if roosters – the noisier element – are taken out of the picture. That was the case in Seattle, Washington, which first allowed residents to keep up to three chickens, including roosters, and later revised the law to allow up to eight hens, but no more roosters. Other cities that recently allowed chicken keeping include Salt Lake City in Utah, Knoxville in Tennessee and, north of the border, Vancouver in Canada. The fact that even the ultimate American metropolis New York allows backyard chickens makes it difficult to argue anymore that chickens simply “don’t belong in a city”.

The Murray McMurray Hatchery, which ships day old chicks throughout the United States, noticed an increase in orders about three or four years ago. President Bud Wood noted that baby chicks have become so popular that his company now has a backlog. Nowadays, he said, he sells more and more chicks to people who want small flocks. “The number of boxes we ship keeps growing and our average order keeps getting smaller,” said Wood.

Jill Richardson is founder of La Vida Locavore and the author of
Recipe for America: Why Our Food System is Broken and What We Can Do To Fix It.

Homepage image by mazaletel