Jumping on the “backyard chickens” bandwagon?

Clarington residents will have to wait until sometime in the New Year to find out if they can jump on the “backyard chickens” bandwagon. Bowmanville resident Emily Pillinger appeared before Clarington Council last month, requesting a by-law amendment to allow the keeping of chickens in residential backyards. The Mayor’s Office received the request on Nov. 16, and Pillinger read a presentation to council on Nov. 23. Council received the delegation, and directed staff to investigate and report back.

Currently, under the Exotic Pet By-law, also known as By-law 93-161, “prohibiting and regulating the keeping of certain animals within the municipality,” Clarington prohibits chickens from being kept within its geographic limits, except upon a farm.

In her presentation to council, Pillinger asked that the by-law be changed “to allow the keeping of backyard chickens” in suburban areas. She suggested that single family homes be permitted to keep three to six laying hens for household egg production.

“In this time of economic hardship, and [with]… a huge push towards living a ‘greener’ life and making a smaller carbon footprint …urban hen husbandry plays an essential role in the creation of sustainable local food systems,” she asserted.

In order to prevent backyard chickens from becoming a health or noise concern, Pillinger proposed a number of measures be included in the requested by-law amendment. Specifically, she said that “chickens and their enclosures must be kept 15 feet from residential homes,” and “be kept in a neat, clean and sanitary condition, free from offensive odours, excessive noise and any other condition that would constitute a nuisance.” She suggested that roosters, which are unnecessary in the production of eggs, remain prohibited.

On Monday, Municipal Clerk Patti Barrie confirmed that her department is working on the report, in conjunction with Animal Services, and that they will also seek comments from the Planning Department and the Agricultural Advisory Committee. When asked if the Health Department would also be consulted, she said, “Absolutely.”

In her presentation, Pillinger said that Clarington is “behind the times,” noting that Ontario communities such as Brampton, London, Guelph and Niagara Falls, as well as Vancouver, BC, allow the keeping of hens on urban plots. Even the nearby city of Oshawa allows backyard chickens.

Barrie said staff would definitely take a look at what other municipalities are doing, but said it was premature to comment on other communities’ by-laws.

“I haven’t had an opportunity to look into that yet,” she said. “Once we get a chance to review it, and see what’s going on in other municipalities, then we’ll be able to comment.”

According to an Oshawa Animal Services worker reached by phone on Monday, that city currently has no by-laws restricting chickens in residential neighbourhoods. Oshawa has a list of restricted exotic mammals, reptiles and birds, as noted in its Responsible Pet Owners By-law on its website. Chickens are not on the list.

“Whatever isn’t on the restricted list is allowed,” explained the Animal Services worker, who would not give her name. When asked if any complaints about chickens had been received in Oshawa, she responded, “We’ve had reports that people have them [chickens], asking if they’re allowed. When they find out they’re allowed, they don’t take it [the complaint] any further.”

According to a number of websites, many set up before the decision earlier this year to allow hens inside the city limits of Vancouver, concerns about backyard chickens include the possibility of excessive noise, neglect of the birds, the spread of avian flu, and an increase in predators. Predators include coyotes, foxes, certain hawks, skunks, and raccoons.

Noise and health issues appear to be addressed by limiting the number of chickens and their proximity to residential buildings. Health officials seem to have assessed the risk of spreading avian flu to be low, given the limit on the number of birds and the required enclosures. Well-maintained enclosures would protect the birds from predators, and so it would be in the best interest of owners to keep the enclosures strong and safe. Proponents of backyard chickens point out that the birds are far more likely to be mistreated in so-called factory farms than in backyards.

Chickens require about two to three square feet per chicken inside the henhouse, and four to five square feet per chicken in an outside run, according to the website BackYardChickens.com. The site also advises owners “keep local predators in mind” when building an enclosure.

According to The Globe and Mail columnist Gary Mason, commenting on Vancouver’s recent decision to allow backyard chickens, the move is all about “the latest trend in urban agriculture: cruelty-free eggs.” Chickens that are allowed to roam freely in a yard are said to be much happier and healthier than battery chickens kept indoors in cramped cages. There is a great number of how-to blogs on the internet to assist the first-time chicken owner, many of which sing the praises of cruelty-free eggs.

While Pillinger’s presentation stressed the economic and environmental benefits of keeping chickens, she also acknowledged that “backyard chickens are kept more humanely and with a higher quality of life than battery hens.”

Pillinger argued that chickens should not be defined as farm animals. “Unlike a half-ton bull or a 600-lb pig, a 3-lb chicken is not inherently a farm animal and should be no more restricted by this by-law than dogs or cats,” she said.

The practice of keeping backyard chickens is not a new one, she noted. “Chickens have been kept in urban areas for thousands of years because they don’t require much space, are not expensive to keep, provide eggs as a sustainable food source and are quite personable pets.”

The report to council is expected to be finished in January or February, following the next meeting of the Agricultural Advisory Committee, according to Barrie.

Update: After posting this story, I received a press release from Meredith Turner of Farm Sanctuary – NYC regarding increased placement requests for unwanted birds. It reads:

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – December 11, 2009 – Reacting to the increased popularity of backyard chicken flocks used for eggs in urban and suburban areas, a coalition of animal sanctuaries, comprising leading experts in avian care, has issued a public statement discouraging this trend. Coalition members include Animal Place in California, Chicken Run Rescue in Minnesota, Eastern Shore Sanctuary and Education Center in Vermont, Farm Sanctuary in New York and California, Sunnyskies Bird and Animal Sanctuary in New York, and United Poultry Concerns in Virginia. This coalition is also urging municipalities throughout the U.S. not to allow backyard flocks and exhorting those that are already zoned for this practice to establish and enforce strict regulations for the care of these birds.

For the full statement, go to: http://www.farmsanctuary.org/pdf/Collective Position Statement on Backyard Poultry.pdf.

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One thought on “Jumping on the “backyard chickens” bandwagon?

  1. It seems very odd to me that the animal control people are so against unwanted chickens being killed off… seriously… WHAT do they think they do with them on chicken farms? Let them live happy lives until the natural end of their lives? Do farms pay for veterinary care for ill chickens? NO… They just snap their necks and toss them in the compost pile… Do they really mean to say that people who care enough about how their food animals are treated that they are willing to take them into their own yard are not going to do their best to take care of them and make sure they are killed ethically when the time arises? Do the slaughter houses always guarantee that chickens are stunned appropriately before the chickens are killed? NO! Do they make sure the chickens are dead before they drop them into steaming hot water to make it easier to pluck them? NO! It strikes me as terribly sad that the trade off of the chickens having a lovely life instead of a life in a factory farm (my version of hell for chickens, google it, seriously) that may end in a less than textbook slaughter is even an issue. They go on about the ethical treatment of pet chickens but fail to mention how the farmed battery chickens are treated… but that’s ok I guess… out of sight, out of mind.

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