The only chicken talk we usually hear in downtown Toronto involves pecking order, hen parties, or nest eggs. Well now there’s a new movement afoot, urban chicken coops! Many urban dwellers want to take the local-food movement one step further and take the plunge into small-scale backyard chicken farming. Now we know what you’re thinking, but don’t get your feathers ruffled, because backyard chickens have a bit of an undeserved bad reputation.
Backyard chickens are now legal in over 100 towns and cities across North America, including Kingston, Vancouver, Brampton and Guelph in Canada, and New York, Chicago, and Seattle in the US. Most municipalities limit the number of chickens and monitor urban chicken coops for cleanliness. Roosters are not usually allowed, which is important, since roosters do the cock-a-doodle-do-ing at sunrise.
Chicken advocate Lorraine Johnson (author of the book ‘City Farmer: Adventures in Urban Food Growing’) sees chicken coops as part of the broader local food movement. After all, backyard hens lay hormone and antibiotic free eggs, and apparently taste great. A well-fed and cared for hen will lay an egg every day, so just a couple of chickens can regularly feed a family meals of delicious baked goods, French toast, omelettes or whatever egg based treat your heart desires. Plus, chickens will eat pesky insects in your garden, and chicken manure is good fertilizer. Backyard eggs are healthy, nutritious local food, just like backyard tomatoes. And like tomatoes, there are some really cool heritage varieties – check out the book ‘Extraordinary Chickens’.
Toronto, as of right now, does not allow backyard chicken coops. In December 2011, two Toronto councillors, backed by the lobby group Toronto Chickens, wanted the City to study the feasibility of allowing backyard chickens, but the motion was suppressed by the Licensing and Standards Committee. It’s difficult to guess how many renegade underground coops exist, but Toronto Animal Services does remove a few dozen backyard chickens from homes every year.
So what’s all the fuss about?
Chicken concerns revolve around noise, chicken manure smelling and attracting pests, and avian flu. Backyard chickens need proper care, just like any other animal people keep in their homes, but let’s address a few of these concerns.
First, hens make a soft clucking noise similar in volume to other urban bird noises (e.g., pigeon calls). Only roosters cock-a-doodle-do at the rising sun, and urban chicken egg farmers only keep hens, which will happily lay eggs without a rooster.
Chickens require commitment, just like any other animal, and chicken poop, just like dog poop, cat poop, and human poop, needs to be properly disposed of. Chicken coops require regular maintenance and cleaning. A well-run coop will not smell or attract vermin, which is why some municipalities require backyard coops to regularly submit to inspections.
Finally, the spread of diseases including avian flu, is caused by modern industrial agriculture, not backyard coops. Avian flu outbreaks have been traced to large-scale poultry farms in Africa and Asia, which pack thousands of genetically identical chickens into a tiny, often unsanitary space. Avian flu has not spread to poultry operations in North America yet, and it is likely that preserving chicken genetic diversity (e.g., through allowing backyard raising of heritage chickens) is a good way to prevent the spread of disease outbreaks.
Backyard chickens do bring some risks with them. Coops must be cleaned regularly, or they will start to smell. If chicken feed and manure is allowed to lie around for too long, it may attract vermin. Chickens need to be safely into their coop at night, or risk being discovered and eaten by cats, dogs, raccoons, or other predators. But backyard coops are also increasingly a part of urban agriculture, and recent movements towards local, organic, healthy, and delicious food. So don’t fret if you see a neighbour smuggling a hen into their backyard, and reserve judgement until you ask for a few free eggs a week.
Urban chicken coops are a far cry from your traditional, down-on-the-farm variety. There are many coops available today that are specifically designed for the backyard urban farmer. Below are a few that we found, along with a fun little game we like to call, ‘what neighbourhood of Toronto would you find this chicken coop in’? We think some of these are pretty snazzy. Enjoy, and please share your thoughts on the Toronto urban chicken movement!
All images from Babble.com