Fowl neighbours: Growing up next to backyard chickens

Editor’s Note: Last week, Toronto’s liscencing committee voted against the idea of lifting the (rarely-enforced) ban on owning backyard chickens. Although the debate inspired a large number of egg related puns by councillors and the media, the idea didn’t get a lot of serious consideration. While some concerns seem completely legitimate (especially concerning the role of Animal Services), a lot of the contention seemed to circle around the notion that chickens would be a pest. Mairin Piccinin has spent years living beside an owner of urban chickens and shares her experience with us.

Like many Torontonians, I’ve become aware of the growing debate over whether to lift the ban backyard chickens in the city. We’ve all heard the arguments about noise, smell, and attracting vermin. We’ve heard the dire warnings about avian influenza.

These arguments seem like no brainers to most city folk. But I find myself wondering how many are basing their views on first-hand experience. So, for those fellow citizens who have only had the pleasure of getting to know a chicken on their dinner plate, I’d like to share a bit about my own fowl urban experience.

I was nine when my family traded up from our Lego-block townhouse to a mid-century back-split with a giant backyard and a chicken coop next door. The chickens fascinated me. I would spend hours running back and forth along the chain link fence that separated our yards, clucking, cooing, squawking, mooing—making any farm noise I could think of to get their attention.

I quickly understood that grownups generally didn’t share my feathery fascination. But their downright distaste was baffling and, since at nine I still believed she actually knew stuff, I asked my mother why. “Well,” she explained, “It’s actually illegal to keep chickens in your backyard, and if the city knew about them they would take them away.”

As usual, her answer only led to more questions. Why would adults who had never met these chickens think they were a problem when nobody living on my street did? What would happen to the old lady if she lost her chickens? They were her pets and she loved them. I imagined the city taking away my dogs and felt sick. Fortunately, no one has ratted her out, though. Yet.

Yes, backyard chickens make noise. That’s because, unlike their dismembered cousins at the grocery store, they are typically alive. But the noise my chicken neighbors make, a few clucks and bok-boks every now and then, is easily drowned out by the cars on surrounding streets, the planes that fly by every 3 minutes, construction on nearby Yonge Street, and all the other abrasive noises that envelope Toronto in daily cacophony. If, in some apolcalyptic scenario, technology were silenced across the city and natural noises reclaimed their historical position as sovereigns of the soundscape, the soft clucking of chickens wouldn’t stand a chance, at least in my neighbourhood, against the yapping of dogs and the ranting of the delusional.

Yes, chicken shit smells. Chickens produce excrement, which, unlike the delicately floral-scented waste of dogs, cats and humans, has a distinct pong. I will admit that occasionally, on the summer’s hottest days when rain is a vague memory, the pungent note of baking chicken poop might just add a little something extra to the unmoving haze. But most of the time, any chicken-sourced aroma gets lost among the city’s myriad natural and industrial perfumes.

Yes, chickens may attract predatory raccoons or even coyotes. But so do green bins. Fortunately, since inventions called “the door” and “the bungee cord,” every citizen now has access to amazing varmint-deterring technology at the nearest Canadian Tire store.

The welfare and treatment of chickens kept in urban backyards is a big concern to animal rights advocates. While I can’t vouch for all the urban chicken farmers of Toronto I can say, after years watching my neighbor care for her chickens, that her chickens do better than spoiled lap dogs. The chickens come running when she enters the backyard, more for pets and cuddles then for food. Compared to their factory farm equivalents, these birds live in the lap of luxury.

The freedom of movement, the freedom to peck, scratch, and wander as they please is something factory farmed chickens never get, and is, according to my neighbor, the reason her hens produce an overwhelming number of eggs. And their bounty of eggs is guaranteed to be hormone free, a luxury for us humans in world of mass produced food.

So for now the people in my neighborhood are happy to look the other way, as they’ve done since I was nine years old, and let chickens continue doing what they do best, clucking, pecking, and laying, all while remaining relatively unobtrusive.

photo by Rachel Tayse

4 comments

  1. Just curious whether the chickens ever escape out of the yard? And does having chickens there allow for any of the more conventional uses of one’s yard eg growing flowers, vegetables or entertaining? Do the neighborhood cats leave them be?

    I think so many kids would benefit from having closer contact to not just chickens but goats … Under proper guidance of course.

  2. Some idiot beside me in Japan kept a rooster. There ought to be a law against that! Might have been nice to have slept past 4:30 one freaking morning…

  3. My concern would be mainly with the acconpanying rooster.

  4. Apparently some types of hens don’t require a rooster … either way, I doubt many of the people who like the idea of keeping chickens realize the work that’s involved. I would expect a lot of abandoned projects if the ban were lifted.

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