Texada and the urban poultry tipping point

By Tom Read

If you want fresh eggs, all you need is a few hens. But if you want to raise your own hens, then you'll need at least one rooster.  Here's a freshly-laid egg in one of the nest boxes in our chicken condo. The condo was designed to accommodate an ongoing flock.

If you want fresh eggs, all you need is a few hens. But if you want to raise your own hens, then you'll need at least one rooster. Here's a freshly-laid egg in one of the nest boxes in our chicken condo. The condo was designed to accommodate an ongoing flock.

If you’ve been paying attention you’ll recognize a new trend across North America and the UK: backyard chicken-keeping. We’ve kept chickens here at Slow Farm off and on since moving to Texada Island in 2000, but now it appears that people in cities are doing the same in ever-increasing numbers. Here’s a quote from a World Watch Institute report last October on what’s happening:

After the trend first gained popularity in London, England, with the invention of the “eglu” chicken house about ten years ago, large numbers of city dwellers began to raise chickens in the U.S. cities of Seattle and Portland, said Jac Smit, president of the Urban Agriculture Network. “It’s no longer something kinky or interesting,” Smit said. “The ‘chicken underground’ has really spread so widely and has so much support.”

Within the past five years, the trend has expanded to cities where raising hens was already legal, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago. “Chicken has become the symbol, a mascot even, of the local food movement,” said Owen Taylor of New York City, who knows of at least 30 community gardens that raise poultry, mostly for their eggs.

Well, the saving grace is that most city people probably won’t have roosters, which are not necessary for eggs. They won’t be raising chicks; they’ll just buy them mail-order. No roosters needed. And they’ll probably just kill young roosters and throw them in the trash, keeping only hens.

Although hens can certainly make a fair amount of noise themselves, most of it is during reasonable daytime hours. The cackling and cawing of a hen that just laid an egg is quite something to hear! Unlike our rooster, who seems to be inclined to crow anywhere from 4 a.m. on, the hens start clattering for breakfast about 8 am and do their egg-laying midday.

I think one of the interesting sidelights of the urban poultry trend is going to be what happens when people start letting old chickens go because they can’t bear to kill them. Same with young roosters – take them to your local park in the dead of night and release may be what happens. Should be interesting. Not to mention the manure disposal issue for folks who don’t have gardens. Chicky diapers? Coop-poop-scoopers? And chicken manure, though very rich in nutrients for a garden, can be smelly, especially in the heat of summer

Interestingly, I never realized that the rooster’s crow is more than just a single cock-a-doodle-do. He does that call over and over again, about 5 to 6 seconds between bursts, about 15 times in a row! And he may do it once a day, or six times a day, or not at all. I don’t know if other roosters are as noisy, since this is our first, but he better be making up for it by fertilizing those eggs. Anyway, we’re adapting — at 4:00 am a positive attitude and a pillow over one’s head really helps.

As for the urban chicken trend: I firmly support urban agriculture, including backyard poultry-keeping. Before the rise of industrial agri-food, city people routinely raised chickens, plus other farm animals. It’s great to see a revival of more food self-reliance in cities. I’m keeping an eye on the tipping point for this trend, when urban chickens will become “normal” in North America. But I wonder: will urbanites learn to live with the escapee rooster’s early-morning territorial call? I suppose it’s no worse than sirens at all hours of the day and night.

Maybe. Or perhaps we’ll see more city folk decide that, if they’re going to have to listen to crowing every morning, they might as well move to a place like Texada, where there’s plenty of room for other “rural” activities and creatures such as roosters.

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