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Chickens in the backyard

Snow’s daughter Sydney with a chicken. SUPPLIED PHOTO

Library hosts evening on egg- layers and keeping them happy

BY SAMUEL PICCOLO
The VOICE

 

For nearly the entirety of human history, the overwhelming push in society has been to make life easier. Once connected to the grid, few houses return to kerosene lamps. You don’t often see clothes being scrubbed in the creek. But last Wednesday evening, ten or so Pelham residents assembled in the meeting room at the Maple Acre Library in Fenwick to learn how to make their lives more difficult. They wanted to raise chickens in their backyard.

Leading the evening was Erin Snow, who has had hens at her Fenwick home for the past seven years.

“The most important thing about chickens is keeping them in a stress-free environment,” she began bluntly.

This, you would think, shouldn’t be too tough of a task, though, as Snow explained, chickens are made anxious by a great many things. Predators were foremost on this list: coyotes, dogs, raccoons — “Brutal. They’ll kill your entire flock” — and hawks. Chickens can also get stressed out by each other. In each group there is a literal pecking order—those at the top will, if they feel like it, peck the weaker ones to death.

“Chickens are emotional animals,” Snow said, adding that it was important to build relationships with them early. As she explained just how these stresses could be avoided, the crowd took notes and asked questions, apparently unperturbed by the list of responsibilities that grew each time Snow responded.

The legality of backyard chicken farming is a bit foggy. In “rural” areas, such as where Snow lives in Fenwick, chickens are permitted, but in “residential” zones the practice is technically illegal. It isn’t a bylaw that’s typically enforced—until, that is, someone squeals (or clucks). According to several in attendance, the Town’s unofficial policy on the matter appears to be: “If it doesn’t bother your neighbours, it doesn’t bother us.”

This arrangement doesn’t satisfy Yann Marais, whose neighbours aren’t keen on poultry in the ‘hood. Marais and his wife, Natalie, wanted to have a small coop with four hens in their Cherry Ridge backyard, but when Yann discussed his plan with the neighbours, they outright refused to agree to it. “Right away, they mentioned the smell and the noise,” he said.

Part of Snow’s talk was dedicated to dispelling common misconceptions about chickens, and noise was among those she addressed. Only roosters make any sort of loud noise, she explained, and since roosters aren’t necessary for hens to lay, there’s no need to have them in a backyard operation.

In fact, roosters are so superfluous in egg production that the industry kills a staggering 219 million male chicks per year, though this number is may be less surprising considering that there are 25 billion chickens on the planet at any given moment.

Snow also said that worries about smell are overblown, too, and that if properly maintained, a hen house won’t be especially aromatic.

Snow would know about fragrance. In addition to raising chickens, she also produces essential oils at her home. She has always wanted to “homestead”—for her a voluntary return to parts of life that would have been common in rural areas like Pelham a century ago. Snow suspects that much of the motivation for backyard farmers stems from a concern for the well-being of hens, which in factory farms can be notoriously poor.

Those in attendance raved about the taste of fresh eggs, too, and one woman present, who orders five dozen a week from a local farmer —“That’s a lot of eggs,” Yann Marais said drily—claimed that the yolks are a lot darker than those found in grocery stores.

Judging by the efforts to change local bylaws, the backyard chicken phenomenon has been acquiring adherents at an impressive pace. Montreal, Vancouver, Kingston, Brampton, and Niagara Falls, among other cities, all allow a small number of laying hens (no roosters) to be kept for private consumption. While Toronto, St. Catharines, and Port Colborne, to name a few, have all upheld their chicken bans, many residents continue to keep them regardless.

Noise and smell are concerns for opponents of backyard birds, but the US Centre for Disease Control has given added reason, too. By May of this year, it had received reports of 372 chicken-related illnesses, 71 of which led to hospitalizations. The agency’s Dr. Megin Nichols told the Toronto Star that all domestic fowl could be carrying salmonella, a bacteria exceptionally dangerous to humans, and that strict safety measures must be observed to avoid contamination.

Canada’s Public Health Agency has urged all chicken owners to exercise caution when handling the birds, caution that, it seems, many aren’t taking. One chicken owner from Vaughan, where the practise is illegal, scoffed at the Agency’s recommendations, telling the Star that she’s, “Part of so many chicken owner groups on Facebook and blogs and many of them snuggle their chickens and kiss their chickens . . . and don’t get sick.”

Some of the information Snow passed around did indeed seem to suggest that chickens are deep, emotionally complex animals deserving of such affection. They can, apparently, distinguish between 100 different human faces, and have been known to mourn for each other.

But Snow, to her credit, made it clear that chickens were not regular household animals, even as she drew parallels between the personalities of the birds and other pets. When cleaning out the hen house, which must be done regularly, she wears a full protective suit and takes few chances when it comes to salmonella exposure.

Near the end of the evening, the conversation veered towards other animals that can be kept in a backyard.

“If you can’t get the chickens to come through, you could think of goats, or rabbits,” one man told Marais. “You can get a lot out of rabbits.”

Marais was unswayed. He had already bought a coop and wanted very much to find a way to get the birds to fill it. “We need a new bylaw,” he declared, scanning the room for others interested in approaching Town Council with him. Snow suggested emailing the Town directly, and Marais—and everyone else—waited as she searched her computer for the address.

“My,” another woman sighed. “This all sounds like a lot of work.”

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