The Chickens Are Coming!

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If New Orleans is the Big Easy, and New York is the Big Apple, Columbia may soon become known internationally as the Big Chicken. That’s because the City Council here voted in February to authorize hen keeping within city limits.

Population Control

The new ordinance places a limit on the number of birds bopping about the backyard, so forget any dreams of becoming the new Frank Perdue — you’re only allowed a six-pack of cluckin’ critters. And in a sexist addendum: roosters are outlawed. This is strictly a hen party. The ordinance also excludes ducks and turkeys, which is probably speciesist, and will entail lawsuits from the APCLU, the American Poultry Civil Liberties Union.

All birdies must be kept in a sanitary enclosure at least 10 feet from the property line and 25 feet from any adjacent residence. The coop must be sanitary and enclosed on all sides, with a roof and doors. If you send them out to play, they must have a chicken run, and cannot free range into your neighbor’s driveway or descend on downtown Columbia with flashing beaks and rapier-like claws. Chickens, after all, evolved from dinosaurs, we are told.

Chicken poop, a euphemism for the less polite Anglo-Saxon term, is supposed to be collected and placed in an enclosed container. If your chicken house becomes foul, you can be prosecuted or the nuisance abated per Chapter 11 of the city code. No mention is made of an elite corps of coop-and-poop police.

Theme Park?

So, what’s happening here? Are Columbians tired of being city dwellers and yearn for the days of dirt roads and horse-drawn carriages? Will we eventually become an Early American theme park?

Not so, says 24-year-old Daniel Soetaert (pronounced Sue-tart), a founder and director of the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture. Founded in the spring of 2008, the center, along with other groups, has been working assiduously to get the chicken ordinance passed. “We want people to be more active in the food chain, to know where their food comes from. Whether planting a few tomatoes or turning your backyard into a mini-farm, we’re here to help,” he says.

Green Eggs Without The Ham

Although chickens come in a rainbow of colors, they are not usually green, unless we’re talking about the green movement and sustainable living. But why chickens and not, say, killer whales or moose?

1. Size and safety: Chickens are small, weighing only a couple of pounds, and probably will fit within the confines of any modest-size yard. Even if they get as mad as wet hens, they will refrain from inflicting grievous bodily harm on you and yours. Mostly.

2. Egg factory: They may be mild and diminutive, but hens are egg-laying maniacs. Even without a rooster hanging around, they can lay an egg a day during the summer. When the temperature drops, they tend to go into a funk and start thinking about migrating to Florida instead of putting an omelette aux fines herbs on your table.

3. Taste: Fresh foods always taste better, whether, like James Bond, you prefer your eggs shaken not shirred. “There’s a subtle taste difference,” says Carrie Hargrove, CCUA volunteer and workshop moderator. “They definitely look different. The yolks are brighter and less runny than supermarket eggs.” And you have the benefit of knowing exactly where they came from. “You know your hens have been raised in a healthy environment and not fed hormones and antibiotics by a commercial operator,” she adds.

4. Pest control: Chickens will eat practically anything, including cockroaches, tomato hornworms and various creepies that crawl within their purview. No need to lace your yard with expensive chemicals that will have a dubious effect on children, pets and your beloved Bermuda. They will also scarf down the occasional mouse, so the next time you’re in Orlando, warn Mickey to stay out of the yard.

5. Companionship: Chicken fanciers claim that hens make great pets, with distinct personalities and intriguing habits that endlessly fascinate their owners. Of course, some people need to get out more.

6. End of the road: After a few years, when they quit laying, invite your hens to dinner. Fried or with a touch of wine, chickens make some mighty good eating. Check with Popeye’s for confirmation.

A Positive Step

“The new ordinance is a positive step for our community,” Hargrove says. “Just becoming less dependent is never a bad thing.” Not one to simply talk the talk, she has six chickens in her backyard. “We feed them food scraps — the parts we don’t eat. For me — someone who loves local products — being able to harvest my own eggs is priceless. More than that, it’s very important for the kids to learn about where food comes from.”

“Our goal is to promote healthy and local foods,” says CCUA director Soetaert. “Urban hens are a good way to realize that goal.”

Lions And Tigers And Bears

Although it’s not likely that Columbia is a hotbed of wildcats, wolves and coyotes, chickens have to be protected from domesticated predators. In its wisdom, the City Council added language to the bill saying that dogs and cats that kill chickens will not (for that reason alone) be considered dangerous or aggressive animals.

Hargrove shares a house with a German shepherd puppy named Loki that is on friendly terms with her hens. “He’s a very confused and lonely dog,” she says with a laugh. “He goes right out in the yard and lies down with them.”

But don’t expect Fido next door to be as accommodating, though he could always cop a plea under the new law.

Marvin The Rooster

Aside from carnivorous wild and tame animals, chickens have a formidable enemy in the local real estate community. The Realtors’ position: In this roiling and declining market, they don’ need no stinkin’ chickens to muck things up any more than they are.

Carol Van Gorp, CEO of the Columbia Board of Realtors, says, “There’s a reason we have urban living and country living. If you want to keep chickens, goats and cows, I know a bunch of great Realtors who will find you the home of your dreams [in the country].

“We live in the city because we want to get away from the farm, from the chickens. Besides, there’s the problem of possible diseases. People with compromised immune systems could suffer.”

In the tony developments around town, frantic managers are checking their covenants to make sure chickens are specifically excluded. “If chickens are no longer considered livestock, what are they? Pets?” Van Gorp asks.

Although male birds are specifically excluded from the ordinance, chicken sexing is less than an exact science. “I had a chick once that grew up to be Marvin the Rooster, instead of a hen,” she says with a laugh. The problem with roosters is that they make more noise than an infomercial after midnight.

Farmettes

For urbanites, especially, this new law sounds like a radical green plot conjured up recently by Al Gore. Far from it. Columbia is getting in the pot with chickens late in the game. St. Louis, Kansas City, Springfield and Kirksville have had chicken ordinances on their books for some time. And nationally, there is a growing movement that wants to transform towering apartment buildings into Old MacDonald Farmettes. Eee-yi-eee-yi-oh.

Care, Feeding And Finances

Although there is no reliable data available, the cost per homegrown egg is probably astronomical. After you account for overhead, you are not going to get rich by saving on store-bought eggs or by selling your backyard bounty. Six hens laying an egg a day during the peak season will yield three dozen a week, with a few left over. Sell them for $3 a carton, and you’ll gross a whopping $9 a week. Learning how to make giant frittatas would seem a better way to manage scarce resources.

Whether you like it or not, the chickens are coming, but that doesn’t mean the sky is falling. If people are responsible, and care for their animals, many of the foreseeable problems of hen husbandry disappear.

“Raising chickens is as simple as having another pet — except they give eggs,” Soetaert says with finality.

The PETA Perspective

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals takes a benign view of urban chickens … with some caveats. PETA spokeswoman Ashley Byrne says: “Our position is that there is no need to eat animals or their eggs. An egg from your backyard is still going to be chock-full of cholesterol.”

The difference between supermarket eggs and backyard eggs, Byrne claims, is that, “in addition to being unhealthy, eggs from the grocery store come from factory farms, where the chickens live crammed into tiny wire cages, where they can’t even lift a wing, and where the male offspring are suffocated alive and ground up not long after they are hatched.”

On that gruesome note, Byrne adds: “We hope that anyone who keeps chickens in the backyard will regard them as they would their dogs because chickens are as affectionate and intelligent as dogs and deserve the same consideration.”

Chicken 101

OK, you’ve decided that farm-fresh eggs are the answer to your breakfast prayers. But because you grew up in the verdant vastness of downtown St. Louis, you may wonder if hens must obey leash laws, or if they can be taught to shake hands and roll over. What’s your next step? It might be a good idea to enroll in a workshop sponsored by the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture. Like KFC, the group offers three flavors of seminars.

The first workshop is Chicken 101 — the absolute basics — all about what it is chickens do and what they need to prosper. You’ll learn which breeds to acquire, whether to begin with the actual chicken or the theoretical egg, the local laws, and just what it is those bad girls chow down on.

The second is “This Old Chicken House” without Norm or Bob. It focuses in on how to build a chicken coop with all the amenities necessary to keep the peckin’ fools happy and producing enough eggs to shame the dairy department at the supermarket.

And third, there’s chicken social insecurity — what to do with birds that have retired from laying eggs and just want to lay about.

The CCUA asks that you donate $5 to $20 to take each course. All proceeds go to the center’s garden projects around the city.

For more information, including times and dates, contact: www.columbiaurbanag.org.

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