Sunday, June 13, 2010

Urban Chickens?

Laurianne and I were walking down Bay street one day when we saw a turkey. Yeah, a turkey just chilling on someone's porch like it was the master of the home, and king of the laneway. It was surreal seeing a turkey in Ottawa's downtown core, and I am still a little bemused as to how or why that turkey was there. Turkeys don't belong in the city, do they?

Well, some urban residents, including some Ottawans, firmly believe that chickens belong in this city. I have read their letters to the editor and gushing comments on the internet, and they seem firmly convinced of the rightness of their cause. They are thoroughly entranced with the idea that they can raise chickens and eggs of a higher quality than those who do this full time. They seem to have this ideal of chickens running around in their yard with little Tyler and Madison gathering their eggs each morning. They wax eloquent about the lovely orange colour they remember eggs having and how store-bought eggs never having this quality. They look down their nose at these farmers whose chickens just aren't pampered enough to taste good. If they had a chance to raise these chickens, they argue, these chickens would lay absolutely delectable eggs and make meat of such a deliciously unattainable quality that chicken farmers would have apoplectic fits of jealousy.

Alright, I may be exaggerating - but just a little.

Who am I to question these urban chicken enthusiasts? After all, I'm just another city boy, right?

Yes, but I do have some authority to speak from. My grandfather was a chicken farmer, my father grew up reluctantly tending these chickens, and my brother-in-law is a full-time chicken farmer. When I mentioned how enthusiastic some Ottawa residents were for the idea of city-bred chickens to my brother-in-law he laughed good-naturedly and proceeded to list off numerous good reasons that chickens don't belong in the city. I can't remember them all, but there were several that stuck with me.

Here's the reality. While imperfect, chicken farming is heavily regulated. Every chicken barn has notations for every visitor that arrives and for the number of daily chicken deaths. Each barn is carefully inspected by government officials to exacting standards. Farmers who fail to meet the regulations have their quota stripped from them. These standards are in place to stop the spread of disease, to protect consumers and they are highly effective at ensuring that any diseased flock is immediately culled.

Urban chicken populations could not be inspected with the same efficiency as chicken farms. While recognizing that some urban amateur poultry farmers would keep highly hygienic coops and extremely healthy birds, there are others whose laziness and/or ignorance would result in abusive conditions, unsanitary coops, and woefully unhealthy birds. What you're left with then, is a breeding ground for disease, vermin, stench, and filth. Raccoons, coyotes, domesticated dogs, and other predators would be drawn to these coops like flies on a cow patty. The SPCA already has its hands full dealing with dog and cat owners who can't handle their responsibility, stretching their resources further to deal with amateur urban chicken farmers is a waste of time and money.

While chicken farmers have regulations for disposing of carcasses and chicken waste (i.e. shit), urban chicken farmers would have no idea or guidelines to carry out these duties. I can imagine that a few of the sensitive types would have somber chicken burials while others would merely throw them in a garbage bag with the rest of their trash. Some urban chicken enthusiasts would try to fertilize their gardens with their chicken manure, only to find their plants burn up. Others might be a little smarter and try to compost it first - either way their neighbours won't be entirely pleased. Still others would merely throw it out with the rest of their trash. As for the straw, it does not take long for it to become contaminated with chicken feces and urine. How will this be disposed of? So with all these chicken carcasses, contaminated straw, and all this chicken shit going into our city waste, what would happen? I don't know, but I don't want to find out. I'm not a big fan of rats or disease.

These amateur chicken farmers poo-poo the idea of their chickens smelling (yeah, that was a totally awesome pun, I know). However, modern chicken farms have space, sophisticated ventilation systems, and, well, space. Urban chicken coops will not have space, will not have sophisticated ventilation systems, if any at all, and will stink. Pig manure certainly smells more, but the ammonia from chicken urine and the stench from chicken manure is quite strong. Precious lawns will be scuffed up, devoured, and burnt by hungry urinating and defecating machines - engendering even more displeased neighbours.

Urban chicken enthusiasts point out that dogs and cats excrete and urinate quite a bit too. This is true, but rats, mice, weasels, and raccoons don't go after dog and cat food or the animals themselves. Dogs and cats are not being raised for eggs or for meat and are kept in limited numbers.

Some of these city-bred chicken fans have the idea that their children can gather the eggs in the morning and it will be a wonderful way for them to have a taste of rural life in the midst of the city. You may have your children try to gather these eggs a few times, but once they get the angry end of a chicken's beak on their hand or arm they will not be too enthusiastic about that particular chore. As for raising the chickens for meat, count me out unless your chickens are butchered by a professional.

Chickens belong in the country, that's where the farmers are.

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