They are the sounds heard from the backyard on any given day: barking dogs, leaf blowers, noisy mufflers, playing children. Why not clucking chickens? It's a question asked within my own town last fall.
The conversation began when two families approached the local government about amending an ordinance related to keeping chickens, specifically hens-think cluck-cluck, not cock-a-doodle-doo. The powers-that-be eventually decided to keep the existing ordinance, which requires a one-acre lot to keep chickens. Most homes in the community fall short.
These local families were not looking to launch a poultry business or open a zoo. They wanted to keep the hens as pets-pets that would provide the added benefit of fresh, locally produced eggs. They also wanted their children to feel connected with the food on their plates. And while their request seemed out of the ordinary within our small borough, the families have something in common with a growing number of people around the country.
Who knew? The "urban chicken" movement is gaining strength nationwide for a number of reasons, including the major topics of our time: economic and environmental health.
Think about it. A few hens cost less than a dog, cat and other family pets. They consume kitchen scraps otherwise sent to the landfill. Fleas and ticks? They eat them for breakfast. They also snack on many of the garden pests we usually eliminate with expensive and toxic products.
Hens can be kept in small, attractive structures that if regularly repositioned, will disseminate free, gold-standard fertilizer around a yard or garden. And unlike many pets, hens earn their keep, laying fresh eggs throughout the year. Some research suggests that these eggs contain more beta-carotene, vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids than those purchased at the grocery store.
Despite these good reasons for keeping hens, real concerns exist.
For starters, many people can't get past the potential for noise and odor, even though hens live a quiet existence save for an occasional scratch or cluck. Odors don't usually pose a problem unless homeowners don't take care of their pets.
Other concerns include public health, including fears about avian flu. Because avian flu is spread by excretion from wild birds, primarily migratory waterfowl, it's unlikely that backyard chickens represent a significant threat, a sentiment supported recently in State College, PA, where the borough's Board of Health recently voted unanimously that "there is no public health hazard from the keeping of small flocks of chickens provided that the number of chickens is limited and there are strict controls on their housing and hygiene."
To cover their bases, communities like State College have taken steps to address concerns about public health, noise and odor by crafting creative zoning ordinances. Most of these strictly define the chickens as pets, not livestock. They limit allowances to only a few hens, no roosters, and prohibit their slaughter or sale. Some stipulate that hens be completely contained in a predator-proof enclosure and locked in at night, or even all the time unless a yard is fenced. Most ordinances require that coops be attractive and well-maintained.
Will backyard chickens represent a new pastime for me? Probably not. But I believe we all have the right to nourish ourselves and our families in the best way we can. This can't be accomplished when we aren't sure about the manner in which our food was produced. Now, when food safety represents a growing concern, there's comfort in knowing where food comes from, and that it didn't travel far and sit for weeks.
Beyond food safety, raising fewer chickens in more locations may be better for the region's lands and waters. Here in the mid-Atlantic, manure and waste from large-scale chicken operations on Maryland's Eastern Shore prove detrimental to the Chesapeake Bay. For me, the issue of backyard chickens brings attention to the fact that producing food on a less intensive and more sustainable scale can reduce stress on limited natural resources.
I can't tell a lie. The neighbors' chickens charmed me as I viewed them over the fence one day. I think that clean, well-maintained and freshly painted chicken coops would complement some of the neighborhood's old houses. And fresh eggs shared among neighbors? That would be icing on the cake.