There are more chickens than people in the United States. (And that’s just counting the chickens in large, commercial facilities.) In 2006, the U.S. people population topped 300 million, but there were already 450 million chickens (pdf) in large facilities.
While some of these commercial facilities are better than others, most concentrated animal-feeding operations (CAFOs) use tight confinement of chickens to increase efficiency and production. Such concentration leads to a lot of manure, which carries polluting amounts of arsenic, ammonia and other chemicals. (The $40 billion a year industry is adeptly covered in the engaging new PBS documentary, The Natural History of the Chicken.)
This pollution and the often inhumane treatment of CAFO raised poultry are reason enough for many urbanites to raise chickens in their backyards.
Some cities have welcomed the urban chick. Portland and Seattle created ordinances that allow and regulate yard fowl. Both cities allow three chickens per household. In Portland you can also keep three pygmy goats or ducks, but no roosters. They tend to be too noisy and aggressive.
Ironically, other cities in the Rocky Mountain West no longer allow chickens.
Recently in Missoula, the rather obscure ordinance against chickens in the city was used against city residents, Morgan and Taylor Valliant. The couple had not considered the existence of such a rule and relied on asking their neighbors for permission to raise chickens in their yard. The neighbors seemed supportive at the time, but one of them covertly reported the couple to animal control.
Animal control investigated the Valliants according the City’s ordinance that only allows city residents to raise chickens if they live on an acre or more, or if their house was annexed into the city after 1989, the owner had chickens at the time and kept them ever since. The couple didn’t fall into any of the exceptions, and were raising chickens illegally.
According to those who raise chickens in the city, ordinances like these ignore the many benefits of urban chickens. Like the Missoula couple, owners benefit from fresh eggs and even companionship. Parents raise their children with an animal that provides food and connections to the origins of food. And urban chickens provide a way to live more sustainably.
Chicken owners even claim that there are benefits from the chicken waste that adds up so quickly in CAFOs and creates so many problems. In small quantities (such as those produced by three chickens) the excrement fertilizes the area. According to Seattle Tilth, chicken droppings also makes an excellent compost when mixed with shavings or straw.
And just as chickens have a strong social structure, they can also provide one. Much like growing a garden in your front yard, or having an accessible fruit tree, chickens often provide more eggs than a small family can eat. The best option then is to give them away to neighbors.
But there are less obvious ways to bring chicken lovers together. Seattle Tilth holds a Chicken Coop Tour, which is a “self-guided stroll through urban hen houses.” Coops tend to look more like architectural wonders: saloons and condos. These tours also provide information and secret-sharing about ways to get chickens to lay more eggs or which organic feed is best. The Portland organization GrowingGardens also holds an annual Tour De Coops.
But oddly, here in the west, a place based on so many ideals of self-sufficiency, a few city ordinances don’t allow it. The Missoula couple has just ten days to give away their layers. But their story has the community talking. Even Missoula’s mayor, John Engen, agrees with the chicken bandits. As he told the Missoulian last week, “It seems that if we want to be a town that does its part for sustainability, this is something we ought to consider, I think we want to allow folks to use their good judgment and move toward more sustainable food practices.”
While there are still more chickens in commercial factory farms than there are people in the United States, Missoula’s lucky, urban chickens might just get a little more room to stretch and peck and fertilize.
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