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Wannabe chicken owners in Vancouver are taking classes and attending films. Are they ready for the work involved?
Friday, July 17, 2009
You could have heard a pin drop when a woman attending a June screening of the documentary Mad City Chickens at Langara College asks that question following the film. But unfazed animal scientist Heather Havens, who is often referred to as the "Chicken Lady," answers without blinking an eye.
"You lubricate your fingers and very carefully reach in and gently try and pull the egg out," Havens tells the audience of about two dozen wannabe chicken owners who look on skeptically. "Be careful not to break the egg, but if that happens you're going to have to gently pull out the broken shell piece by piece."
I am thinking, "you've got to be kidding." But the audience member isn't done.
"And is it true that sometimes their vents can prolapse?" the woman asks. (A vent is an external opening at the bottom of a hen's vaginal canal.)
"Yes, but just like when an egg gets stuck, you just lubricate your fingers and gently push it back in," says Havens, who also suggests applying hemorrhoid cream to the affected area.
Back in May when the city first approved in principle a plan to allow backyard chickens in the city, I was dubious. But determined to gather as much information as I could, I set out on my quest to look at chickens as much more than tasty barbecued goodness. What I wasn't expecting was a discussion about prolapsed chicken vents.
To find out more, I attended a screening of Mad City Chickens and a Chickens 101 workshop on two separate evenings at Langara College as part of its Summer School on Building Community. Mad Chicken City is a humorous documentary that follows the residents of Madison, Wisconsin, in their fight for the right to raise backyard chickens. A bylaw passed in 2004.
organized both events in partnership with Langara. Village Vancouver
, a grass-roots group interested in "sustainability, sharing and caring," believes connecting with neighbours is key to building trust and community. Both events were attended by two-dozen interested folk from Vancouver and neighbouring municipalities. I asked for a show of hands and found about 16 people attending each event were from Vancouver.
While some of those attending were simply gathering information for future consideration, it was obvious others were more anxious to get cracking.
But, as Havens explains, at least for the near future the only egg cracking these interested Vancouver folks will enjoy is of the store-bought variety. While keeping backyard hens was approved by Vancouver city council in May, they fowl don't officially become legal until a set of bylaws is drafted and passed.
And that part of the process appears to be on hold, says Havens, who pointed out that Samara Brock, the staff member originally charged with creating the bylaw, was laid off shortly after council approved the keeping of backyard chickens. Brock was the former liaison between the city's Food Policy Council and Vancouver city council.
Vision Vancouver Coun. Andrea Reimer says Brock was an unfortunate victim of a recent hiring freeze and her casual position was not rolled over for another year.
"So the job of completing the bylaw and guidelines went to [deputy chief licence inspector] Tom Hammel, who already has his own work to do," Reimer says. "But he's been checking in with council once in a while and it looks like we're on track for the fall."
Hammel confirms the guidelines should be completed by the fall. He's looking at how other municipalities handle backyard chickens and is working with Vancouver Coastal Health to address health concerns, such as avian flu.
Other cities that allow hens in some form or another include Richmond, New York City, Seattle, Portland and San Francisco. In Richmond, residents with at least a half-acre of property have always been allowed to keep chickens.
In April, Arzeena Hamir with Richmond's food security council, unsuccessfully approached that city's council asking that the space provision be revised to allow residents with smaller properties to raise backyard chickens.
Burnaby allows beekeeping and hens, as long as they're in an enclosed area not under, attached to or in a dwelling. In New Westminster, chickens are allowed on lots 6,000 square feet or larger and not less than 50 feet from a dwelling.
In Surrey, chickens are allowed on lots one-acre and larger.
San Francisco resident Rob Ludlow not only raises backyard chickens, but also runs one of the most poplar how-to websites on the subject in North America, BackyardChickens.com. Ludlow assured me it's possible for residents with chickens and their neighbours to get along.
"We're very good friends with our neighbours, but we do have a lot of open space," Ludlow says. "And there's nothing like bribing your neighbours with fresh eggs."
Ludlow says prior to the First World War, many people raised chickens. Following the war, suburbanites began looking more to their local supermarkets for their poultry.
"But many people today still remember their grandparents or parents or aunts and uncles raising chickens," Ludlow says. "Then the pendulum swung the other way and no one was raising them. What we're seeing is a balance between the two. There used to be ordinances that allowed hundreds of chickens, but now cities are saying you can't have a poultry farm, but a handful of hens is OK for your own egg consumption."
My conversation with Ludlow reminded me of my long-deceased grandparents, who lived behind us and raised chickens on our rural property in Chilliwack. While we always had a steady supply of fresh eggs, when it came time for a chicken dinner, my dad or grandpa would get out the axe.
I have only brief memories of the odd headless chicken running around the yard, or the rare occasion when my Labrador retriever, Rusty, would show up at the house, proudly displaying a live chicken in its mouth.
But one of my older sisters was so traumatized by these scenes that she's now a vegetarian with the mere sight of a chicken paralyzing her with fear. It's a safe bet that if one of her neighbours got backyard chickens, she'd move.
But according to Ludlow, his chickens are a hit with everyone. "It's lucky our girls like eggs because we eat a lot," Ludlow says. "And we're able to give away the excess to friends and family."
Killarney resident Rick Miners, who attended Mad City Chickens and Chickens 101, is anxious to raise backyard chickens. His two children are even more excited than he is.
"I first noticed backyard chickens when we lived in Portland in 2005," Miners says. "It's been on my radar ever since then."
Miners attended the events to get more information on the new bylaws. He also had a few questions, including how do you handle vacations if you own chickens.
Havens, a Surrey resident who raised chickens when she lived in Portland, advises anyone raising hens to get involved with a network of people doing the same. She suggests online forums, websites and chatrooms as a good start. And in keeping with Village Vancouver's mandate to localize food systems while connecting with neighbours, Havens says get to know people in your neighbourhood interested in helping or even raising their own hens.
Trading off feeding responsibilities is the best way to handle vacations, she says.
"Chickens have to be put in their coop every night to protect them against predators like raccoons and cats," Havens says.
"That means someone has to be there every day to let them out and every night to put them back in. It's a good job for children. It's a simple thing, but their lives depend on it."
Havens has combined pages of information in her manual, Keeping Backyard Hens--The Basics, including information on Lower Mainland veterinarians who treat chickens, feed stores and places to buy chickens, as well as helpful books (Chickens in Your Backyard, Living with Chickens) and online resources, such Ludlow's BackyardChickens.com or Justfood.org.
Before you bring your hens home they need to have a home, so get a chicken coop by building one or buying one at Southlands Farm or at Both Feet on Main.
Some chicken owners prefer a coop that can be moved around the yard, because chickens destroy every living piece of green in your lawn. By moving the coop around your yard, it gives some parts of the lawn a chance to recover. Each bird should have 1.5-square feet in the coop and at least eight square feet of outdoor space to wander.
Havens recommends buying young birds instead of chicks which are fragile and hard to raise. It's also impossible with some breeds to tell a rooster from a hen until they reach a certain age. Many an amateur chicken farmer has had to give up a young bird when it's discovered it's a rooster instead of a hen. Roosters are typically not allowed in cities, which will likely be the case in Vancouver. Hens also don't need roosters for egg laying.
Havens suggests purchasing young birds from a variety of places, including 4-H youth clubs, the Fraser Valley Poultry Fanciers Association or craigslist.org.
Havens reminds new owners to double check that hens have been vaccinated against disease, and if they haven't to make sure they're immunized immediately. One healthy hen will typically lay two eggs every three days.
The treatment of backyard hens is a concern for many and some animal welfare groups worry chickens will be neglected or abused. Havens says because backyard hens are typically treated as pets, the chance of them being abused is the same as that of cats and dogs.
Then what happens to a chicken that becomes a pet and can't lay eggs anymore? If the city restricts chicken ownership to four birds, and they lay for five or six years, but live to 15 or 20 years, the owner faces some tough decisions, particularly if they have children.
Havens says owners must plan for that time and decide how to dispose of the hens, and she's not talking about a trip to the retirement home. Havens has heard a rumour of a chicken refuge on one of the Gulf Islands, but has been unable to verify its existence. "Chickens are only going to lay half the years that they live," she says. "Then the owner has to decide, do they keep it as a pet or slaughter it. In most places it's illegal to slaughter chickens in your backyard so then your options are to take it to a vet and have it euthanized or take it to an abattoir."
Smell is another concern. I had visions of sitting on our deck enjoying a BBQ, but being forced inside after a sudden shift in the breeze.
Havens says chickens create such a small amount of poop it's not enough to fertilize a small garden.
"You'll still be buying chicken manure," she says. "You can clean once a week or every six weeks, but you're not going to get more than a shovelful."
And what about wing clipping? According to Havens, it's simple and only involves clipping the long flight feathers. She suggests watching a how-to video before getting out the clippers and getting a friend to help. "I used to do it," Havens says. "But then they never tried to fly anywhere anyway, so I stopped."
Most hens are pretty easy going, but having several chickens together increases the chance of cannibalism and egg eating. According to the Keeping Backyard Hens manual, hens will peck and "perhaps" eat each other. Chickens lowest in the pecking order and the smallest or youngest are most often targeted for pecking and even death.
Some hens will also eat the eggs of other chickens in a coop. Apparently they do this as a way to increase their protein or calcium intake. Havens says giving chickens adequate space, food, water and light usually prevents this kind of behaviour.
Meanwhile, Havens encourages anyone interested in raising backyard hens in Vancouver to email the mayor and council to remind them the issue isn't going away.
"If we don't make it happen it's going to languish and die unless that bylaw is written," she says. "It was about 80 per cent complete when they let Brock go."
Havens is so passionate about the subject she's offered council her help to finish the job, free of charge. No one has taken Havens up on her offer. "I told them I have all the info and I'm free and I want to help," she says. "But I haven't heard a thing. But we're not letting this go."