Wednesday, December 30, 2009

2009 Urban Chickens Year in Review

By most accounts, 2009 is the year urban chickens, the phenomenon, the trend, the craze, hit the mainstream.

During the first half of the year, news outlets across the country were reporting every other day on this "new craze" for keeping chickens in your backyard. Just on this blog, I've shared links to stories on ABC, NPR, CBC Radio, CBC Television, Marketplace, CNN and NBC's Today Show so we're not talking personal testimonies in small-town dailies here.

The year 2009 also saw the long-awaited release of the Mad City Chickens movie, followed by producers Tashai and Robert's cross-country screenings tour, lending more weight to local efforts to legalize chickens in back yards. If nothing else, Mad City Chickens galvanized the movement, providing a readily-accessible, highly educational and imminently entertaining re-introduction to why we keep chickens in our backyards (and why others should, too).

All the media exposure may have contributed to the shortage of chicks during the Spring, with people having to wait months to get their peepers. Large hatcheries took advantage of the seller's market and prices for immediate-delivery chicks rose accordingly. Feed and fuel stores that took six weeks to sell 800 chicks in years past sold out within ten days this year. (I expect a repeat in 2010, but my predictions post will appear here Friday). This demand could also explain why this year's most popular blog post was "where to buy baby chicks."

While national pres coverage piqued interest in keeping chickens, local frustrations flared with people trying to find out whether they could keep urban chickens and, if not, then trying to get chickens legalized within city limits. It seems the keeping of chickens is a strong indicator of a small city's evolution from rural to urban status, and in the surge 40-50 years ago to urbanize, many anti-chicken ordinances were put on the books.

Looking across the landscape, the urban chicken laws are inconsistent when they're on the books, and open to interpretation depending on with whom you speak at city hall when you call to inquire. To try and address the issue of where are chickens legal, I've recently launched the Urban Chickens Network Legal Resource Center, and you'll see more about that in early 2010.

2009 saw lots of success in getting chickens legalized across the country. The folks in Asheville, NC, did a masterful job of using social media to successfully pass a new ordinance allowing urban chickens. Among the places we saw celebrations happen: Huntington (NY), Gulfport (FL), Vancouver (BC), New Haven (CT), Longmont (CO) and Provo (UT).

The fight to legalize urban chickens remains an uphill battle in many places, but we're getting better at busting the myths about bad things in keeping chickens (too much poop, spreading bird flu, enforcement costs, hosting salmonella). And we're getting smarter at knowing how to change the laws.

And thanks to success stories like that in Fort Collins (CO), where they celebrated a year of legal urban chickens in 2009, we can see that many of the fears expressed by those seeking to keep the status quo are as unfounded and absurd as any rational person would believe on first hearing them.

It's been a wonderful year, all around. I'm amazed we had over 92,000 unique visitors come to read something here on the blog this year, and almost 2,500 people fanned our Urban Chickens Facebook page, to boot. I'm grateful for all those who left a comment, sent an email or shared a link. I find it tremendously rewarding you've chosen to give me your attention and I hope to earn the chance for more of it in 2010. I'm also grateful to our blog sponsor this past Spring, for helping us afford some extra chicken scratch around the house.

A review of 2009 wouldn't be complete without noting events in our Redwood City backyard. We had a bittersweet year with our own urban chickens, Sophia and ZsuZsu. After years of companionship, egg production and entertainment, our lovely Sophia died suddenly in August. After much hand-wringing, research and outreach, we found a new flock in Los Altos for our remaining chicken, ZsuZsu, to join so as not to have her all alone in our now-empty coop.

So, we end 2009 "in-between chickens" with plans to get new birds early in 2010. I can't wait to share with you our experience of raising even more chickens in our backyard, and to help bring this experience to more and more backyards across the country (and Canada, too!).

Happy New Year, everyone. I hope 2010 is your best yet!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Animal Sanctuaries Need Your Help

With so many people deciding to try their hand at raising urban chickens, it's inevitable that some aren't finding success and have to give up their chooks. Whether they find themselves with a rooster due to inaccurate sexing or simply didn't understand the responsibility of caring for an animal 24/7/365, someone ultimately has to take care of the birds.

While Craigslist and online chicken groups are good resources that conscientious urban chicken farmers use to try to find new homes, less savvy folks simply take their birds to the local animal shelter and drop them off, or worse, take the birds to the edge of town and let them loose.

Here's where animal sanctuaries step in to help. And what with the surge in popularity of urban chickens, the sanctuaries are busier than ever. So, while we're celebrating this season of giving, I hope you'll consider donating to your local animal sanctuary.

A few animal sanctuaries have formed a Coalition Concerned with Chicken Welfare and you can support them at their web sites (listed below). While I don't condone the Coalition's ham-fisted approach to chicken welfare by urging municipalities to outlaw urban chickens, these organizations provide a valuable service in providing chickens a refuge of last resort.

Photo credit: LiminalMike on Flickr

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Peeps, Clucks and Cackles: Translating the Urban Chicken

Did you know that chickens start talking even before they are born?

Chicks start peeping about 24 hours before they're ready to hatch so as to tell its mother and siblings it's getting ready to break out of its shell. The mother hen listens for the peeps to understand how much longer she needs to stay sitting on the nest (since some of the chicks are stillborn inside their shells).

The web of communication gets even more sophisticated once the chicks follow their mother out to forage and explore with peeps and clucks serving as a call-and-response to keep track of the flock.

Later in a chicken's life, their vocabulary expands to include nesting calls, egg cackles and "here's food" songs among many other sounds from the coop.

To learn more about each of these sounds, Karen Davis published a wonderful guide to Chicken Talk. although it originally appeared in print in 1994, everything she's written is still true today. She does a great job helping us understand the noises chickens make whether they're in your backyard or down at the farm.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Coalition Sees Sky Falling Due to Urban Chickens

This past Friday, a coalition of animal sanctuaries "Concerned with Chicken Welfare" sent out a press release calling for an end to the practice of keeping backyard chickens.

Their big beef? Too many roosters (which remain illegal in the majority of places where urban chickens are legal) are winding up at sanctuaries, overwhelming the resources of said sanctuaries.

I can't argue with their concern about the roosters, but I can, and will, argue about their proposal to remedy the situation by taking away the rights of anyone to keep chickens in their backyards. They seem think that if urban chickens are illegal, it will dry up the demand for chickens and solve the problem of abandoned roosters.

We've seen this movie before in America's so-called War on Drugs, haven't we? By making drugs illegal, the problem magically solved itself, right?


And the coalition's Position Statement on Backyard Poultry (beware: it downloads a PDF) reads like a well-meaning but ultimately feeble attempt at singling out urban backyard flocks as the cause of poultry raising ills. My scan of their list of concerns brings the following alternatives to mind:
  • If, as they say, there are no legal requirements dictating how breeding hens and roosters are kept, let's change the laws to require humane treatment (as is required of the egg-layers)
  • If, as they say, shipping day-old chicks is cruel, let's figure out a better way to get chickens from the breeders to the customers
  • If, as they say, sexing chicks is such a problem that "between 20-50% of purchased 'hens" are actually roosters," let's figure out how to sex chicks better
  • If, as they say, professional medical care for urban chickens is lacking, let's educate our veterinarians
And the coalition's list of problems continues trying to present problems as insurmountable, so-let's-ban-them-all.

While I'm in favor of the service these sanctuaries provide, I'm dumb-founded as to their backward thinking on how to solve the issue of unwanted roosters. Shame on them for their tactics.

It's a pity this is how they have to behave to get attention. I'll follow up later this week with more about the coalition and how you can support their efforts to provide sanctuary for unwanted birds despite their bungling the call to ban urban chickens.

Photo credit: hghwtr on Flickr

Sunday, December 13, 2009

On the Barnyard Stigma of Urban Chickens

Today's Sacramento Bee carries an article discussing efforts to legalize chickens within Sacramento city limits. It's yet another well-written story detailing the advantages of keeping backyard chickens (sustainability, locavorism, nutrition, etc) while touching on the downsides (none?) aside from dealing with ignorance regarding the hows and whys of keeping urban chickens.

The story lede caught my eye, though, as I feel it hits the main stumbling block to legalizing chickens dead-on (emphasis mine): "Sacramento leaders have spent a generation trying to shed the city's cow-town stigma. Now they are facing a movement that wants to turn the capital into chicken city." One simply can't underestimate people's desire to prove they're no longer farm folk, even in a city as big as Sacramento, the capital of California, with a population of over 437,000.

Chickens, for better or worse, still strongly represent the rural roots that many moved into the city to escape. In any story of the urban chicken movement, look at the opposition quotes of anyone over the age of 50 and you'll see them recounting the days when they used have to take care of (nasty, pesky, stinky) chickens on the farm and why the [expletive] would anyone want to do that to their backyard willingly?

More to the point, simply take a look at the municipal codes pertaining to urban chickens and more likely than not, chickens are lumped in with all other manner of barnyard creatures (goats, sheep, cows, horses, etc) who've been banned within city limits.

So, the quest to legalize urban chickens isn't just a logical one. If it were, there'd be no contest. When you compare the attributes of chickens and dogs, you have to wonder why the dirtier, smellier, messier, furry one is legal everywhere.

The challenge in legalizing chickens in your backyard is one of convincing city councils that different animals have different attributes and can't all be conveniently lumped into a single banned category. And mentally separating chickens from their barnyard brethren isn't an easy thing to do with anyone who's marking progress based on physical distance between city center and the nearest pile of manure.

But it can be done, and the list of places that are doing it keeps growing. Won't you add your own?

Photo credit Overdaforest on Flickr

Friday, December 11, 2009

More Urban Chickens on the Radio

I'm a little late to publish this, but only recently have I been able to listen to the fascinating Think Out Loud show all about urban chickens over on Oregon Public Broadcasting. The show doesn't examine the "how" of keeping chickens in the city as much as the "why."

The show's guests include:
  • John Carr: Backyard chicken keeper and designer of The Garden Coop
  • Barbara Palermo: Animal health technician and founder of Chickens in the Yard
  • John Kilian: Dentist who spoke out against backyard chickens in Gresham
  • Ken Stine: Gresham planning commissioner 
As you're listening to the show (I recommend downloading the mp3 instead of trying to listen from the web page, as the datastream drops often), take a look at the comments left on the show's web page. Once you get past the first comment re: El Caminos, there's a string of rather endearing stories about why people are keeping chickens in their own backyards.


    Thursday, December 3, 2009

    Conan endorses Extraordinary Chickens!

    If you watch the Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien, you know that Conan has proclaimed himself "The New Oprah" what with her deciding to quit and all next year.

    And as The New Oprah, Conan's making recommendations on what Americans should buy, hoping to have the same rocket-to-the-top-of-the-charts effect that Oprah's book club has had all these years. His first recommendation, a DVD, got a 126% boost in interest the week after he pimped it (not bad).

    His second product recommendation is the Extraordinary Chickens 2010 Wall Calendar and it's zoomed up the purchase charts, too.

    Now, I know he's doing this to be funny (evidenced by the audience laughter), and I'm sure he's laughing with us, not at us, right? But damn, those are some good looking chooks (urban or not!)

    I think I'm going to have to get me one for my wall.

    Enjoy the clip of Conan announcing his recommendation below (you can walk away for 30 seconds so as to avoid the annoying commercial embedded up front):

    Tuesday, December 1, 2009

    urban chickens: controlling the feed of your food

    This little gem about how keeping your own urban chickens means truly knowing where your food comes from is just one of the great soundbites from the wonderful two-part video interview of the "Toronto Chicken Lady" posted by David Sheen over on the Green Apple Landscaping blog. The video interview is a followup to his earlier post on Backyard Chickens.

    Since chickens are still illegal in the Toronto's residential neighbourhoods, the interview subject's identity is obscured, but that doesn't hinder her from sharing tons of urban chicken wisdom from the ins-and-outs of daily urban chicken keeping to all the benefits that come from keeping hens in your backyard.

    If you're thinking about keeping chickens in your own backyard (or trying to convince your partner that it's a good idea, really!), you could do a lot worse than spending 15 minutes listening to the Toronto Chicken Lady talking about the benefits of raising your own hens.

    I notice that she's got a partial list on her Toronto Chickens site of places where chickens are legal. It's no surprise that there are so many more places where they're legal in the USA than in Canada, but wow, you'd think our neighbors up north would be a bit more progressive on this front.

    And you've heard it before, and I'll say it again: I've started to compile a list of the exact ordinances making chickens legal over on the Urban Chickens Network Legal Resource Center where visitors can easily see the technical language employed by cities to legalize chickens. If you live in a place where chickens are legal, please add your city's name to the list so we can capture the municipal code and flesh out the resource center. Thanks!


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