The henhouse door is opening on backyard chickens in four Toronto neighbourhoods after approval of a three-year pilot project to take them off the list of prohibited animals.
Of course, there are plenty of chickens illegally in the city already. The Globe sought out an underground urban farmer and promised anonymity to protect her against a bylaw crackdown.
Emily, a thirtysomething lawyer and resident of the Junction Triangle in west Toronto (an area not covered by the pilot), has been raising chickens in the city for several months. She and her partner, a hospital manager, are both allergic to fur pets, so they saw the chickens as a way to have animals with the side benefits of being outdoors and getting eggs. But they didn't feel qualified to go all in on their backyard coop, so they eased in with renting two chickens in May. Yes, renting.
They named their clandestine cluckers Red and Poulet and after a getting-to-know-each-other period, the quartet settled into a friendly routine. The birds have a small run in their coop and range about the yard when the couple are home. Barbecues with friends included free-roaming chickens and they became attractions for neighbourhood kids. The couple shared eggs – each bird was laying one a day at their peak – with co-workers and friends.
As the cool weather approaches, Red and Poulet will leave for their home farm Oct. 15. The couple paid about $550 to rent the chickens, which included a coop, feed and customer support.
They had fun with their poultry pair, but Emily says they may not be mini-farmers next year. It was a lot of obligation and clean-up, she says, and they had to arrange for chicken-sitting when they went away.
Is there a steep learning curve around chickens?
They're weird animals and they have habits that we weren't expecting. They dust bathe, which means they dig holes in your yard and throw the dirt around them to clean themselves. So we have four or five holes in our backyard. Looking after them is fairly straightforward. You feed them, you let them out. It's just more getting used to their behaviours. Picking them up was really the main thing we struggled with initially. One of them was really flighty when we first got them, so we would be chasing her around the yard for 10 minutes at a time trying to get her in the coop.
Have there been issues with your neighbours?
We were really worried about that. We have a yard that's a strange layout where we have a next-door neighbour but we are also perpendicular to three or four other yards. So we have a lot of neighbours who would easily realize that we had chickens. So we made a flyer about a week before they came just explaining what we were doing and the program and saying they are not noisy, they are not smelly, and don't worry, we'll bring you eggs. And luckily, all our neighbours were really excited about it.
Did you worry about getting caught?
I think we did at the beginning, because even though our neighbours said they were fine with it, there are a lot of yards that see into ours, so I'm sure more people knew. As a couple of months went by, there was nothing. And they really aren't loud. I think people think they are because they think of roosters but hens aren't loud. They smell if you put your nose right next to the coop but they don't smell in a general way. So as soon as we realized that they weren't disturbing anyone and it would take someone who just didn't like the idea to complain, I think we felt better about it.
Will you miss your chickens when they leave?
We will. They definitely got used to us, so if we're sitting in the backyard eating our dinner, they'll try to eat some of it, too. And they hover around us and they like us and they follow us around the backyard. There are obligations, like there are with any pet, that we won't miss, like cleaning the coop. That is not fun. They do poop a lot and that's something I think people should know if they are going to get chickens. They will poop all over your yard, multiple times … But they do have a lot of personality. They are fun … There is a lot of reward. They are cute and quirky.
What do you think of the city's pilot?
I think it's a good idea. I think they are just like any other pet, really. I don't think there is any risk that means they should be banned. I think regulating it is a good idea because if there are any concerns about people not looking after them or animal welfare, the city has the right to come inspect. A pilot project is a good way to get people to buy in. I think probably most people if they saw backyard chickens they would see it's not a problem in the way it's been made out to be a problem. They're just bigger birds. There are birds in everyone's backyard.
This interview has been edited and condensed.