Wednesday, June 8, 2011

City Chickens

I had the opportunity to speak to City Councils about allowing chickens in city backyards around Western Washington when I was the Chicken Lady at Seattle Tilth. I have written to councils across the country by request about why chickens should be allowed in urban areas and I have attempted to quell the fears of lawmakers about keeping poultry in their fair city.

You want to really know the reason I advocate for City Chickens? Because on a food security standpoint it makes sense. Because they are quieter than dogs. Because they are no messier than any other animal. Because for some people they make great pets. Because it teaches children where their food comes from. Because it is part of our heritage. Because a fresh egg tastes different from store-bought. Because you can raise them to your own personal ethical beliefs. Because they make sweet clucking noises when they see your coming with grapes. Because you respect the chicken you slaughter for Sunday dinner more than your appreciate the package of meat you find at the grocers. Because it teaches you self-sufficiency.

My generation is really the first to avoid raising poultry in the backyard. My mother had chickens as a child, my aunts and uncles did too. My grandmother kept chickens. What is the difference about my generation? Fear.

Fear of getting dirty. Fear of what the neighbors might think. Fear of  keeping something that has always been considered a farm animal. Fear of the work it involves. Fear of avian flu and salmonella and chicken shit. Fear of killing a living animal.

The most common fear I hear is that a city will be overrun with wild birds, which, I admit, has happened in Florida's Key West. But this is only one place and this has not happened in any of the cities that already have a glut of illegal chickens. It is rare that a bird is let go in Seattle. Some do lose their ways, but surprisingly they find their way home a lot of the times. But just dropped off in a park? I have not heard of it. Laws outlawing releasing chickens in parks and wooded area will keep this down to a minimum and allowing humane slaughter and butchering will also keep this to a minimum. If you outlaw chickens, only outlaws will have chickens...

Check your local municipal code on whether you are allowed chickens in your area, if so, how many and if not, work to change that code. Some urban farmers get chickens when the rules explicitly do not allow them and were caught when a nosy or mean-spirited or uninformed neighbor tattled on them. This has one of two outcomes; the municipal code gets changed or the chickens have gotta go.

The thing I have found when researching municipal code is that most places will allow pullets(hens) but will not allow cocks(roosters). I don't advocate roosters simply because they crow. Sometimes at ungodly hours. And city people are no longer used to hearing a rooster crow in the morning. I actually find it somewhat pleasant, but then I am an early morning creature. My neighbors may not find it as pleasant. There are a few roosters grandfathered into the Seattle Municipal Code. But most municipalities do not allow them because the are loud. They have been measured  in the high 80 decibels. And because a pullet does not need a rooster to lay an egg, I don't feel they are necessary unless you are planning on breeding for show birds or are raising meat birds and meat birds are usually slaughtered before they start to crow.

Another reason I believe in raising chickens stems from an encounter with my lovely nephew.  Many years ago I asked my nephew, who was about 8 at the time, where his food came from... He said Costco. While true of a very superficial way, he had no concept that vegetables were grown in the ground and that eggs came from chickens or ice cream came from cows or that meat was a living thing at one point. At twenty-three, he has never been interested in eating vegetables and if he can get it through a drive-thru all the better.

I don't know that him knowing where his food came from would cause him to make better food choices, but it wouldn't hurt him either. It may help him appreciate what he eats more. But for any person, raising chickens or growing any food on their own might cause them to think a bit more about what they put into their mouths.

On a food security standpoint, I believe that everyone should have access to healthy food, grown ethically and with a knowledge of what exactly they are getting. Everyone should have access to organically grown, non-modified, tasty food.

I know that not everyone has the ability of garden space, but if your town has P-patches you can have access to have a little garden for you and yours. There are also organizations, such as Urban Land Army that might be able to connect people who have land that they don't use to people who want land to use. I know that not everyone has land to raise chickens on so I advocate for co-op bartering farms that will trade eggs or goats milk for services. For example, I suck at sewing, I can do it but I am bad at it. I am always happy to trade a couple dozen eggs for having pants hemmed.

Once the birds start to lay, I have enough chickens to potentially provide 70 or more eggs a week. Almost 6 dozen eggs a week and knowing me I will not be able to eat that many eggs a week. So I will sell some. I will barter some. I will pickle some and I will eat some. But I will still have about 300 eggs a month for the first year at least. But on a food security stand point that could potentially provide a dozen eggs each for 25 people. Not bad.

And lastly, you know where your food comes from. You know how it was grown, how it was raised, what you did or did not put on it and if it is up to your standards. The chickens I raise are being raised to my ethical standards. They are not stuck on a factory farm. They are in a big wide backyard, running amok, attacking each other, as well as, the neighborhood cats and eating organic foods as well as big juicy slugs and dandelion leaves. I know how they are raised. I know they are happy in their own way. They are not crammed into cages on factory farms and they are not in giant barns(this is the only requirement for the "Cage-Free" label on eggs or meat birds, "cage-free" does not necessarily mean that they are actually seeing any sunlight).

To each their own though, I do not fault anyone for knowing or not knowing where their food comes from. Food is, well, food. It is better than not having it. But if you have the means and ability to raise your own in some manner, I say give it a try.

Raise a tomato on your deck and see if you can tell the difference from store-bought. Try a fresh egg laid this morning, hell you can have a dozen from me once these girls start laying.

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