Our baby chicks arrived in an six by eight-inch box with a postmark from Manitoba and a stamp reading “LIVE ANIMALS. HANDLE WITH CARE.” My mom had pulled me out of school for the day and together, we drove to the post office to pick them up, both of us brimming with excitement.
“You must have birds in there,” the woman at the counter laughed as she carried the box out of the warehouse towards us. “They’ve been chirping ever since they got here!”
I carried the cheeping box out to our Ford Taurus, leaving the swarm of curious employees behind. As we drove away, I felt something poke my hand and looked down at the box to see a tiny beak poke out of an air hole and curiously peck my hand.
Since 2011, my family has illegally kept chickens in the backyard of our small southern Alberta acreage. Our four chickens smell no worse than a cat’s litter box, their clucks are much quieter than a dog’s bark, yet their existence on our two-and-a-half-acre property is against our county bylaw.
My parents both grew up on farms and in 1998, moved our family to our acreage to get away from the city. But with new developments popping up close by and neighbouring cities creeping ever closer on either side, our chickens still bring a little bit of the farm to our increasingly urbanized home.
My mom’s love of chickens started when she was a kid. She grew up on a mixed farm near Hanna, Alta. and still remembers the day her family first got chickens. There were more than 100 baby chicks and she was immediately fascinated as she looked down for the first time at the tiny yellow balls of fluff huddled under the heat lamp. At around 10 years old, she spent hours sitting in the chicken coop, watching the growing chicks run around, topple over each other and explore their new home. It soon became my mom’s job to look after them and every day after school, she would go out to the chicken coop, collect eggs, feed them and water them, endlessly fascinated.
That old coop hasn’t housed chickens for years now – it was long ago hauled over to the junk pile north of the farm yard – but my mom’s love of chickens has never faded, even as she moved off the farm, got married and had two kids.
This is obvious the second you walk into our kitchen. Fifty chickens immediately greet you from the shelves above the cupboards, pictures on the walls and even the row of salt and pepper shakers sitting atop the stove. The collection started with a chicken shaped cookie jar and grew to everything from cross-stitched pictures to coasters.
“My point of view as a kid was kind of idyllic I guess,” she said. “Being a farmer, there’s a lot of responsibility and stresses, but as a kid, [looking after the chickens] was a big responsibility and it was good for my confidence and built character and work ethic.”
For years, the only thing stopping my family from getting our very own live chickens was the county bylaw but eventually, even that wasn’t enough to stand in our way.
According to our bylaw, residents are only allowed one animal unit per four acres. In terms of chickens, one animal unit is equal to 20 chickens. We only own two and a half acres of land which is not enough to keep any livestock, including four chickens, in the eyes of the county.
Though the bylaw is clear, my parents were certain our property was more than large enough to house chickens, so they opted to ignore it.
When I was 12, I built a fort in our backyard behind our large vegetable garden. I measured the wood, enlisted the help of my parents to cut it and then hammered in every nail myself. Five years later, with some reinforcements, that fort became our chicken coop.
The first winter, we were worried about our chickens surviving the cold in our little, poorly insulated chicken coop. My mom couldn’t bear to eat them – they were her pets – and my dad is allergic to poultry, so we gave them away to a neighbouring farm.
The next spring, with our newly insulated chicken coop, we got more baby chicks. Deciding that they didn’t have enough space to run around, my dad built a runway so they could get into our fenced vegetable garden and scratch away at the dirt to their heart’s content.
“It’s fun to see them scratching in the garden and doing their chicken thing,” my mom said. “When I’m walking out to feed the chickens in the morning and the sun is shining and the snow is sparkling, it just reminds me of the farm and the simplicity of the life.”
When I was younger, I loved being on the farm where my mom grew up. I remember spending my summers climbing stacks of round hay bales with my brother and cousins and leaping courageously between rows, knowing that if I didn’t make the landing, I would fall the 12 feet to the ground. During harvest, I’d sit on my grandpa’s knee in the John Deere combine as he drove around the fields for hours. Sometimes I would even ride around on the back of the quad, my cousin driving and me holding on for dear life as we flew over the uneven ground in the pasture. My uncle would be in the tractor feeding cows and we would follow behind, enjoying the smells of fresh hay and manure.
I’ve never been a farm kid, but I’ve always loved being on the farm. Having chickens brought me one step closer to the rural lifestyle I’ve always loved.
Throughout their lives, our chickens have survived close encounters with neighbourhood cats, dogs and weasels, but were unequipped to defend themselves against the county bylaw.
Two summers ago, we decided to keep a rooster to see how that would go. But it didn’t take long for the crowing bird to bother our neighbours. A formal complaint was filed and soon, a bylaw officer was calling our house. The officer told us we were not permitted to keep chickens on our property and that he was required to come by and make sure we had gotten rid of them.
The day the bylaw officer was supposed to come, we packed our chickens up in a box with straw, water and food and put them in our backyard workshop. As he couldn’t see the chickens, he quickly let it slide. This particular officer didn’t enforce the bylaw as he could have, but it was a close call. We gave the rooster away to a farming family as quickly as we could.
“I don’t go out of my way to break rules, but this one just seems ridiculous to me,” said my mom. “The fact that there are lots of cities that you can have backyard chickens in and we have two and a half acres, I don’t really see a problem with having chickens here.”
While the county does not allow chickens on small plots of land, other Alberta cities and towns have implemented backyard chicken pilot projects to great success.
Edmonton has had its own Urban Hens Pilot Project in place since 2014 and as of 2016, has increased the number of Hen Keeping Licenses within the city from 19 to 50. In a 2016 report given on the first phase of the project, it states that 57 per cent of respondents would support hens being raised near their properties and 51 per cent agreed that hens being raised in the city is good for neighbourhoods.
One study suggests urban backyard chicken owners may develop a greater bond with their neighbours “through shared discussions about their birds.” And just like my parents love going outside every day to look after the chickens, the study also states that chicken owners have reported seeing psychological benefits from having backyard chickens as the pets provide them “the opportunity to interact with their natural environment in the outdoors.”
Okotoks has allowed backyard chickens since November 2016 and Red Deer changed its own bylaws to allow chickens in 2014. Even Airdrie, is set to begin their own backyard chicken pilot project in the spring of 2018.
So if urban municipalities are allowing chickens why are we, rural residents, not allowed to keep them on our own property?
According to the county, livestock waste could pollute underground water systems or flow onto neighbouring properties if flooding were to occur.
As well, having livestock on smaller properties may put the animals in close contact with neighbours and subject them to unwanted noise or smells. However, the county acknowledges that the bylaw has been consistently in place for over 20 years and it may be time to revisit the rules.
For some people, the possibility of having backyard chickens means the chance to have fresh eggs every morning, for others, it may simply be the appeal of having a unique pet, but for my mom, it means so much more.
Every morning, my mom goes out to the chicken coop to feed our four chickens, fill up their waterer and collect the eggs, but when she has time, she still likes to sit and watch them. If she’s out gardening in the summers, she’ll sometimes take a break, flip over a bucket to sit on, watch the chickens scratch in the dirt and listen to their happy clucking. They’ll come up to her, pecking at the ground around her feet and in their midst, I can almost imagine her as a curious young girl, back on the farm, surrounded by her chickens.
Jolene Rudisuela, firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor: Jennie Price | email@example.com