Everyone's Clucking About Backyard Chickens

Monday Magazine | October 1, 2004
Chicken feathers flutter around the air. White and brown birds squat on straw under the shade of their coop, keeping cool from the sun. But their coop isn’t on a farm; it’s in a backyard five minutes from downtown. The chicken wire and plywood pen doesn’t seem to fit in with the cars and trucks that drive by just a few metres away.

Backyard chickens are more common in Victoria than most people would think. They may be living just down the road from you, or even next door. Despite this urban setting, it’s not so unusual to walk past a Victoria backyard and see a coop full of these feathered creatures.

Moreover, in this by-law happy town, many people are surprised to learn that chickens are allowed, to one extent or another, in most municipalities. Thanks perhaps to a growing interest in the source of our food, more people are raising these birds for their many benefits—eggs and meat, fertilizer, pest control and a convenient way to dispose of your kitchen scraps. Chicken owners are enthusiastic about their birds’ ecological contributions to urban gardening, as they gobble pests and fertilize soil. For some, chickens are more than just fowl, they are pets and companions, even members of the community. And many owners are queasy at the thought of turning their pets into Shake ’n Bake. But not everyone is clucking at the idea of having squawking birds as neighbours—usually, a flock of chickens becomes a concern only when a neighbour complains.

Tractors and chickens

Laura Porcher is no stranger to the chicken scene. She first began raising chickens in her backyard off Fairfield Road in 1986. After moving into their house and putting in a vegetable garden, she and her husband decided to build a chicken coop. From time to time, her chickens, too, have escaped through the back fence and feasted on the ripening vegetables next door. “They love our neighbour’s garden, they know where the goodies are,” she admits.

Porcher used to have six chickens at a time, but found the chickens’ food attracted rats. She currently has only one chicken, as the other was killed earlier this year, she suspects by a racoon.

Her neighbours all know about her chickens, and even offer to help with chicken sitting. “I thought it would be really healthy for the neighbourhood,” says Porcher. “The chickens really bring everyone together.” Despite their squawking when the birds wake up, sometimes as early as five in the morning, Porcher has had “no objections” from her neighbours about their sight, smell or sound.

Sometimes it’s hard for Porcher to decide which comes first, the chicken or their eggs. “The eggs are fantastic, better than you could buy,” she says. When chickens are active and have space to move around, along with a healthy diet of greens, their eggs are more flavourful than store-bought. They are fresh, rich and tasty with a deeply coloured yolk. She typically gets one egg a day per chicken, but with now having only one chicken she eats few because her six-year-old daughter usually gets first dibs. “I hardly get any,” says Porcher.

To keep chickens safe from predators and for shelter, there are numerous housing options available. The simplest way to keep a small number of chickens is in a basic pen, or in a device known as a chicken tractor. These portable pens are made with a basic wooden frame and chicken wire, and are designed to easily move around the yard. The chickens eat the weeds, seeds and bugs from the ground where the pen is placed, and once they’ve depleted that area, the tractor is moved. The area where the chickens have been is then freshly fertilized and ready to be planted. More elaborate (and less portable) coops can resemble chicken mansions, with hinged doors, roofs, ramps and various levels (roosts) for the birds to live comfortably. One local chicken owner was rumoured to pipe in music for the birds’ entertainment.

Chicken legal

While most municipalities allow chickens, there are some rules, and to raise your own flock of chickens legally depends on where you live. One independent chicken supplier says they have supplied chickens to residents in Victoria and Oak Bay, in batches of one to six birds. He did not want to be identified in case he was in violation of the B.C. Chicken Marketing Board regulations, which do not permit his chickens to be given away or sold. “There are hundreds of chickens in different municipalities,” he says. “Most get them for eggs, some for their kids to teach them responsibility.” His chickens usually sell for $8.75 each, but now cost a dollar more since they are brought in from Alberta.

However, it’s possible to get chicks for as little as $1.50 each through local feed stores, particularly in the spring.

In Victoria, the city bylaws aren’t especially stringent about the size of your flock. The law is, essentially, whether it is a “reasonable amount” in the eyes of the bylaw officer. This is often determined on egg production based on the amount of people on the property. “For a small household with four chickens that means four eggs every day, which is plenty,” says bylaw officer Tim Weckend, adding that it’s of more concern if there are, say, 20 chickens on a property, especially if they’re used for the commercial production and sale of eggs. And regardless of how many hens might be on a city property, because of the early morning “cock-a-doodles” produced by their male counterparts, roosters are banned in the city, as outlined in the City of Victoria Animal Control Bylaw.

Oak Bay’s bylaw outlines more specific guidelines. The chicken coop must be 25 feet away from any property line, and there is a scaling system of how many chickens you can own based on the size of your property. There is also a bylaw against keeping chickens in the front yard, in order to make their coops less visible.

Brian Anderson, Oak Bay’s director of building and planning, says he has only had about six complaints about backyard chickens in his 11 years on the job. “Most people call up to say ‘My neighbour has chickens, is that allowed?’” says Anderson. Callers are surprised to discover that yes, they are.

However, clucking won’t be heard from all backyards in the Capital Region. Fiona Chambers moved last year from Fernwood to View Royal, where she wants to have chickens again. But there is a bylaw prohibiting poultry in View Royal.

“In Oak Bay you . . . can have chickens and you’re not allowed to in View Royal?” says Chambers.

Eric Law, the building inspector and bylaw enforcement officer for View Royal and Esquimalt says, “There are no chickens allowed in View Royal or Esquimalt. We want to keep what is residential and agricultural separate. We don’t want them mixed.” According to Law, every citizen has the right to appeal a bylaw, but he says the chances of it being repealed are slim.

He was surprised to learn that chickens are allowed in other municipalities. “I can’t see there being chickens in a residential area like Oak Bay,” he says.

If a chicken escapes, the call usually goes out to senior animal control officer Ian Fraser, who handles animal complaints and impounds in Victoria. The most common complaint Fraser receives is of chickens trespassing on a neighbour’s property. If the owner of the land has not given permission for the chickens to be there, the escaped birds are considered to be a bylaw violation. But Fraser says he tries to obtain voluntary compliance before enforcing the bylaw and ticketing the owner of the escapee. As a last resort, which doesn’t happen very often, the chicken can be impounded.

However, there are sometimes other concerns.

“We recently had someone call who was very irritated,” says Fraser. The man had just recently finished planting an extensive vegetable garden, and before he knew it, there were two chickens in his garden pecking, scratching and gobbling up the freshly planted seeds. Another caller voiced concern about the avian flu, needlessly worried that the chickens next door were diseased. Another main concern is how and where the birds are being kept, and that they have sufficient living space. Some neighbours are unhappy about the coop or pen being near their fences because of the smell and flies, which is why Oak Bay established the 25-foot rule. “Imagine you are trying to enjoy a barbeque with your friends, and all you can smell is the chickens next door,” says Fraser.


However, more urban residents are recognizing that chickens are an interesting and important component of urban gardening. Geoff Johnson, site educator and coordinator of the Victoria Compost and Education Centre, has 12 chickens in his Fernwood backyard. He’s found that his chickens help reduce his ecological footprint, and are an essential part of small-scale sustainable agriculture. He and his chickens have a symbiotic relationship, he says, “instead of treating them as single-yield industrial units, cut off from the web of life.”

Johnson makes sure his hens are happy by providing them with all the things they could possibly want (except roosters, which are illegal in the city, “despite the widespread acceptance of car alarms!” he wrote in a VCEC newsletter.

As garden helpers, chickens snack on pesky insects and weeds, and even their walking around and scratching helps to cultivate and fertilize the soil, especially when it’s mixed with their nitrogen-rich manure. That soil can then be used for gardening and composting. Since last December, Johnson’s flock has taken his backyard lawn and weeds and scratched it into rich, loose loam—a mixture of sand, clay, and organic matter—ready for a spring vegetable garden.

Feeding these birds comes at little to no cost. Johnson uses kitchen waste from local restaurants to fill their tummies. The chickens feast on mixed greens and leftover nachos, food that would otherwise have been thrown out and piled up in a landfill.

Porcher’s chickens munch on table scraps that would have attracted more pests had it been put in the compost. Some of their favourite leftovers are cooked rice and oatmeal. She then uses the chicken manure for her compost, which she uses in her garden.

“That is enough reason alone to have chickens; it helps the compost to work better,” Porcher says.

Poultry manure contains the highest nitrogen content of all garden manures, and also has potassium, phosphorus and other nutrients. It helps to maintain the organic matter content of the soil, which can in turn improve soil quality and water filtration.

Chicken owners don’t hesitate to praise how chickens contribute to their neighbourhood and community. Chambers has got the younger community involved and interested in these feathered creatures. Local daycares used to come visit her chickens in Fernwood. She recently brought some young chicks to a school and said the kids just “loved it.” The floors in the hallway were freshly waxed so there was an “incredible skating chick” that entertained the students and didn’t hesitate to peck at their lunches. “They’re personable beasties,” says Chambers. “They even come when you call them.”


The community of chicken enthusiasts is expanding, and not just in Victoria. On the website www.backyardchickens.com, a network of backyard chicken gurus—amateur and veteran alike—post and discuss poultry questions, comments and stories. The message board supports over 5,000 members with a range of experiences and motivations.

One member writes, “They are now much of my life. They are my relaxation after a long hard day, and my morning comedy. They are comforting when I’m sad and they knock me down a pace when I get on a high horse. They are always here for me no matter what I’m feeling. The one thing we all have in common here [on the message board] is our love of the clucking bundles of feathers living either in our yards or our homes.”

Many express how their chickens are not only pets but members of the family. Some call themselves chicken addicts, and joke about the glazed look they get in their eyes whenever they see chicken paraphernalia. Members post, confessing that they have caught “the disease” of becoming addicted to chickens, and some identify as “hoarders”—wanting to acquire as many chickens as they can. Some started out with just a pair of chicks and have ended up having a flock of over a hundred. “BroodyMama” writes, “The other day my husband said to our seven-month-old baby who was crying that she needed to grow feathers, then she could get my attention.”

The question on many people’s minds for chicken keepers is, “So do you ever eat your chickens?” Some raise chickens specifically for meat, and it doesn’t bother others who say they know they have lived a good, healthy life. What’s more important is that they know what the chickens were fed, how they were kept, so they know exactly what they are eating and where it came from.

But for others, the thought of feasting on Little Clucky would be like eating a member of the family. Porcher says that with her attachment to her chickens, she doesn’t think she could ever eat one. “I don’t know if I could prepare it and enjoy it. It would probably make me turn into a vegetarian again!”

Despite the dilemma of to eat, or not to eat, and though they may not grow up to be furry and cuddly, there seems to be something relaxing and soothing to having chickens. It’s perhaps something only chicken owners can relate to. “At the end of a really stressful day all you want to do is just look at your chickens,” says Chambers. And if nothing else, that’s something to cluck about. M

Monday Magazine

Founded in 1975 to provide a critical voice in Victoria's political and cultural communities, Monday Magazine continues to shake British Columbia's conservative capital city with tell-it- like-it-is features and reviews. Targeting educated, active adults and Victoria's growing youth market, Monday...
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