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Keeping chickens in an urban environment is associated with the “Urban Agriculture Movement”, which is the growing practice of cultivating, processing and distributing food in, or around (peri-urban), a village, town or city. According to National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service and experts in backyard agriculture, there are a host of personal benefits associated with Urban Agriculture and keeping chickens in one’s own backyard.
Keeping livestock in cities has been common throughout history and is still practiced in many parts of the world. For example, 50,000 pigs were being kept in Manhattan in 1859. But local ordinances were created to limit this, owing to the noise and smell nuisance, and these were relaxed only in times of war when the urban populace was encouraged to provide food for itself.
Urban relief gardens played an important role in sustaining large populations of Americans during economic depressions. War gardens played an important role in the nationwide effort to help win both World War I and World War II. These victory gardens made gardening a patriotic activity and introduced gardening as an activity for everyone, not just those too poor to buy their own food. Later, in the late 1960s and 1970s, community gardening started to make a comeback as a hobby. Organic gardening, urban animal husbandry, and community farms became popular and many cities around the country started community gardening programs for their residents.
In Canada and the USA, the raising of chickens in urban surroundings has become increasingly popular. For example, in Madison, Wisconsin, citizens formed a group called the Chicken Underground, overturned a ban upon domestic chickens and there are now 81 registered owners. A film titled Mad City Chickens was made about their campaign. More and more cities that had previously banned urban chickens are removing old regulations or making permits easier to obtain.
Commercial vs. backyard egg production
Commercial egg production has been associated with salmonella and other disease outbreaks in the United States. Poor sanitation and crowded hen houses have contributed to these problems. Expansion of the poultry industry, fueled by an increased demand for poultry products, has created a demand for high throughout poultry and egg production. The resulting increased poultry population density and the rearing of incompatible poultry species in close proximity have presented major disease challenges. Studies have shown that small scale, backyard chicken keeping/egg production reduces these potential disease risks.
According to Mench et al., although changes in commercial egg production systems are being driven largely by animal welfare concerns, it is clear that other aspects of such changes must be considered to ensure sustainable egg production. Sustainability is a complex topic. Elements of sustainability include economics, environmental effects, human health and safety, and social values in addition to animal welfare. Backyard egg production has been suggested as a solution to sustainable, healthy food supply for families.
There are some common concerns associated with the practice of raising chickens in the city, specifically noise, odor, attraction of predators/pests, property values, and health. Most chicken owners say that these myths and misconceptions about chickens and their behavior are central to issues surrounding passage of city ordinances and regulations necessary for the keeping of urban chickens:
In some areas, roosters are banned, and only hens are allowed, and in limited numbers, to prevent problems with noise. Hens are relatively quiet as compared to pet dogs, though hens often vocalize after an egg is laid for a few minutes. The noise level during this squawking period has been measured at around 63 decibels, or about the level of two people talking. Other than post-laying squawking, normal hen sounds are not audible at 25 feet (7.6 m).
In Columbia, South Carolina it was argued that a leaf blowers were far louder than chickens, that dogs produce more waste than chickens do, so neither of those concerns were a valid reason to keep a ban on them. In actuality, however, the average chicken defecates upwards of seventy times a day, compared with a dog's 2-3 times a day, calling into question the veracity of that argument. In 1926 in Oakland California, the department of public health and safety issued an order to, "put your roosters in a light proof coop, or devise apparatus that will hold the rooster's head down so he can't crow" in response to complaints about the noise they were making. If they couldn't see any light, it was believed that they wouldn't know it was morning and wouldn't crow.
Bird flu and salmonella are the two biggest concerns to human health. The risk for catching bird flu is low, according to Mark Slifka, Ph. D. Infectious Disease Expert with Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, OR. He states this is especially true if the hens are kept in a closed environment, since they wouldn't be exposed to other birds.
Salmonella is mostly associated with under-cooked chicken meat. People who have weak immune systems, such as the elderly, young children, and those with various medical conditions, are most at risk. Proper sanitation and cooking practices lessen the threat of contracting salmonellosis.
Avian influenza, commonly referred to as "bird flu" is spread through contact with the feces of contaminated migratory birds. Since these infected wild birds are currently only in Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe, there is no possible chance of it spreading to chickens elsewhere.
Odor concerns can be mitigated somewhat by limiting the number of chickens that a household can own. Unlike large commercial operations, where thousands of chickens are kept in close quarters and thus build up enough ammonia to create a powerful odor, small backyard operations produce proportionately less odor. The average chicken eliminates waste, on average, every fifteen to twenty minutes; a coop of nine chickens will produce approximately seven hundred (700) defecations per day.
Unwanted predators, pests, and rodents
Predators and rodents are already living in urban areas. Wild bird feeders, pet food, gardens, fish ponds, bird baths, trash waiting to be collected all attract raccoons, foxes, rodents and flies. Most modern chicken pens are designed to keep predators away. Rats, however, may be attracted to a yard in which excess chicken food remains on the ground on a regular basis. Chicken owners have found many different ways of protecting chickens from predators without significant impact on the area.
One of the arguments against allowing backyard hens is that chickens kept within city limits will cause a reduction in property values. There are numerous cities across the country that allow backyard hens. Real estate figures show that property values have been unaffected by the passing of ordinances related to the keeping of urban hens.
- Hans Schiere, Rein van der Hoek, "Chickens", Livestock keeping in urban areas
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- D. A. Sumner, H. Gow, D. Hayes, W. Matthews, B. Norwood, J. T. Rosen-Molina and W. Thurman. Economic and market issues on the sustainability of egg production in the United States: Analysis of alternative production systems.
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