New holiday traditions are being made—and laid—in Linda and Troy Johnson’s backyard this holiday season. Outside, the Christmas lights twinkle on the newly constructed chicken coop while inside, their family enjoys eggs harvested daily and mugfuls of homemade eggnog.
“We have more eggs than we know what to do with,” Linda says with a laugh, explaining that their family’s four hens lay one to two eggs every day.
The Johnsons are homeowners in Rutherford and were overjoyed by city council’s decision in August to approve an urban-hens pilot project.
The goal of the project is to generate data on the benefits and challenges of raising urban chickens in Edmonton. City council will analyze the data and make a decision in late 2015 on whether to change the bylaw to allow people to keep urban hens.
“We had done a lot of reading and researching [on urban chickens] over the years, so we were really keen to participate,” Linda says. “It just made sense to have our food close to home and to be able to use our kitchen waste and scraps to feed the hens.”
Within 10 days of submitting their application, which included a blueprint plan for the coop and letters of consent from their neighbours, the city gave the Johnsons the green light to construct a henhouse for roughly $300 and bring home four feathered “ladies.”
Over the past four months, the city has approved 25 different households to participate in the pilot project, and 18 are currently active in the city.
“We were looking for a diversity of locations and a combination of people with different experience levels,” explains Keith Scott, coordinator of the city’s animal control centre.
Sarah and Mike Dickey, who live in King Edward Park with their two daughters, had never raised chickens before. They converted their daughters’ old playhouse into a henhouse after receiving approval from the city in September.
“I admit that I was hesitant,” says Sarah, who works part-time at the Cross Cancer Institute. “Because I stay part-time at home with our daughters, I thought I would be the one doing most of the work. But it’s turned out to be less work than I thought.”
The Dickeys are raising Isa Brown hens, a breed known to be less noisy and flighty—ideal for a city setting—and better-suited to endure Edmonton’s coldest months.
According to Scott, the frigid temperatures are what sets Edmonton apart from warmer North American cities like Victoria, Vancouver, Seattle, Portland and Los Angeles where bylaws allow for backyard chickens.
Believe it or not, chickens can also get frostbite.
“It’s not like Vancouver or warmer municipalities where the chickens remain outside all the time, you don’t have to insulate your coop, and the water doesn’t freeze,” Scott says.
Animal Control has played an important role in the pilot by conducting site visits and making sure the sizes of cages are large enough and that they are properly insulated to keep the birds warm through Edmonton’s harsh winter.
But cold weather isn’t giving Margaret Fisher the winter blues. She believes the colder temperatures could actually be advantageous for keeping urban chickens in Edmonton.
Fisher is an organizer with the River City Chickens Collective, an urban-hen advocacy and education group that was highly involved in lobbying city council to approve the pilot project. She is also a local veterinarian and expert in animal disease control.
“Edmonton’s probably better than some other cities because we don’t have a lot of diseases here—the cold weather is helpful in that regard,” Fisher says. “There are respiratory and fungal diseases in other warmer parts of the world that we just don’t see here.”
Groups and city councillors who opposed the pilot project cited concerns over the risk of “bird flu,” along with the potential for bad odours, noise and chickens getting loose, but Fisher is confident the outcome of the project will dispel these fears.
“If there are predator problems or disease problems, then those are all valid reasons to ask whether this is a good idea or not,” Fisher adds. “But I don’t think any of those things are going to happen.”
Though Animal Control has received a few complaints from neighbours of the pilot sites over the past months, Scott says they’ve been able to mediate concerns by working directly with those making the complaints and site-owners to make changes.
But Johnson and Dickey both say they’ve experienced nothing but curiosity and enthusiasm from their neighbours over the past few months.
“The deal we have with our neighbours is that when we go away for the weekend, whoever takes care of the hens also gets to keep the eggs. So our neighbours are also benefiting,” Dickey explains. “It’s something positive for everyone.”
Edmonton’s urban-hen pilot project is scheduled to continue until August 2015, when the city will evaluate the outcomes and make a decision whether to change the bylaw or not.