The chickens come home to roost
“It’s about being self-sufficient. It’s about going outside in your yard to get your eggs, rather than getting in a car and driving,” says chicken-keeper Jackie Allen. Photos: Bruce Murray
Enjoying a rush of primal self-sufficiency, growing numbers of Haligonians are emulating their forebearers and raising fowl
Jackie Allen had an idea as she looked out at her son’s playhouse.
“He hadn’t used it in years,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘Maybe we should get chickens.”
She researched (“Can I do this? Is it even a possibility?”) and hatched a plan to turn the old playhouse into a “chicken condo.” The eggs would be a protein to go along with the vegetables from the raised garden beds she’d put in a few years earlier in her suburban yard in Waverley.
“I did the math and I’m not really saving too, too much money,” she says. “We can afford to buy eggs. It’s about being self-sufficient. It’s about going outside in your yard to get your eggs, rather than getting in a car and driving. It’s like a basic primal feeling of taking care of yourself.”
Now with seven young chickens, Allen is part of a growing backyard-chicken trend, as people become more interested in where their food comes from and some worry about food security. Gardening has also seen a resurgence, with the COVID-19 pandemic giving people more free time at home and a desire to be more self-sufficient as supply chain snags disrupt the availability of products and prices keep going up.
The urban farming renaissance comes decades after the practice fell out of favour following a heyday during the world wars. Then, governments encouraged “victory gardens” in backyards and public parks to promote solidarity and boost food production, including eggs collected from flocks of backyard hens and crops of vegetables, fruit, and herbs.
“Chickens used to be all through the city 50 or so years ago,” says local chicken-keeping advocate John Wimberley. “Post-Second World War, in all the abundance and prosperity of that time, an attitude was growing that, if you grew your own food that was a sign of being poor and lesser.”
Government policy started reflecting that attitude around North America. “Suddenly bylaws were popping up saying you could not keep animals or, in lots of cases, grow gardens,” Wimberley says. “You had to have plain grass yards.”
Flash forward to 2012 and Wimberley was living on Beech Street in Halifax’s West End when he got a call from his father saying a woman and her young daughter had a few chickens destined for the dinner table unless they found a new home.
“That seemed like a good time to start with some chickens because the worst-case scenario of me not knowing what I’m doing was still going to give them a few more days or weeks or months,” he says. “Harvesting chickens seemed like a good skill for being connected with our food.”
In the days leading up to getting the birds, he started rethinking his plan. “It seemed like a great opportunity to put my concerns and cares and advocacy around local and sustainable food and community resilience into an earthy, everyday practice of caring for these animals,” he says. The chickens became his pets.
Halifax bylaws outlawed backyard chickens.
But, says Wimberley, “if the neighbours didn’t complain, the city wasn’t going to poke their nose in and do anything about it.”
Hair salon owner and beauty expert Fred Connors gets credit for pushing Halifax to allow backyard hens.
Starting in 2010, he racked up $70,000 in fines after neighbours complained about the chickens at his North End home.
“It was a crack house for 10 years and the city did nothing about it,” he tells Wimberley in a video documentary on chicken keeping. “For 10 years, that backyard was filled with garbage … The optics of fining me $70,000 after I turned it into an urban farm … and they were going to crack down on some chickens. They would look so stupid.”
The city eventually discovered it had no grounds to fine Connors. Its bylaw forbidding backyard chickens didn’t cover the urban core where he lived, and he was off the hook.
City staff got to work on new rules and bylaws, and in September 2019, councillors approved the keeping of “egg-laying fowl” for personal use in densely populated areas, including Halifax-Dartmouth. Two years later, permission expanded across HRM, which council says was based on growing interest in hen-keeping and to support local food security.
Lots less than 4,000 square metres can now host up to 10 hens. Roosters are outlawed, but the city only cracks down if neighbours complain.
Stats on urban chickens are hard to come by. Halifax implemented a voluntary hen registration in October 2021. Only five households have signed up so far, says HRM spokesperson Klara Needler.
Wimberley, who teaches a monthly chicken-keeping workshop and hosts school groups in his large backyard coop on Creighton Street in the North End, says he isn’t one of them.
He estimates a few hundred people are keeping backyard chickens in the urban core, up from perhaps fewer than two dozen when he started. The municipality probably has well over a thousand, he says.
He’s had no complaints about his brood. “I live in a historically working class and Black neighbourhood,” he says. “People in my neighbourhood feel like keeping chickens is normal. They rejected that stigma (that) it shows you’re poor or lesser than.”
Wimberley says people are often surprised to learn the same rules apply for keeping backyard chickens in urban areas as in the suburban and rural parts of the sprawling municipality.
“There’s an idea that chickens are better off in a rural area, but it’s simply not true,” he says. “Chickens do so well in cities.”
In most of urban Halifax, the most common predators are racoons. The animals are nocturnal, so chicken keepers just need to make sure their birds are closed in at night with foolproof latches.
Outside the city, they must contend with birds of prey, foxes, coyotes, skunks, or weasels, which can squeeze through a small hole in a coop. “A majority of the stories that I hear about people deciding they’re no longer going to keep chickens revolve around losing birds to predators,” says Wimberley. “It breaks their hearts, and they just don’t know whether they can take it … You don’t generally have to deal with that in the city. It’s wildly safer and easier.”
The other benefit of city farming is “it’s right where people are” and gardens and coops can be all different sizes, he says. “There are types of agriculture that don’t scale well, specifically don’t scale down well. Gardening, urban farming, and keeping chickens scale so well, up and down, so easily to fit just about any space.”
Wimberley would like to see the 10-hen limit raised to help combat food insecurity, a growing concern as the price of goods rise and more Haligonians slip below the poverty line. He’s working with the Out of the Cold Community Association to add backyard hens on the grounds of the emergency modular housing units the city installed behind the North End’s Centennial Pool to provide housing for the homeless.
“They’re already growing food and understand that part of growing food is supplying your own fertilizer and they also produce food waste on site,” which chickens can eat, says Wimberley. “This is a way to offer eggs the residents, to amend the soil with chicken manure, and provide people there with the meaningful activity of caring for these creatures.”
Out of the Cold executive director Michelle Malette says chickens, like the garden boxes and plans for a cat in the common area, are part of efforts to build a feeling of community on the former parking lot. “It’s what makes a home,” she says. “The chickens are a pretty exciting thing here. We already have some residents who are interested.”
The not-for-profit secured grants from two food security charities to build a large coop and chicken run and hopes to get birds by the fall, she says. “It’s a whole experiment for us.”
Plenty of Haligonians don’t have the luxury of a backyard.
Currently, 27 municipal properties are hosting non-profit-organized community gardens with raised beds, while many other community gardens are on private property.
Hillary Lindsay, a coordinator with Common Roots Urban Farm, says the city has a shortage of community garden space to meet the needs of people who want to dig in the dirt and grow some food.
“Our community gardens have quite long waiting lists,” she says.
Its community garden at the bottom of Bayers Road in the West End has more than 150 people waiting for a plot since the group was uprooted from a much bigger space downtown next to the Halifax Infirmary in 2018, so the hospital can expand.
The Common Roots garden in Dartmouth, on land next to the Nova Scotia Hospital, has a waiting list of about 25 people. On top of that, a growing line up of immigrants who gardened in their native countries are eager for larger plots, says Lindsay. “When they see the size of our garden beds, it’s just not what they’re used to in terms of being able to grow food to support their family or the kind of food they’re used to eating.”
Sylvain Charlebois, a professor of food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University, says aspiring urban green thumbs might not end up saving much money. “It is work to have chickens, or even a garden,” he says. “Early on, I don’t think they’d see much savings.”
Allen likes the idea of her nearly 14-year-old son Levi Allen learning about chickens.
“He and his friend were here one afternoon playing with the chickens,” she says. “In this world that we live in, where it’s video games and apps and iPhones and kids inside all day, I’ve always wanted to show him that this is how you have food, this is how you grow a garden, chop wood.
“You never know what their future is going to hold,” she adds. “It’s cool to learn basic things and other things. If he wants to be a computer analyst, he can be a computer analyst that knows how to grow chickens. It’s never going to hurt him”
The family of three eats about 18 eggs a week.
Allen says it’s nice to know they’re producing what her husband Fraser Allen calls “happy eggs” from hens that get to spend time outdoors pecking at the ground and getting protein from bugs, rather than cooped up 24/7 and eating feed.
In the store, those eggs are always more expensive, she says. “Free range, organic, whatever made us feel better, we would seek out to find the happiest egg. But they’re only as happy as (the packaging) says they are. When I’m raising them — there’s one, Tammy, who likes to be cuddled — I know that is joy and she is happy.”
She imagined the chickens would be her own thing and she’d get eye rolls from her son and husband. “But we’re all into it. Chickens are really fun. They’re really smart. They’re quirky.”
Roosters don’t always fit in so well.
While Halifax’s updated bylaws don’t allow them in backyard coops, the municipality only cracks down if neighbours complain.
Their crowing at sunrise isn’t the only potential problem. Roosters, as the saying goes, like to rule the roost. An aggressive bird can fight with other roosters or hurt the hens.
Amanda Dainow, who co-founded farm animal rescue North Mountain Animal Sanctuary in the Annapolis Valley, sees the consequences.
“People dump them, literally, wherever,” she says. “Their survival rate in the wild is nothing really. They’re subject to predators, vehicle accidents, cold, heat, dehydration.”
Since launching 11 years ago, North Mountain has taken in about 30 hens, some with special needs. The charity currently has a flock of 15 chickens, including five roosters. “We have more space for hens, but not roosters,” says Dainow.
She doesn’t encourage it, but many roosters end up in stew pots, a more utilitarian fate than roadkill.
North End-based chicken advocate John Wimberley believes that people abandoning chickens isn’t a widespread problem.
“It’s a concern mostly raised by city governments when they’re arguing against allowing chickens to be kept,” he says. “There’s always a lot of people willing to take in a chicken that someone can no longer keep. Several times I’ve had people contact me and say, ‘I’m moving. Would you like to take my chickens?’ or ‘My housing situation has changed. Could you take these birds on?’”