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Toronto's backyard bylaw isn't eggs-actly effective, and urban poultry lovers are crying fowl

Lorraine Johnson's chickens.

Johnson with fresh eggs.

Chickens out in the yard.

Chicken sunbathing on a warm afternoon.

They live among us. Probably in your neighbourhood, possibly even in the house next door: urban chickens living in secrecy behind backyard fences throughout Toronto. Despite a 1987 Toronto bylaw banning the feathery outlaws, dozens or perhaps hundreds are quietly supplying their owners with fresh eggs. Should we be worried? Not about the chickens, but maybe about the City’s old-fashioned approach to urban poultry, say aficionados.
"There’s this conventional mindset as to what animals are cute and welcome to live amongst us, and it’s really very arbitrary," says urban chicken enthusiast Steven Gray, who was forced to give up his own birds several years ago after a neighbour blew the whistle.
"The chicken produces less offensive waste than cats and dogs. They don’t make a lot of noise, whereas dogs bark at any hour," he says. And pigeon-keeping is legal, he notes, although "if you get the large breed of pigeons, they’re the same size as bantam chickens."
In January 2012, Toronto’s Licensing and Standards Committee voted 5 to 0 against a motion from City Councillors Joe Mihevc and Mary-Margaret McMahon to carry out a feasibility study into overturning the ban. Fourteen chicken-raising households that had received complaints from neighbours were consequently required to surrender their birds; however, an unknown number of homes continue to harbour unsanctioned hens.
How many chickens can a city comfortably accommodate? Bill Bezuk, the operator of a "chicken hotel" interviewed recently on CBC Radio’s As It Happens estimates that between 5,000 and 7,000 households raise chickens (legally) in his town of Eugene, Oregon, which has a population a little over 150,000.
Urban chickens are legal in New York City, where the organization Just Food administers a granting program for urban poultry-raising. They’re also allowed in scores of other U.S cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta, Chicago, Boston, Minneapolis, Las Vegas, Buffalo, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Dallas. In Canada, Niagara Falls, Brampton, Guelph, Kingston, Victoria and Vancouver welcome urban hens. The website BackyardChickens.com has at least 90,000 members.
Toronto writer and editor Lorraine Johnson, who explored the urban chicken movement across North America for her book City Farmer, had kept three hens for several years when she was told she would have to give them up. "I was too public about the fact that I had hens, and bylaw officers showed up at my door, even though none of my neighbours complained," she says. So she moved.
Though not initiated in response to the eviction notice, Johnson’s relocation did the trick: "I moved about six blocks north, where my neighbours are equally happy with the hens, and for whatever reason the bylaw officers did not pursue me."
Johnson says there are "a lot of misconceptions about hens. One is that they're noisy, and they’re not. They're quieter than dogs. Another is that hens need roosters to lay eggs." They don’t, which is lucky, because even Johnson says that roosters, which crow vociferously, "would be obnoxious in the city."
Unlike Johnson, most Toronto egg farmers are not targeted unless a neighbour complains. 
"Animal Control are not out looking for people with chickens," says another Toronto poultry keeper, who calls herself Henonymous. Like many chicken owners, she expresses a deep affection for her birds, who have free run of her 25-by-60-foot backyard when she's home with them.
"Until a person's spent time with them, you just don’t know what you're missing. They’re hilarious. They’re awesome pets -- pets with benefits, because the eggs are tremendous." She also appreciates their appetite for insects. "Good luck to any mosquito that tries to lay an egg -- they will find it!" she says. "I look at having chickens as a way things ought to be. I look at them as an extension of my kitchen."
Kelly, who prefers not to give his last name due to hen security, is another urban chicken keeper who got started in "the search for a better egg," he says. Now, his four hens give him at least 20 eggs a week; his children (ages five and seven) collect them daily. "For us, it’s not a matter of saving money; it's an issue of sustainable food, and delicious food."
He believes the City should be encouraging backyard chickens. "If you think of the cost that the City incurs to take all the [organic waste] out of the green bins… We feed a lot of the table waste to the chickens, and they turn it into fertilizer, which is good for our gardens," Kelly says. "Having a bylaw in place discourages people, which is a bad thing. You could say it’s gravy."
He is not alone in his frustrations. The Licensing and Standards Committee "actually said 'we don’t want any information, we don’t even want to know about this,'" says Johnson. "That’s what I think is so appalling and disappointing, especially since City staff had already done a report. The information was all there. That sort of closed-mindedness does not really reflect well on the City."
Gray says he misses his birds. "They were beautiful animals: lovely-feathered, with a nice sheen, strutting around doing their thing," he says. "They're not supposed to be smart, but they definitely have personalities. I got them as chicks, so they imprint and follow you around the yard. They scratch up the dirt and they eat bugs. They even chase away squirrels."
Since the neighbour who complained has moved away, Gray has been thinking of adopting more hens. "At the time, everyone else thought it was a great idea except for this one guy. He was going to sell his house; he probably thought chickens next door wouldn't help." During a recent home remodelling, Gray, an architect "even went as far as to pour a little door opening in my basement foundation, so they could live inside and have a run to the outside," he says. "I was planning ahead."
If he goes ahead with his plan, Gray will literally have underground chickens, but many Torontonians wish they didn’t have to keep their household hens out of sight. 
Sarah B. Hood's writing explores the culture of food, fashion, urban life, environment and the arts. Her last piece for Yonge Street surveyed the community stepping stones many Toronto restaurants are taking before launching standalone locations. 
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