Winnipeg chicken flocks may still run a “fowl” of the city’s exotic animal bylaw, but activists hope city changes rules
There were a few ruffled feathers at Winnipeg’s city hall when a group came to lobby for the right to keep laying hens in their urban backyards, but city officials are studying the issue.
One woman was ordered out of council chambers when she produced a live chicken during a meeting of the city’s protection and community services committee in a bid to the show the birds are quiet. In total, about two dozen people spoke to city councillors about their desire for backyard birds, some dressed as chickens.
Urbanites wanting to raise a few backyard chickens can get pretty passionate, noted Glen Duizer, a veterinarian with Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives.
“Some of the stuff we’ve seen — it’s rather emotional,” said Duizer, adding that “people considering keeping poultry need to make sure they are very familiar with what they are doing.”
There are a number of issues to be considered, he said, including the fact poultry can attract flies, rodents, skunks and raccoons, and become diseased.
Tools are available to small producers looking to maintain flock health, including the Small Flock Avian Influenza Program, which provides producers who have experienced bird mortalities with diagnostic services. All poultry producers — no matter how small — are also required to register their flock under the Premises Identification program.
“If something were to happen in a specific area of the city, it may be very necessary to know where all the poultry flocks are,” said Duizer.
Currently, urban producers are not registering with the program because they don’t want to be caught by bylaw enforcement officers.
University of Manitoba poultry expert Bill Guenter is also concerned about an outbreak, but said animal welfare is his top concern.
“They might look very nice in the backyard right now with green grass, but what about January?” he said. “You’re going to have frozen eggs and, eventually, frozen chickens.”
The ideal temperature for chickens is between 11° and 15° in the winter months, he said, requiring heated coops. As well, chicken manure must not only be properly disposed of and, because of the risk of salmonella, can’t come into contact with eggs or be in areas where children might play. And since hens can live a decade, urban chicken owners need to be in for the long haul.
All of this, both proponents and detractors agree, means allowing backyard chickens would require municipal oversight.
“We all know that animal services is overtaxed and overburdened already; this would be another responsibility,” said Louise May, who breeds heritage birds in St. Norbert (on property zoned for agriculture) and brought one to the meeting.
But she said it’s worth the effort.
“This is about a lot of things, including food security,” she said.
The committee asked city officials to study the matter and report back.
Several American cities have found ways to accommodate backyard birds, including St. Paul, Minn.
“Based on what kind of complaints I don’t get about chickens, I would say yes, this has been a success,” said St. Paul city councillor, Amy Brendmoen.
The mother of three also keeps five laying hens in her backyard in what she calls the “Taj Mahal” of chicken coops, and notes heating is crucial.
St. Paul officials recently decided to regulate the keeping of laying hens through zoning regulations and animal services inspections. Those wanting to keep chickens must receive approval from 75 per cent of their neighbours within 150 feet of their property line. Coops must be five feet away from other structures and cannot be attached to garages. Roosters have also been nixed, although neighbouring Minneapolis still allows them.
Jacques DuBois has been keeping laying hens inside St. Paul city limits for three years, and said he hasn’t had any complaints in that time — not even when one of his birds escaped.
“They’re great, it’s so nice to be able to go out to the backyard if you’re making a cake or something and be able to grab an egg or two,” said DuBois, who averages three eggs per day from his four hens.