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Nine members of Toronto’s backyard-chicken underground on the special bond between man and bird

On November 30, councillors Joe Mihevc and Mary-Margaret McMahon took on the considerable challenge of trying to overturn nearly three decades of city hall opposition to backyard hens. They didn’t quite succeed. (Their motion to study the issue was referred to the municipal licensing and standards committee for consideration in February.) With his trademark zeal for kindergarten humour, Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti opined, “Now we’re going to have thousands of chickens crossing the road and we’re going to have neighbours fighting against neighbours because they don’t want to hit the chickens.” But what Mammoliti and his ilk don’t understand is that urban hen keeping didn’t really go away when it was outlawed in 1983. It just went underground—into garages, sheds and secluded corners of backyards. The hopes of these renegade urban hen keepers are now running high, riding Toronto’s ever-growing wave of locavorism. Here, nine of those rebels, who break the law every day, talk about that other love that dare not speak its name: that between man and hen.

First up, Jill and Sunshine »

  • sugarsugar

    love the photo of ziggy and helen!

  • UrbanFarmer

    I LOVE and fully support this movement! Done right, there should be no complaints from neighbors. I find those who do complain are usually chronic complainers!

  • shake n bake

    “Done right there should be no complaints” is like saying if the criminal code is well implemented, there should be no crimes committed. Chickens will escape, they will fly the coop, they will end up in the yards of people who didn’t ask that this bylaw be repealed. Citizens of residential areas where neighbours live in very close proximity should not be farmers.

  • @annieclare

    So happy to see this article! As with any pet, it’s the owners who make them great and these people are all wonderful examples.

    If any of the west-enders need to unload some extra eggs, my backyard-less self would love to help ;)

  • UrbanFarmer

    Chickens like to stay close to home, and if one should happen to stray, what’s the big deal? Better than neighbourhood dogs and cats who like to water my flowers. It comes down to responsible pet ownership whether it be chicken, cats or dogs. Have you ever tried a fresh egg?

  • Jayson

    Beautiful photo-montage …

    Chickens in the city? Absolutely, positively yes. What a great way for people to reconnect with real food. What a powerful way to teach our children about healthy food. There is so much hunger and poverty here in the city and I support anyone who is producing food here. We have a real crisis here … when it is illegal for people to feed themselves! Clearly shake n’bake knows nothing about animals, his comment is ridiculous, maybe s/he should visit a chicken coop at an organic farm and educate her/himself.

  • brayden

    question.. what happens to the chickens in the cold canadian winter??? I assume everyone doesnt have their chickens in a well insulated shed? or is that 100% necessary if you have chickens in toronto?

  • M

    In theory, I love the idea of back yard chickens but what about the smell, even once. I can’t trust my neighbours to control their kids. Why would I trust them to diligently maintain the chickens?
    And, what about the extra garbage produced?
    Further, would live chickens and eggs increase the city’s raccoon population even more?
    I suspect this is a sentimental issue that sounds great on paper but is truly not feasible in a city of our size. After all, there is a reason back yard chickens were made illegal before.

  • shake n bake

    @ Jayson my comments are from experience living a few doors down from underground chickens which I didn’t have to visit, they visited me. Then I had to go door-to-door asking whose chicken was crapping in my yard which even the owner denied because it is illegal….good thing my tenants kids were not outside to get in contact with the chickens#!* or witness their dog attack it.

  • Tim Fisher

    If you think that you can raise livestock, then you probably should. If everyone who could have chickens did so, then there would be no need to have tens of thousands of chickens cooped up on factory farms. Imagine living your life in a 6 foot cube cell with no daylight or fresh air ever (until they cram you in a cage and send you off to the soup factory).

    Go Toronto Nine!

  • JG

    Interesting debate. On one hand, the benefits of allowing urbanites to raise chickens are obvious – health, education, ethical/moral (each articulated well by people above). On the other hand, while shake n bake’s criminal code analogy is not logically sound, her/his personal experience with irresponsible backyard-chicken-farmers should be given substantial weight. Benefit vs cost. One must wonder if the law is really addressing the costs though. There is probably a bias that the people that would like to engage in the activity but don’t because it is illegal would be, on average, more responsible farmers. And for people that ignore the law and mismanage their livestock, the “underground-ness” of the whole thing makes it more complicated to pursue legitimate complaints. Perhaps a middle ground? An urban farmer registration scheme would be great but too costly. Maybe just legalization with requirements about the chicken enclosure and stiff penalties. An argument that some people will just ignore these requirements can be countered with the argument that those are the people (a subset of the people) that are ignoring the blanket prohibition now. I say subset because I suspect that a large group of people ignoring the current prohibition (such as the ones featured in this article) value this activity, its legitimacy, and its promotion enough to adjust to any requirements that would come with legalization. Also, I just realized how much these arguments mirror a pro legalization of marijuana rant, but I think (hope) that this can be differentiated by the qualitative and quantitative benefits of urban farming.

  • WalterPO

    What about us apartment/condo dwellers? Do we get to turn our balconies into chicken coops and our lobbies into farmer’s markets. let’s start with chickens then we can move on too other delectable fowl and once we have established the beauracracy to monitor this we can deal with different religion’s use of animals as part of their doctrine…sheep/goats on the front lawn. Stoop and Scoop will be the cry of the opposition. But to his credit I would suggest that we have a 2-3 year test project and set this up in Mihevic’s Forest Hill neighborhoods.

  • jackie ramsay

    The chicken thing just has to happen!! I’m into freeing chickens from abuse in mass chicken egg slavery!!!

  • signe

    I’ve met lots of folks with backyard hens, and the slippery slope argument just doesn’t hold water. “Oh,” the Henny Penny’s say, “fist it will be hens, then goats, then escaped cows grazing on my petunias!” Oh the horror! But that’s just not going to happen. Hens are not a gateway animal. No more than everyone who has a cat or dog graduates to owning hens. Hen keepers are a group of dedicated, hen fanciers. Equally silly is Mammoliti’s argument about 1000′s of escaped hens all over the roads. Listen, I’ve seen my fair share of squashed kitty cats on the roads, should cats be outlawed? Do cat vs car accidents cause civil strife, pitting neighbour against neighbour – in truth, it does…sometimes…but it doesn’t mean cats should be outlawed, it means cat owners should take better care of their animals. Just like hen keepers will have to take good care of theirs. Bottom line: most of the hen keepers I’ve met really love their birds, like anyone else loves their pets. No one wants to set up a huge operation in the backyard. They just want what most everyone else in the world has: the right to keep a couple of hens for pest control, healthy eggs, natural fertilizer and amusement. It works just fine in London, UK. Why not here?

  • Cherie

    Chickens make awesome pets and it is important to be able to gather eggs that are clean and free of cruelty…Just review 20/20′s undercover video on how some egg production plants operate. I say no more……

  • Paul

    Keeping a small number of chickens in your backyard seems to work in many cities/cultures around the world. My mum and dad grew up with them and have always had great stories to tell about them being kept. If the owners are willing to take on the appropriate measures and upkeep for their care–why not? The benefits far out weigh any negatives. I don’t see why it has to be such a big issue for Toronto.

  • Michael W

    I am inspired! But, do the hens not suffer if left out in an unheated coop in the middle of winter?

  • La

    Our neighbors have had chickens for 8 years. Sometimes the smell from the coop is so horrible we can’t even sit in our backyard. On top of that the coops attract rats, lots of them because the feed is scattered everywhere. Horrible and shouldn’t be allowed in the city, there isn’t enough space between houses to allow this.
    P.S. Just because someone has a coop in there backyard doesn’t mean the animal will not be subject to cruelty.

  • ralphy

    Great idea, but not so easy in practice when uptake is significant and widespread. People underestimate the amount of work backyard chickens result in. Chickens need to be tended to daily. Coops that are not sufficiently and frequently cleaned pose odour, noise and health risks. Wet chicken poop stinks to high-heaven. Noisy chickens = happy chickens. Their coops need to be heated in the winter, or they need to be stored off-farm. If you don’t move your chicken run frequently (e.g. weekly), a number of disease-bearing parasites can build up and result in unhealthy chickens after a few years; this is of particular concern for space-pressed urban chicken-keeping. You think we have a raccoon problem now? Just wait til we have backyard chickens – not only for the chickens themselve,s but also for the excess feed foudn in the coops and their poop.

  • UrbanFarmer

    Ralphy, do you own chickens? To make comments such as yours gives responsible hen owners a bad rap. Our chickens are happy, NOT noisy. Certainly a lot quieter than a really happy barking dog! Coops DO NOT need to be heated in the winter. Just like in a barn that is not heated on a farm. As long as there is shelter from wind/rain and snow, it’s fine. There are also breeds that are more adaptable to our climate and do great in the winter. Diseases are caused by chickens, they are caused by lack of care by responsible pet owners, just as any pet kept in the city. Raccoons will always be part of our urban landscape, no more will come as a result of having hens. I’d worry more about latching your green bins.

  • UrbanFarmer

    I meant to say in the above comment, that diseases are NOT caused by chickens. And to I’d like to also add that it only takes 10 minutes a day to care for your hens.

  • ralphy

    Responsible is the key, Urban Farmer. Everyone thinks they’re responsible, according to their own concept of responsible. Ten minutes a day is the perfect example of the challenge – it sounds like nothing – but effective and mindful chicken husbandry is not only time consuming over the long-term but also costly. Daily maintenance means daily too, something people often don’t consider – that means no breaks, no vacations, no bike trips to Laos, lest you entrust their care to a neighbour, and then the question becomes, in an urban context, who is repsonsible? Re: winter, chickens over-wintered in a barn are generally kept in a heated barn, or in a barn with a number of other birds or animals that help to indirectly heat the barn. Allowing your chickens to overwinter without any additional source of heat surely won’t kill them, but it isn’t particularly humane. Plus, your egg production will plummet, which most people don’t anticipate, even with hardy feather like Rhode Isle Reds or Barred-rocks. Diseases are definitely a problem with chickens, like coccidiosis, scaly leg, and pisttacrosis and most urbanites are not equipped to handle that. These tend to crop up in flock after 4-5 years, even in well-maintained rural environments. It is so important to rotate the runs or re-sod every few years and there just isn’t the space to do that effectively in the city, which means your maintenance has to be top notch, without fail. Raccoons are definitely a concern with chickens as are other vermin for the little goodies in their poop. Yes, Urban Farmer I do own chickens. Two of them, in fact, are refugees from failed urban chicken experiments. They’re back at the farm. I’m glad you take your husbandry seirously and have had success with your flock, but are most people equipped to take care of them both properly and in a manner that will not result in adverse impact to others in an urban environment? Not one bit. Chickens aren’t some cute egg-laying thing you keep in the back and throw some seed out to every day, particularly in the urban context. The vast vast majority will have no idea what they’re getting into.

  • kevin

    You are correct, having chickens is a responsibility, that is precisely why NOT everyone will do it. This is not a huge issue, quite simple really.
    Ralphy, have you not heard of Diatomaceous Earth? it is a terrific natural way to keep disease and pest away from all animals. Racoons are also no problem with a little bit of protective fencing and extra care when it gets dark. We have had chickens for two years, our coop is protected in the winter by using a 6 mil 8′ x 12′ plastic frame around it and a 150 watt halogen bulb in the morning and after dark. The three birds stay warm at night in an insulated inner room and they do generate a lot of heat to keep themselves warm.
    They are happy!
    The chickens in the city program is being set up with support from local vets and farmers willing to help with bird care and lodging for people not prepared for winter care. There is also a huge community of support in Toronto from other chicken owners.

  • signe

    Bottom line: having a hen, a dog, a cat, a child…all require care, intelligence and responsibility. In any of those scenarios, there are great owners/parents, good owners/parents, OK owners/parents, bad owners/parents and downright horrible owners/parents. But we, as a society are willing to take that chance so that the majority, who are great/good/OK owners/parents get to do something that feels good and is natural. And as a society we have instituted agencies to help and protect. But, as I said before, the average city slicker will not be rushing out to get hens. It takes a certain kind of person to make that commitment and they know who they are. Sure, there’s bound to be the odd complaint or issue, just as there are right now with people and their dogs/cats/kids!

  • Hen Group in Toronto

    Ralphy – Thank you for sharing your farm experience in raising chickens. When it comes to farming, nothing beats experience. There seems to be a gap between what you have experienced on your farm and the actual urban chicken reality from our experience in Toronto. I invite you to look to the U.K. backyard chicken experience, where backyard hens are commonplace, and there are many years of experience to draw on. Many people there (and here) use the Eglu coop. Very well designed – predator proof, feed stays dry, water stays clean, insulated, moveable, minimal maintenance, and pretty cute. You are right in that one cannot go away without making sure the chickens are looked after. How is that any different than dog owners going away? It is simply responsible pet ownership. Diseases – According to the Government of Alberta, on the issue of coccidiosis, “the intensive rearing of domestic chickens may provide these conditions.” So you could see that you are transferring your farm experience to an urban environment, where chickens are not raised intensively. Quite the opposite. Speaking of disease and intensive farming, check out the book by Dr. Michael Greger, called Bird Flu. Backyard chickens are the solution, not the problem. Large scale intensive farming is the problem. It is an interesting read that you might enjoy. Also consider toxoplasmosis. If a pregnant woman becomes inflected, it could spread to her unborn baby, causing blindness or mental disability later in life. According to the CDC, “Cats play an important role in the spread of toxoplasmosis.” Many pregnant women discard their cats for fear of infecting their baby. Phone Toronto Animal Control for more information. Should there be a bylaw against cats in Toronto? The problem is that we are not used to chickens in the city, but we are used to cats and dogs in the city. It requires a paradigm shift for many people. For others, it’s as natural as the trend away from growing grass to growing food edibles.

  • ralphy

    My family runs an organic farm – we run small flock of 5-15 hens (depending on the year, we only supply one client so often flock is small) so I know these diseases can crop up in flock of any size, but it generally takes a few years. Of course, it won’t happen to everyone, and proper maintenance helps, but when you’ve had to apply the balm to their legs from the scaly leg mites it really leaves an effect. Also, the egloo isn’t fully racoon secure – I’ve wintnessed that first hand, they can tip it over, particularly the run apparatus. Wooden coops aren’t bad but the latch and chicken wire need to be top-notch, and it doesn’t have the benefit of the enclosed run. People keep bringing up the examples of cats and dogs and the maintenance they need, and their effects on others that don’t own them, proving the point to a T. How many unwanted dogs do we have? How many feral cats? How many alleys, and backyards and driveways that stink like cat urine? “Responsible” , “well maintained”, etc. are all fine and dandy until someone else can’t use their backyard from the smell, or a racoon , or chickens are ill from poor maintenance. And who is going to enforce all this in an age where we’re seeing calls to cut libraries, transit and food programs. These sort sof things have implications beyond the immediate backyard of a hen keeper, a ‘responsible’ one or not.

  • Stephen

    People often say “what about the smell?”
    My immediate response to that is an emphatic “What smell?”
    When chickens a given a routine change of bedding which is often aromatic wood shavings there tends to be little or no smell.
    Then sticky,goo at the bottom of your blue box or green bin has more smell quite frankly.
    @WalterPO…there are already backyard chickens in Forest Hill, in fact it was a woman who goes by the name Toronto chicken who lives in Forest Hill that inspired us to raise egg laying hens.
    @brayden…we have kept chickens over three winters and they are quite adjusted to winter where we live which is well north of Toronto, you should think about other animals that are not native to North America that are kept here, go check out the zoo.
    @shake n bake..awww you had to get some exercise chasing a chicken waaaa…and it was crapping on your lawn?,free fertilizer guy, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.Everything you said would apply to a cat as well.
    @ralphy…You seem so certain that great numbers of people are going to have the full suite of “problems’ visit the backyard flock. Racoons might pose a challenge where they exist which is not everywhere in Toronto. Chickens can definitely be overwintered. Your fear of rats is an old out of date and rather unfounded one. We run an organic farm also and have none of the fears you do. If you will pardon me for saying but you sound like…chicken little! Chickens don’t have to be noisy to be happy but you certainly seem to.Two very big thumbs down to you.
    On the other set of hands…two very big thumbs up tp Signe, Paul, Kevin, Urban Farmer, Hen Group and others who either know what they are talking about first hand or have and open mind about the subject.
    By the way….if backyard chicks are such a problem…where are the endless stories of people having a bad experience? seems to me chickens are not even at par with dogs,cats and kids.

  • Paul Hughes

    CLUCK was started 2 years ago to promote the responsible raising of hens in an urban environment. Local Food Systems include Household Food Security, a basic human right according to Article 25 of the United Nations Human Rights Declaration. The Canadian Right to Food Trial begins on 05March2012 in Calgary, which is a Charter Challenge application of s.1, s.2 & s.7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights & Freedoms. I have also raised 6 hens in Calgary for 2 years with no issues, other than the bylaw ticket, which was a result of turning myself in to bylaw in order to receive the summons. Our proposal has been 6 hens, no roosters. Responsible pet ownership standards apply. There are 25 CLUCK chapters across Canada. You can review CLUCK material here…

  • Mouna

    This photo is so cute!!Good Luck,and I hope all the best!!=)
    Also,Please help us keep our babies(hens: Stella,Bella And Fella)by joining the group: “Legalize backyard hens in Windsor,Ontario.” on facebook.Thank you in advance,it is greatly appreciated.

  • Cherie

    As a property owner and a owner of chickens I think they should be allowed..My property is well kept, there is no odour what so ever, the birds make great pets and give fresh eggs in a humane environment. They have been tested for disease because to find a vet for them has been a challenge so their vet is in Michigan. Pet do not realize in many cases they are just like “other” pets, if I do not cuddle my rooster for a couple of hours he wimpers. In England since Queen Victoria backyard chickens have been kept…

  • Chris Schafer

    The Canadian Constitution Foundation ( will defend Ontario backyard chicken owners. To read the press release: The Canadian Constitution Foundation (“Freedom’s Defence Team”) is a registered charity, independent and non-partisan, whose mission is to defend the constitutional freedoms of Canadians through education, communication and litigation.