By Cinda Chavich

Peer behind the garden gate in almost any neighbourhood, or stop and listen carefully, and you may hear the soft clucking of hens and the sweet cheeps of chicks.

While every municipality in the CRD has its own rules about raising chickens, Victorians are fortunate when it comes to backyard birds. It’s one of just a handful of cities in Canada — including Vancouver, Kelowna and Montreal — where keeping poultry (laying hens, ducks, geese) is permitted.  And that’s spawned a growing group of local feather fanciers who raise handsome heritage breeds for daily eggs.

Victoria resident Kate Fraser (pictured here with Dr. Donna) rents laying hens, compact coops and more to fellow urban farmers who don’t have much prep time but still want hens and eggs. Photo: Jeffrey Bosdet

So what came first, the chickens or the eggs?

For Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps, one of our local brood of backyard chicken enthusiasts, it was the eggs that came first — hatched into chicks for a science project at a local elementary school. Those birds became the core of her original urban flock six years ago, and now there are always fresh, tasty eggs for breakfast, the kind that come from happy chickens scratching around in the garden.

“I don’t really think of them as pets — they’re our backyard workers,” says Helps of her girls Bonnie, Yolko, Eggie, Chicken Licken, Feather and Rosie.

“It’s pretty neat to get breakfast from the backyard. We’re gardeners, and they provide lots of free fertilizer, minimize our food scraps and are also very entertaining.”

With a forward-thinking, green mayor like Helps, it’s perhaps not surprising that Victoria is a leader in sustainable ideas like urban agriculture. But Helps doesn’t take credit for the bylaws permitting poultry in the city.

“How long have we been raising urban chickens here? Since 1852,” she says. “The bylaw was never changed, so chickens were never outlawed. People have been keeping chickens here for a very long time.”

Kate Fraser’s Silver Sussex hen named Honker comes from a breed known to lay eggs year round. Photo: Jeffrey Bosdet

Helps says she has no idea how many urban coops there are in Victoria, because there’s no requirement to register birds or even get a building permit for a small building to house them. Victoria puts no limit on the number of hens you can keep in your backyard, requiring only that the flock is “consistent with personal egg consumption.”

No municipality allows cock-a-doodling roosters in urban areas, but the bylaws vary when it comes to layers, and many local laws are relatively new.

In Esquimalt, the cap is seven birds, and there are specific rules regarding coops and runs. In Oak Bay, a coop must be at least 4.6 metres from lot lines and less than 2 metres high, with a maximum of five birds allowed on a single-family residential lot. Oak Bay residents must register their coops, and though bylaw enforcement officer Ben Manning says he’s seen “more register in the last year than in the last eight years combined,” he can’t say how many chickens are roosting in the ’hood.

“I don’t know — I have never kept track of it,” Manning says, echoing Helps’s response that “the city has no idea” what our poultry population might be.

Still, with birds permitted in most places, it’s likely there are more backyard hens here per capita than in other parts of the country. The climate is conducive to keeping poultry year round, and there are clubs like the Cowichan Feather Fanciers promoting the hobby of raising rare heritage breeds.

But restrictive bylaws and weather don’t deter people in other parts of the country who want to house hens at home.

Though Calgary has yet to legalize backyard hens, activist Paul Hughes challenged Calgary’s chicken bylaw in court and even ran for mayor on the CLUCK (Canadian Liberated Urban Chicken Klub) platform. And while it usually takes a complaint to shut down a coop in Toronto, people with chickens still fly under the legal radar.

“I don’t like to say it’s illegal; it’s not permitted (in Toronto),” says backyard hen enthusiast, food writer and author Signe Langford.

Langford’s new book, Happy Hens & Fresh Eggs (Douglas & McIntyre), provides all the information and advice urban farmers need to raise backyard chickens. The former chef loves her chickens for the tasty eggs they provide, and offers many lovely recipes, but also keeps her chickens for ethical reasons.

“For every hen in someone’s backyard — even if the setup isn’t palatial or absolutely ideal — it is one less hen in a factory cage,” she says.

Having a few hens is becoming a popular pursuit for a variety of reasons. With celebrities like Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey keeping backyard birds (albeit on sprawling estates) and Tori Spelling showing up on the red carpet with her fluffy Silkie named Coco Chanel under her arm, chickens have new cachet.

Heritage breeds lay beautiful buff, blue and even pale olive-green eggs, and when hens have access to fresh grass, weeds and bugs, the result is eggs with deep orange-coloured yolks that taste divine and are loaded with healthy Omega-3s.

At one time, Langford explains, “everyone kept chickens,” and raising chickens for fresh eggs is still popular in ethnic communities, where the tradition and skills have never been lost. But the new generation of urban chicken enthusiasts is motivated by an interest in local, organic and sustainable food systems.

“A lot of us want to feed ourselves; we’re taking back our power to raise food,” says Langford. “It’s an act of revolution.”

Having a small flock of chickens for daily fresh eggs goes along with organic gardening, composting, cheese making, fermenting and other DIY food projects.

Chickens are great urban recyclers of food scraps and part of a zero-waste kitchen. And they help to reconnect us to our food system.

“Keeping some chickens in the backyard puts you back in touch with other beings,” says Langford, who counts rescued battery hens, still young but at the end of their commercial laying life, among her backyard brood. “It’s brilliant for kids — every school should have a vegetable garden and a coop.”

The Fraser family’s back garden is devoted to their five feathered friends — Candy, Honker, Jumper, Cora and Dr. Donna. Photo: Jeffrey Bosdet

The suburban home in the Glanford neighbourhood that Kate Fraser shares with husband Mike and two young sons looks like any other on the street. But the back garden is devoted to her five feathered friends.

When she opens the gate, a plate of leftover “baby lunch” in hand, Candy, Honker, Jumper, Cora and Dr. Donna come running across the grassy yard, feathers flapping. From the pretty little cottage-cum-henhouse (a modified child’s playhouse) to the large enclosed chicken run, it’s clear that these hens rule the roost.

“They all came from the Briarwood hatchery in Mill Bay as chicks,” Fraser explains, pointing out each in her collection of heritage breeds, from the littlest hen, a pretty taupe-coloured Orpington Bantam, to a Cream Legbar for lovely blue eggs to a big Red Wyandotte with iridescent russet plumage.

An avid gardener and home beekeeper, Fraser learned about raising chickens by doing “a lot of reading,” which is how many urban chicken farmers start out. There are books and websites devoted to the hobby, but it can be a steep learning curve. Which is why Fraser has recently signed on as an affiliate with U.S.-based Rent The Chicken. Along with the beehives she’s renting from her Bees Please Farm website, this spring Fraser will offer urban farmers everything from laying hens to compact coops and feed for an annual rental fee of $425-$600.

“I started with renting bees, and when I heard about renting chickens, it seemed like the perfect fit,” she says. “It’s for families and people who don’t have time to set everything up, but still want the eggs and the chickens for their kids.”

Fraser says chickens will lay an egg almost every day from April to October. At the end of the laying season, renters can return the hens and housing or choose to adopt the lot for an additional fee.

“I hate to think it’s trendy, but it’s good to see that more people are supportive of local, organic food and sustainable production,” Fraser says of the growing interest in urban chickens. “There’s a movement of people getting back to knowing where their food comes from, and as a mom, I want that control.”

Urban farmers who would rather create their own permanent chicken run can round up supplies from a variety of sources. Read your local bylaw carefully first, then head to websites like Victoria Animal Control Services (vacs.com) or backyardchickens.com for additional advice.

Ready-made coops like the Vancouper can be found at dailyeggs.com, at local supplies stores or even second-hand markets. Photo: Duncan Martin/dailyeggs.com

Vancouver’s Duncan Martin builds his compact Vancouper coops from recycled cedar, and ships them to Island customers (dailyeggs.com), or you can visit local farm-supply stores like Buckerfield’s in Central Saanich for coop kits and poultry swaps.

You may even find a setup, complete with birds and coop, on the second-hand market. A proper chicken run that is secure and clean won’t be plagued by odours, rats or neighbourhood complaints. It will keep predators like raccoons out and chickens in, saving you a $150 fine for wandering birds.

“Don’t build a chicken coop out of three sheets of plywood and a hockey net unless you want to meet an animal control officer,” notes an article on the VACS website.

Marilyn Soames (a.k.a. The Chicken Lady) has been raising chickens and teaching workshops on the subject in Victoria for several years. You may have met her and her chickens at the Saanich Fair or the James Bay Community Market.

She says it’s encouraging to see a growing interest in raising backyard hens, but she reminds enthusiasts to do their homework and respect hens for the complex creatures they are. A happy flock should include at least three birds with room to roam, she says, and coops must be well-ventilated, clean and dry.

“Chickens are a lot more intelligent than people give them credit for,” adds Soames. “They form complex social relationships, have sophisticated communication skills and a real sense of home.”

Of the more than 10,000 species of birds on earth, it was the tropical wild Red Junglefowl that humans decided to domesticate for food. That was more than 5,000 years ago — now there are 20 billion chickens pecking around every corner of the planet, laying more than a trillion eggs every year. We love chickens because they’re easy to keep, friendly and quick to learn, naturally establishing their own social hierarchy and order. It’s only been in the last 50 years that we’ve denied hens their natural lifestyle by caging them in massive factory farms.

While a flock of free-ranging hens provides tasty eggs, for most backyard farmers it’s the chickens themselves that are the biggest reward.

“They definitely are all characters, they work in the garden, and they give you stuff,” says Langford, fondly ruffling the feathers of her friendly “snuggle hen,” Baby.

“Chickens are simply fantastic pets, with benefits.”