Amelia misses the mornings when she could go out on her deck at her home in the outskirts of Thunder Bay and enjoy her coffee with some unlikely companions: half a dozen hens. “I’d open up my coop, and I’d call the girls, and they would come out, and they’d sit on my chair with me while I’m having my coffee,” says Amelia (whose name has been changed to protect her privacy). Since a neighbour complained to the city in 2016, Amelia has had to keep the hens off her deck and out of sight — lest she get caught running afoul of a local bylaw again.
Though a number of municipalities across Ontario allow backyard chickens on residential properties, Thunder Bay isn’t one of them. But food-security concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic have led to renewed interest in this form of urban agriculture in the northwestern Ontario city and beyond. While Canadian chicken farmers have lowered their production more than 10 per cent in response to market changes, including reduced demand from food-service industries, a number of hatcheries in Ontario and Manitoba say they’re experiencing a rise in sales to first-time chicken owners. “I’ve seen an increase in a lot of small, like 10 orders, for layers, to supply themselves with eggs. Seen a large increase in that, and, in general, more people buying chickens,” says Kevin Berg, third-generation owner of Berg’s Hatchery, in Russell, Manitoba, which supplies chicks to northwestern Ontario. “Worried about not having food, I guess.”
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Such worries are why, earlier this month, Thunder Bay councillor Shelby Ch’ng put forward an ultimately unsuccessful motion to revisit the issue of backyard chickens, which was previously considered in 2016. “What I think we need to do, as a council, is really look at opportunities to build food security and resiliency within our own community,” Ch’ng said on May 8, three days before the motion was defeated in a 10-3 vote. “Allowing hens in our backyard is one piece of that larger food-security system that I think we really need to look at.”
Up until the 1950s, cows, goats, pigs — and, yes, chickens — were a common sight in what were then the twin cities of Fort William and Port Arthur. But, beginning in 1949, a series of bylaws pushed livestock farther and farther out of the cities. “Both cities, up until that point, had a fairly low urban density,” says Christina Wakefield, associate archivist with the City of Thunder Bay. “Then, after [World War II], there was a big building boom and a lot less room for that sort of activity.” Postwar urbanization led to decreased reliance on local livestock as a food source, and public-health concerns about keeping animals in the city began to take hold. By 1959, both cities had passed bylaws that prohibited raising livestock within city limits.
Councillor Brian McKinnon, who voted against motions in 2016 and earlier this month, says that residents who are concerned about food security in the region should be looking to local producers. “Because, by the time you finish building a chicken coop and buying feed,” McKinnon says, “your eggs are a lot more expensive than what you can buy from our local producers.” Before the most recent vote, McKinnon says that almost two dozen residents reached out via email to express their concerns about the noise, smell, and increased pests (such as mice and rodents) backyard chickens might bring.
McKinnon also pointed out that disease could potentially be an issue. According to JinHee Kim, physician lead in environmental and occupational health at Public Health Ontario, there is an association between backyard chickens and infectious diseases, including salmonella and campylobacter. While Canadian data on this issue is scant, a report published by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that, in the United States, between 1990 and 2014, there were a total of 53 salmonella outbreaks linked to backyard poultry flocks that resulted in 2,630 illnesses and five deaths. While Kim says that “there’s no reason to believe that this couldn’t happen in Canada,” she also outlines a number of practices that can prevent the spread of infectious diseases: hand-washing, changing clothes and shoes after handling chickens, and “refraining from kissing and snuggling with the live poultry or bringing them indoors.”
Brampton, Guelph, Kingston, Niagara Falls, and Orillia are among the places in Ontario where backyard chickens are permitted. And, in March 2018, Toronto launched the UrbanHensTO pilot program, which allows a maximum of four hens — roosters, because of their incessant cock-a-doodle-doos, are prohibited — on residential properties within four of the city’s wards. There are 199 hens registered at 69 different addresses within the city.
A City of Toronto spokesperson told TVO.org via email that 36 complaints have been filed since the pilot began but added that “the vast majority of these are for keeping a prohibited animal” — meaning that they’re related to people who have chickens but do not live within the designated wards. The city isn’t aware of any disease outbreaks related to the pilot project, and Carl Bandow, the supervisor of animal services, who oversees the pilot project, says he’s been surprised by the low number of complaints: “I thought that noise might be an issue, but it really isn’t.”
Except for a case of chicken lice — which humans can’t catch — Amelia hasn’t encountered any of the issues commonly associated with backyard chickens. She cleans her coop once a week and says there’s no smell. In terms of noise, Amelia says dogs are louder. Her hens kill mice, too. “I get dead bodies of mice all the time,” she says.
While she thoroughly enjoys raising hens, Amelia admits it’s a commitment and, at least initially, costly. Although chickens range from $10 to $20 a head, and their feed is inexpensive, building a predator-proof coop that keeps the birds warm throughout the winter costs upwards of $1,000. “There’s a large initial cost, which I think would prevent just anybody from running out to do this,” says Amelia, who would rather see public education and regulation for backyard chickens. “It’s a lot of work.” If a change to Thunder Bay’s bylaw code ever does pass, Amelia and McKinnon agree on one thing: the need for regulations. “That would be one of the things I would insist upon, regular inspections,” says McKinnon. “And penalties for not following the rules.”
Happy to still have her hens, Amelia continues to wish that she could openly hang out with her feathered friends. “They listen way better than cats,” she laughs. “I don’t think people understand that they’re not just chickens — like, they’re pets.”