Today at the racetrack, my father and I were recognized for speaking at a “chicken hearing” yesterday. Who woulda thunk it. Anyway, it was exciting for about two seconds and then the race got my attention again (look forward to a longer piece on Thoroughbred racing soon!).
Interestingly, to me at least, the reason I found myself at the county courthouse making a case for urban/suburban chicken-keeping was not because the county codes that restrict chicken-keeping to property owners with over 1.0 acres were going to be changed, but rather because these codes were up for review.
To summarize: Baltimore County has a law that prohibits keeping chickens on less than an acre of land. (As I pointed out to the review board, this legislation does not prevent owners of one acre or more from owning 600 roosters, although a separate code would require having those birds inspected.) The hearing I went to merely brought up some kind of legislation that would bring about review of this current code. So we’re reviewing a policy to review another policy. Great.
When it comes to suburban chicken-keeping, the setup of these codes is really bureaucratic and frustrating. Most of the codes date back to roughly the 1950’s, when people wanted to very clearly delineate CITY and COUNTRY. Country living wasn’t in vogue as it (sort of) is now, so it was prestigious to live somewhere with a lawn that resembles a paint chip from the middle of the greens and that definitely doesn’t have chickens scratching in the dirt.
Chickens (and chicken, in meat form) have long been a class issue, among other things. To many people, particularly people of my grandfather’s generation, raising chickens says “poor” because it means you have to raise your own meat, and you can’t quite afford a pig or cow or sheep. For people who jumped on a certain diet fad advocating chicken over beef, chicken can seem like a sort of educated healthy choice.
Chicken wasn’t eaten in the quantity it is today prior to the 1980’s or so due to the lack of McDonald’s, Perdue, Tyson. The big chicken growers (Tyson, Perdue) arose in tandem with the big chicken batterers-and-friers and then chicken got that healthy thing pinned to it as well. The chicken as an animal was doomed. The chicken as meat would be loved seemingly forever.
The conditions of factory-farmed chickens are so bad that a lot of people, especially people who didn’t grow up with the chickens-in-the-yard-means-you’re-poor stereotype (aka people of my approximate generation), are wanting to raise their own chickens. (While I’ve emphasized meat chickens as the chickens becoming popularized since they sort of started the trend, egg producers have also gone through the same process of specialization and industrialization, and are kept in similarly horrendous conditions.) We like to see our chickens pooping in lanky, bug-laden grass. We like to take pictures of their bright red combs and post them to Instagram.
Plus, the eggs are great. Pasture-raised eggs have been proven to be healthier than battery eggs. A small flock can easily meet or surpass a small- to medium-sized family’s egg consumption, often providing enough extra to exchange with neighbors for occasional chicken-sitting.
Having kept cats and rabbits outdoors, I will say that chickens are really not much more complicated. Yes, you have to check the nestboxes for eggs every day, but their basic requirements are simple to meet and they can live very happily on very little land.
The main detracting factors with chickens are that 1) roosters are noisy as heck; 2) chicken poop is kind of smelly until it dries or gets swept away, so coops shouldn’t infringe on a neighbor’s patio, for example (aka: separation from nearby dwellings is critical); and 3) too many chickens in a coop can get out of hand quickly (…they’ve been known to cannibalize, or just be really, really gross).
So, rather than focusing on the one acre nonsense, it would be great if local legislation could deal with the actually critical factors of keeping chickens in a way that is both good for the chickens and acceptable to neighbors and neighborhood associations.