What the Cluck?

The movement to allow people to raise hens 
in their residential backyards has ruffled some feathers.

Just around the time a bill was introduced to the Jacksonville City Council, a flock of backyard hen backlash stories started popping up in national media.

“Hundreds of chickens, sometimes dozens at a time, are being abandoned each year at the nation’s shelters from California to New York as some hipster farmers discover that hens lay eggs for two years but can live for a good decade longer, and that actually raising the birds can be noisy, messy, labor-intensive and expensive,” NBC News reported.

That story hatched a series of pieces by Time magazine, The Huffington Post, the National Post and others that categorized everyone interested in raising chickens as fad-seeking hipsters.

Jacksonville residents who already opposed the bill pointed to these stories as proof that allowing farm animals in residential areas was a bad idea. Their arguments included the smell, the noise, the predators chickens would attract, the nuisance of loose chickens — and now the impending flood of unwanted chickens at shelters.

But those who have crowed about the benefits of raising chickens say those are common misconceptions.

Jacksonville resident Lauren Trad founded Hens in Jax to organize people who want to change the ordinance in Jacksonville to allow hens in residential areas. When she learned her backyard coop wasn’t legal, she was able to move her hens to her husband’s family business, Trad’s Garden Center on San Jose Boulevard, where wild chickens on the property predate the 
1960s livestock ordinance.

Trad wanted to help others who were eager to start their own flocks. Most are driven by a desire for fresh eggs, but many learn about other benefits of raising chickens such as pest control, fertilizer and entertainment. Trad said hens can be excellent pets, with just as much personality as dogs or cats.

But like all animals, they require responsibility of their owners. Anyone who’s interested in raising chickens needs to do the research and make an informed decision.

That includes researching websites like backyardchickens.com or ifas.ufl.edu and reading books like “Keeping Chickens for Dummies” to understand the lifespan, reproductive cycle and care requirements of hens.

“If you do not want to care for a hen its entire life, don’t get one,” she said.

There are options. Some farms will accept hens that are no longer laying eggs. And though some people grow attached to their hens, others might choose to use them for meat by taking them to processing centers. Others prefer to keep their hens for the pest control and fertilizer they produce.

Sexing chicks, or “bitties,” can take several days or weeks, so some chicken keepers might end up with unwanted roosters. Trad said she prefers not to use hatcheries for this reason and because those companies clip the chicks’ beaks to prevent them from pecking each other. She said reputable companies will accept returns of roosters. Keepers can avoid the problem by finding pullets, or adolescent hens, at regional farms through Craigslist or other forums.

Crissie Cudd with Watson Realty told the City Council about another realtor whose clients decided to pass on Jacksonville so they wouldn’t have to operate in the “illegal chicken underground.”

She said that when chickens are kept properly, neighbors never know they’re there.

“I live next door to two very large dogs,” Cudd said. “I’d much rather be a neighbor to four hens.”

Cudd has no plans to keep chickens herself — she and her husband are cat people — but she would like her Springfield neighbors to benefit from a change in the law.

“I would like my neighbors to be able to, and I can get the eggs,” Cudd said. “They taste better.”

Some complain that chickens attract wild animals such as raccoons, opossums and rats, but Trad said those animals are already in neighborhoods and a well-built, predator-proof coop deters them.

“Hens are not going to bring them into our community, but it will give them a food source if you don’t protect them from predators,” she said.

But these issues should not thwart an ordinance. Yes, some people will raise chickens and not follow the rules. But laws aren’t written for those who break them.

“I’m not encouraging everyone to go out and get hens,” Trad said. “I just want the right to have them.”

Denise Deisler, executive director of the Jacksonville Humane Society, said they haven’t had any chicken surrenders yet, but the issue is on Animal Care & Protective Services’ radar.

In some places, like St. Augustine, the law already allows for keeping chickens. Across the country, cities have adopted urban chicken laws.

If hens were turning into a big problem, Cudd said we would see cities dismantling these laws.

“That’s not what’s happening. We’re seeing more and more cities jump on board.”

In Jacksonville, City Councilmen Doyle Carter and Don Redman introduced an ordinance that would allow four hens at a single-family dwelling. For properties larger than one acre, four more hens would be allowed for each additional half-acre. The bill requires a shelter and does not allow chickens to roam in public areas. It faces two committee hearings, public comment and a final City Council vote.

Trad said Hens in Jax members will be busy talking to Council members to make sure they have all the information before voting.

“Any animal should not be bought on a whim, whether it’s farm or domestic,” Jen Pike wrote on the Hens in Jax Facebook page. “It is not a mark against chickens, it is a mark on how people treat living things.”