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Cheap, healthy food from a low-maintenance bird, or a smelly, rodent-drawing mess? ((iStock))

Got a chicken in your backyard? You're not alone. Across Canada and the U.S., the backyard chicken movement has mobilized — and in many cases, it's getting henpecked by local authorities.

That's because there's no hard and fast rule when it comes to keeping chickens in residential areas. While Victoria, B.C., and Niagara Falls, Ont. allow them — and the city councils of Halifax and Vancouver are weighing them — Toronto, Calgary, Waterloo, Ont. and a whole host of other communities forbid them.

In fact, some residents have recently been charged for keeping chickens within city limits, the latest being a Calgary mother who claims she just wanted to feed her family the freshest eggs possible.

This piecemeal approach to legislating backyard chickens has given rise to some pretty heated discussions around keeping poultry. It has also spawned a number of vocal pro-chicken advocacy groups, with names such as the Halifax Chicken Group, The Canadian Liberated Urban Chicken Klub (also known as CLUCK), Backyard Chickens and Poultry Canada, Omelettes for Everyone and the Waterloo Hen Association.

These groups are on a mission to promote what they believe is a great way of life: an inexpensive, healthy way to obtain pure food from a low-maintenance bird.

Pros: a natural choice

Backyard chicken supporters believe there's nothing healthier — and cheaper — than raising egg-laying chickens.

"Chickens lay eggs all the time, so if you're feeding a family of six you would have a source of eggs that were fresh, healthy and right on your doorstep," Ian Aley, with the Toronto non-profit group FoodShare, told CBC News.

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Because chickens eat table scraps, they reduce solid municipal waste, their proponents argue. As for the waste chicken produce, it can be used as fertilizer, eliminating the need for chemical fertilizers. ((iStock))

According to the Waterloo Hen Association, chickens  are also environmentally friendly. "Chickens are productive … they provide eggs for personal consumption and fertilizer for gardens," reads their Facebook page.

Other groups, such as Halifax Chickens, add that the eggs laid by backyard chickens are free of pesticides and antibiotics used in commercial chicken farming. "I think it's really important for [my daughter] to grow up knowing where food comes from," said Lola Brown, one of the members of the group, which numbers 500.

Because chickens eat table scraps, they reduce solid municipal waste, their proponents argue. As for the waste chicken produce, it can be used as fertilizer, eliminating the need for chemical fertilizers.

Saving money also comes into play. "As food prices go up, people are looking for affordable ways to feed themselves," reads the Waterloo Hen Association page. Those who raise chickens don't have to fork over $4 for those free-range eggs at the supermarket.

Cons: a smelly mess, rats

Many residents who have found themselves living next door to someone who keeps chickens aren't as keen on the idea.

One reason is that other animals, such as rats, mice or raccoons are frequently drawn to their feed. Halifax resident Pauline Murphy said she wound up with rats in her basement two years ago when one of her neighbours had chickens.

"When the chickens left the neighbourhood, the rats shortly afterward disappeared too, and we've had no evidence of them since," she said.

Another complaint that's often cited is noise. While one or two chickens aren't too noisy, 20 birds — the number that's often allowed under city bylaws — can make a ruckus. While the crowing of a rooster at sunrise is quaint when visiting a farm, it's not so lovely when it wakes an urban family daily.

And there's the concern over mess. "Unfortunately, not everybody would keep their coop clean," writes one CBC News.ca commenter. " Chicken coops are very smelly."

Smell aside, public health officials also worry about the spread of disease, which can occur if bird carcasses or feces are disposed of improperly. Salmonella is one bacterium that can be passed from bird to human if a person comes in contact with bird feces or eats infected eggs.

As well, the spread of avian flu around the world in 2005 highlighted how easily a virus can spread through bird and human contact. According to the World Health Organization, this virus, which attacks the respiratory system, caused 241 deaths between 2003 and 2008 worldwide.

Support in poll

So where do most people stand on the backyard chicken issue? As of March 12, 2010, 70 per cent of readers who participated in CBC.ca's informal online poll  on keeping backyard chickens supported the idea.

Many are lobbying their local governments to enact bylaws allowing backyard chickens, while putting in place rules to limit their numbers and to ensure they're raised and handled properly.

The latest pro-chicken march, organized by CLUCK on March 10 in the streets of Calgary, had 100 people in attendance.

"Especially since this works in huge cities like Vancouver and Seattle, why can't we have it work in Calgary, where we're even more agricultural friendly?" said Jennifer Cavanagh, who was in the crowd.