Toronto

'They're part of our family': Backyard hen owners hope pilot project goes permanent

Toronto backyard hen owners say the three-year pilot project isn't ruffling any feathers, but the four councillors who championed it at city hall have flown the coop.

4 chicken-championing councillors flew the coop during last year's election

Ken and Lisa Yu are raising three backyard chickens in the city's east end, including these two hens, Betty and Wilma. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC News)

Betty is the kind of gal who knows how to make an entrance.

She's got a confident strut, and her voice has a distinctive warble. She's a fan of anything that sparkles — diamond rings always catch her eye — and she can't walk by a mirror without pausing to check herself out.

She's also a chicken: An 11-month-old Black Sex-link hen, to be precise.

"They're part of our family now," says her owner Lisa Yu, who's raising three chatty, distinctive hens with her husband Ken in the city's east end as part of the city's three-year pilot project, set up to determine whether raising urban chickens is a good fit for Toronto.

The lifelong city dwellers say their adventures in urban farming have brought them a newfound love for chickens, plus three fresh eggs a day. The hens are quieter and easier to care for than the couple expected and both say their "petting zoo" is a hit with neighbourhood kids.

And they're not alone with positive news 10-months into the program: According to city staff, the pilot has been going smoothly so far, with no spike in complaints or stray chickens.

"We haven't had that much response, to be honest, so that's a good thing," said Mary Lou Leiher, program manager for the city's Animal Services department.

So far, she says, roughly 160 hens have been registered — not an "overwhelming" amount. Fears about noise or smells haven't been realized either, if the lack of community complaints are any indication.

Even so, could the more than 50 Toronto families participating in the pilot project eventually find themselves out of cluck?

Ken Yu designed and built his all-weather backyard chicken coop, where he and his wife keep three hardy hens year-round. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC News)

Hens allowed in 4 areas of the city

Since the program was first approved back in 2017, the four councillors who originally hatched the plan for their participating wards have all since flown the coop.

Up to four hens per household — not noisy roosters — are currently allowed in the old, pre-council cuts areas of Ward 5 (Etobicoke-Lakeshore), Ward 13 (Parkdale-High Park), Ward 21 (St. Paul's), and Ward 32 (Beaches-East York), with the boundaries for the pilot project remaining the same despite the new 25-ward system.

But each of those former councillors, including Justin Di Ciano, Sarah Doucette, Joe Mihevc, and Mary-Margaret McMahon, either chose not to run again or in Mihevc's case, lost a race.

The Yu family's backyard hens each lay an egg once a day. According to the rules of the pilot project, they're just for personal consumption. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC News)

It's not clear yet if anyone currently on council will risk ruffling feathers by championing the project (and multiple councillors' offices didn't respond to CBC Toronto's request for comment).

Meanwhile, Coun. Stephen Holyday, who voted against it last term, says his stance hasn't changed.

"We know that in a growing city, where people are constantly building and creating homes closer and closer together, some of the things that cross my desk are fights between neighbours," he said. "And this is just another reason for two people to fight — over something like chickens in a backyard."

Bylaw officers, he adds, are "stretched thin enough as it is."

That's concerning for the Yu family, who worry the lack of chicken champions might not bode well for their flock when it comes time for council to vote on whether to make the project permanent after the pilot wraps up in March 2021.

From compost to mealworms, the Yu family's backyard hens are regularly provided snacks to supplement their chicken feed. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC News)

"What would we do with our birds?" Ken asked.

"It would be like saying to you, now you have to get rid of your dog," Lisa echoed.

The couple, inspired by news reports about the city's urban hen pilot program, purchased their egg-laying trio — black-feathered Betty and Wilma, both Black Sex-links, and orange-hued Pebbles, a Buff Orpington — and brought them home in June.

Ken built a roughly five-foot-high, multi-room chicken coop and painted it to match the neutral greys and beiges of the family's Beaches-area home, and Lisa's morning ritual now includes cleaning out their poop much like you would a cat's litter box.

Summer, winter, fall or spring, these hardy hens are able to live in this Toronto backyard year-round inside a coop that protects them from the elements ... and from predators. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC News)

They regularly supplement the birds' chicken-feed diet with oatmeal, home-cooked vegetables and dried mealworms — a treat which prompts the small flock to warble and chirp with delight, much like they do when cheering each other on during egg-laying like feather-covered doulas.

The hens have brought the whole neighbourhood joy, the couple maintains, and a new appreciation for the smarts and personalities of a species most Toronto residents never interact with beyond what's on their dinner plate.

"It's an appreciation of where your food comes from," said Lisa. "I don't go to the grocery store and magically buy a carton of eggs."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lauren Pelley is a CBC News reporter based in Toronto. Currently covering how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting Canadians, in Toronto and beyond. Contact her at: lauren.pelley@cbc.ca

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