The great chicken debate

Published 9:20 pm Tuesday, January 31, 2017

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Chickens have become something of a symbolic “back to nature” gesture across America. During the past decade, small chicken coops, feeders and other paraphernalia have become increasingly popular as a growing number city and suburb dwellers become enamored with the idea of what they consider cheap, wholesome eggs.

As public interest in urban chickens has increased, local governments have tried to accommodate the fad — if it can be called that — and many now allow a small number of chickens in subdivision backyards. Most of them ban roosters since, no matter how quaint it may seem, urban dwellers don’t really want to be awakened by nature’s alarm clocks.

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Throughout Hampton Roads, most localities now tolerate the mini-flocks. Most, that is, except Isle of Wight and its two incorporated towns. Here, it seems, government is determined to keep chickens in someone else’s coop.

Local chicken wars began more than a decade ago. A quiet little lady by the name of Rea Epps, who was born and subsequently died here, loved chickens. The family flock had been her charge as a child and so, in later life, she kept a few behind her Grace Street home. She saw to their needs and they in turn produced eggs for her and her neighbors.

But Rea let her chickens wander and, as chickens are wont to do, they scratched for insects in a neighbor’s yard. The neighbor was not amused and complained to the town. The town, in turn, found neither humor nor local lore in Rea’s flock and eventually ordered the chickens removed.

In more recent times, Walter Bernacki of Windsor ran afoul (not afowl) of that town’s ban on anything that clucks. He lost the battle but gained a seat on Town Council, vowing to continue championing the birds.

And now, the debate has moved to Isle of Wight Courthouse, where the Board of Supervisors is showing an inclination to relax the existing ban on suburban chickens.

I am personally sympathetic to folks who want to own a few chickens. They’re generally less noisy than some dogs I’ve known and don’t do nearly the damage to wildlife that cats inflict.

But I’m also sympathetic with local government because there are definitely flip sides to this coin.

Many urban chicken owners don’t fully appreciate what they are getting into. Animal shelters in cities where there are a significant number of urban flocks are reporting large numbers of chickens being left by people who have grown tired of this new hobby. People tire of dogs and cats as well, but they tend to be somewhat easier to parcel out to new owners than chickens, according to city shelters that are dealing with it.

The shelters also become the final earthly home for chickens that stop laying. Didn’t anybody tell these folks that there’s a cycle to chicken raising? You start off with chicks, which in about two months grow to fryer size. That’s when you take a sizeable part of the flock to the chopping block to provide fried chicken. You then turn the layers out to, well, lay.

When the dependable layers stop laying eggs — and they all do — they take their turn at the chopping block and become delicious baked hens. (I’m getting hungry just thinking about it.)

I suspect a sizeable percentage of urban chicken growers still buy their drumsticks in Styrofoam packages rather than wielding an ax at home.

We probably should let those who want to keep a few chickens in the backyard do so, with some reasonable rules as to numbers, confinement, cleanliness, etc. Those who want them should also be encouraged to care for their charges until death. Maybe, in the process, their children will learn where Sunday dinner comes from.