Chapel Hill native Greg Bell began his foray into urban poultry as a peeved neighbor. In 1999, he was alarmed to see that the family behind him had adopted a flock of a dozen chickens. Although he had kept chickens as a kid and knew them to be both quiet and clean, the proximity to his house of the feathered additions concerned him.
In the ensuing years, he now says, he never had cause for complaint.
"We heard them rarely and smelled them never," he told the Chapel Hill Town Council last month. He and his family now raise a small flock for health, environmental, humane and educational reasons.
Bell went before the council to press for a relaxation of zoning regulations as they relate to backyard chickens within Chapel Hill city limits; council members unanimously agreed to begin the steps to amend the town code. A hearing is likely next spring.
In the meantime, flocks of fewer than 20 hens (no roosters) are permitted in the outskirts of Chapel Hill, and many closer to town are raising smaller flocks without attracting much attention. With some restrictions, small flocks are legal in Carrboro, Raleigh, Asheville and Charlotte, as well as in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston—the four most populous cities in the country—along with dozens of other urban areas.
Philip Duchastel and his wife share three chickens with their neighbors in Carrboro. The hens lay enough eggs for the two households, and Duchastel says they are a good deal of fun, to boot.
"Chickens are a wonderful way to get involved with animals at home because they are so little bother," Duchastel says.
Bell and Duchastel are part of an expanding national movement of people aiming to get closer to their food. The reasons are diverse and overlapping, but a growing number of Americans are fed up with the industrial food system. For laying chickens, industrial agriculture means they are often debeaked, kept in stacked "battery cages" with less than 8 square inches per bird, and given feed laced with antibiotics and arsenic. Those eggs then travel thousands of miles to the local supermarkets—by which time they are usually a couple of weeks old. The manure from these factories presents an environmental problem.
Backyard chickens, by contrast, often spend at least part of their day foraging for bugs, seeds and vegetable scraps. They are voracious consumers of fleas, ticks and unwanted garden pests, protein-dense foods that greatly contribute to "pastured" eggs' nutrition. Their droppings are almost as treasured for the nutrients and fertility they contribute to gardens and lawns.
("Pastured" is the term most commonly used in sustainable agriculture circles to describe eggs from chickens allowed to eat, sleep and nest according to their species' needs. The oft-used "free-range" and "cage-free" have no regulatory definitions in the United States—meaning they can be stamped on eggs from chickens that were never given access to pasture.)
Recent research published by Mother Earth News, a magazine dedicated to self-reliant and healthy living, found that eggs from chickens allowed to forage naturally have, on average, seven times more beta carotene (which is what makes pastured egg yolks so orange), three times more vitamin E, two times more omega-3 fatty acids and two-thirds more vitamin A than their factory farm cousins. Pastured eggs also have one-third less cholesterol and one-quarter less saturated fat, on average.
Although there are no reliable statistics, anecdotal evidence suggests that interest in backyard flocks has exploded in recent years. Backyard Poultry Magazine has 41,000 subscribers. When the publication restarted just two years ago, after falling out of circulation in the 1980s, the magazine aimed for just 15,000 subscribers.
That interest has caused long-forgotten land-use ordinances to be revisited all over the country.
Although Chapel Hill's town code permits up to 20 chickens in residential areas, the town's Land Use Management Ordinance restricts the birds to certain areas, mostly on the outskirts of town. It is those zoning regulations that the town council asked its planning department to revisit.
In his testimony before the council, Bell pointed out that those ordinances are rather arbitrary in many places. Chickens may be permitted in one neighborhood but prohibited in another group of houses with nearly identical lot sizes.
Maggie Bowers, senior code enforcement officer for Chapel Hill, explained that when the land use ordinances were written, city planners tried to anticipate future growth. She's received complaints about chickens in parts of town that seem pretty rural but whose zoning ordinances prohibit any livestock.
"People have completely different priorities," Bowers says. "One person may be incredibly sensitive to noise. And I could stand right there and hear that noise all day long and find it delightful. That is the very interesting effect of getting people closer and closer together."
In that way, the recent discussions about changing the zoning laws about chickens are but a microcosm of the kinds of choices and tradeoffs required in an area experiencing exponential growth yet also aiming to boost its sustainability bonafides.
Carrboro animal control officer Robert Nekoranec says when he first took the job, he was shocked that chickens (as well as other livestock) were allowed with minimal restrictions within Carrboro's city limits. He is supportive of backyard poultry, however, having raised eight hens when he lived in Florida. Nekoranec often finds himself providing advice to neighbors on everything from feeding chickens kitchen scraps ("They are little garbage disposals") to composting their manure ("Mix in free leaf mulch from Carrboro and it will look like pipe tobacco in about a month").
Although roosters are technically allowed in Carrboro, he says he discourages residents from keeping them out of respect for their neighbors' sleep. "I meet people in their 40s and 50s who think that you need a rooster to make eggs," he says.
Nekoranec says he knows of at least a handful of illegal flocks in Chapel Hill. "They bribe the neighbors with brown eggs," he muses.
But even when the birds are legal in a given area, urban chicken flocks still face the long arm of the law. Duchastel had to bail one of his hens out of the slammer after a neighbor's houseguest visiting from New York called the cops.
"The poor policewoman didn't know what to do," Duchastel recounts. She ended up catching the hen and sent the bird to the animal shelter. The poor hen spent the night in a cage between two dogs. Duchastel says she was still terrified long after he paid the $18 for her release.
The event was particularly unfortunate because Duchastel had made a point of asking all of his immediate neighbors whether they minded the addition of poultry to the neighborhood, which Nekoranec says Carrboro regulations require.
Celeste Mayer of Chapel Hill was visited by the city inspections department after a neighbor complained about her two chickens. After Mayer had made multiple inquires to town hall to ascertain whether she could keep chickens, she was told Chapel Hill allowed up to 20 per yard. No one, she says, seemed to know of the zoning ordinances.
"When I started building a chicken coop, that's when one of my neighbors called the town planning department," Mayer says. "Had my neighbor not complained, I would have never known we couldn't have them."
Bowers encouraged her to petition the town council, which she did.
Bell spoke in friendly opposition to Mayer's petition, as Mayer had requested a change in the regulations to allow six birds anywhere in Chapel Hill, and Bell says that number is overly restrictive. While his five hens are all productive right now, chickens usually only lay eggs for the first few years of their lives, and their natural lifespans are often seven years or longer. In a few short years, Bell says, he'll be tempted to have more than five hens, as he has no plans to slaughter the birds once they move out of their productive years.
"At that point we'll have five pet chickens and no eggs," he says.
Bell also wants to ensure that whatever changes Chapel Hill makes with regard to poultry are egalitarian. "John Edwards can have chickens," Bell points out, referring to the presidential candidate's property on the outskirts of town.
Bell would like to see community chicken coops in neighborhoods with subsidized housing, much like the community gardens. He estimates with current zoning regulations that only 5 percent of the land in Chapel Hill could legally have chickens, and that represents far less than 5 percent of the population.
Mayer says she supports Bell's expansions of her original proposal, and both agree that regulations could be established that take into account the diverse needs of the community.
"There are sensible reasons why you might not want to have chickens right under a neighbor's window," Bell says, adding that the regulations could require a 30-foot setback from adjoining property, for example.
If chicken fanciers want to see a change, Bowers says, they need to do their research, find out what has worked for other municipalities and report to the planning department. The department originally recommended against changing town codes to be more chicken-friendly out of concern for greater conflicts among neighbors. The council sent the issue back to the agency last month for further study.
But from the way those who already have hens in town tell it, it's difficult to feel antagonistic when you're watching a handful of birds find slugs in the garden. For the Bells, it's the nightly entertainment.
"We sit in the plastic lawn chairs, drink wine and watch the chickens," Bell says.
Chickens are relatively easy to keep, require only basic shelter and are productive and entertaining members of almost any household. Here's a resource list for a healthy and happy small flock.Books: