Making a case for the urban chicken movement

Making a case for the urban chicken movement
The new poultry butcher shop at 3225 Colvin St. will house and slaughter live chickens. (File photo)

An urban chicken farming movement is hatching in Alexandria. If realized, fowl traditionally reserved for farmland could be increasingly common in backyards across the city.

Chickens are legal chattel in Alexandria they walk among us as long as they live at least 200 feet away from a neighboring residence, according to a 1963 law. Few people have that kind of space, so proponents of backyard farming, desiring fresh and free eggs, want to change things.

A lot of people just want to get closer to their food source, said Mellenie Runion, who leads the charge for chickens. And chickens are pretty entertaining, too, you dont even need a TV.

Known as the chicken lady by neighbors and sympathizers, Runion created a Facebook page in April dedicated to her cause and has held meetings with several neighborhood civic organizations to gauge interest in and opposition to urban egg-laying. 

Runion admits she is easy to laugh at but her cause is a matter of practicality, common sense and even safety not chicanery, she insists.

Even today, you wouldnt need to worry [about an egg recall] if you were producing them with your own chickens, Runion said. And no ones complaining because your giving neighbors fresh eggs every morning.

Opponents of chicken farming are probably unfamiliar with the practice than anything else, said Andrew Gunther, executive director of Alexandria-based Animal Welfare Approved. Chickens are natural pest and weed killers, and fertilize the ground around them. But their feed can also attract rodents, so urban farmers must know how to manage their flock, he said.

Anything that reconnects the source of their food and enables them to access healthy food has to be a positive thing, Gunther said. The backyard chicken flock can be brilliant but it also has a chance of being negative if a person doesnt understand how a chicken lives and what it needs.

You dont make a souffl before knowing how to boil an egg, he said.

Urban chickens already peck freely around the city. Several roosters and hens strut out in the open on Jeff Yates seven-acre property on King Street in central Alexandria. As cars, trucks and buses cruise the asphalt, Yates chickens peck for food, fertilize the soil and lay eggs to the tune of 20 a day, he said.

But thats not the point. The point is that if you have a stressed out day, when you walk over and watch them I mean, Ive named half my chickens, Yates said. Its like having a dog: you pet it and you feel comfortable and you relieve stress.

Yates has ample room for his fowl Pearly, Blackie and the rest but most people dont. About 150,000 people live in Alexandrias 15.4 square miles, leaving little room for chickens, at least in accordance with the 1963 law.

City Councilman Rob Krupicka favors amending the law to a highly focused, limited number kind of thing. 

I think if its done in a controlled way that has proper bells and whistles regulatory-wise, I think [the city] can make it happen, Krupicka said. I think its something that seems interesting, it seems like were able to control any down sides and I think its consistent with citys efforts to promote locally grown, eco-friendly food.

But there is at least one downside to chicken farming that doesnt mesh will with city living: roosters Mother Natures alarm clock. Krupcka and others say their squawking could prove to be an issue, even where city trash trucks sometimes provide early-morning wake-up calls. Roosters would probably banned in any new law to avoid complaints, he said.

Representatives from the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria, whose Animal Control Department would respond to complaints, worries more chickens mean strained resources. A high percentage of AWLAs calls are related to noise, usually dogs barking, said Executive Director Martha Armstrong. 

Our bigger concerns are what their neighbors are going to think, Armstrong said. We truly live wall to wall to each other and people dont have much of a backyard. We think its not the best idea.

The AWLA would also have to harbor neglected chickens at their animal shelter, Armstrong said.

Yates has not had issues with neighbors complaining, he said. In fact most people think its pretty neat to see chickens in the city, he said. City officials have even visited his flock, which roams his property by day and sleeps cooped up at night. 

Their coop and the chickens themselves was there before he was, Yates said.

Likewise, Runions Del Ray bungalow came with a 1930s-era chicken coop out back. She believes its there for a reason. Urbanization should not mean de-feathering low-scale farming efforts, she said.

Its like were moving backwards, she said. 

Once people familiarize themselves with the process, it will be a non-issue, according to Gunther, who leaves the door open to holding seminars on raising chickens should interest warrant. It boils down to fear of the unknown, which will likely be the biggest impediment if any, he said.

It seems residents unfamiliar with backyard chickens are simply, well, chicken.