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From the street, the large gray house, with its wide driveway, landscaped garden, and grand front door, looked like every other home in the upscale 1950s Toronto development. Around back it was a different story. Behind a knee-high, plastic orange fence was an unusual sight: two chickens pecked at the grass while a third broody one sat on a nest.
It's illegal to keep chickens in Toronto. Their owner, a middle-aged woman who wore jeans and funky glasses when I visited, agreed to have me over after several months of communication and wouldn't give her name for fear of being caught by city officials. This woman, who goes by the handle "Toronto Chicken," is part of an underground movement of otherwise law-abiding Canadians who are breaking the law to raise their own hens.
Most Canadian municipalities don't allow poultry within city limits. Livestock of all sizes was banned in the decades after World War II, and chickens have long been absent from the urban landscape. But now that the backyard hen phenomenon has crept north, people are willing to risk fines and possible poultry confiscation for the pleasure of collecting their own eggs.
The contraband chicken keepers I've spoken with come from all different backgrounds: they are university students, stay-at-home moms, professionals. A woman named Heather Havens, who has taught courses on raising backyard hens, used to keep two chickens in a hen house with an adjacent run she built with her husband in the yard of their home in Surrey, British Columbia. (She recently moved to Portland, Oregon, where her birds are legal.) While Surrey does permit fowl if the homeowner's lot spans at least an acre, hers was not big enough—and, thus, her chickens verboten.
"It would have to be almost 10 times as big," she said of her former lot. "I don't like it. I don't want to have to [break the law]." This past summer, she helped a nearby family find a new home for their five hens after they were discovered by the authorities, putting an end to their backyard project.
Discovery, of course, is always a risk. In Halifax, Louise Hanavan had to give away her hens after a neighbor reported an alleged rat problem. And a Calgary woman will be heading to court this spring because she refused to pay a $200 fine she received for keeping three chickens. Her battle is being supported by a group called CLUCK—the Calgary Liberated Urban Chicken Klub.
Despite the pressure from authorities, the mood in the underground chicken movement is hopeful, and people are pressing local governments to change the rules. Aspiring urban chicken farmers are looking to the few Canadian cities where backyard flocks are deemed okay, like British Columbia's Victoria and Niagara Falls, and Brampton, in Ontario.
Last year, agitation led to a unanimous vote by Vancouver's city council in favor of writing a new bylaw, which has yet to be passed. A group called the Waterloo Hen Association has persuaded the city of Waterloo, Ontario, to allow about a dozen families to continue raising hens until the city votes in the future. And in Toronto, officials are studying the issue.
Of course, this is Canada, and even in cities where chickens are allowed, keeping the birds outdoors can be tricky. Temperatures drop well below freezing, and birds need winterized coops to survive through the seasons—fortified ones at that, since raccoons, dogs, and other predators are always a danger. Still, the movement grows.
A friend recently invited me to her house for dinner. She had secretly acquired chickens a few months before, even though she lives in downtown Toronto, a few houses from a busy commercial strip. I left that night with a half-dozen eggs. Their shells were blue and off-white. When we cracked them for breakfast the next morning, the yolk was yellow as a traffic ticket and the taste mellow, creamy, splendid.