While experts have assured us there won’t be an egg shortage in Canada anytime soon, one interesting trend caused by the coronavirus pandemic is an increased interest in people raising chickens in their backyards.

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While experts have assured us there won’t be an egg shortage in Canada anytime soon, one interesting trend caused by the coronavirus pandemic is an increased interest in people raising chickens in their backyards.

According to a recent story in USA Today, Americans are buying chickens to produce eggs at a time when supermarkets in that country, particularly in the northeast, are experiencing a shortage of eggs.

A good egg: Trevor Kirczenow with one of the family's chickens. (Ken MacDonald)

A good egg: Trevor Kirczenow with one of the family's chickens. (Ken MacDonald)

Here in Manitoba in the early days of the pandemic there was a brief shortage of eggs at grocery stores, but the supply quickly met the increased demand and it appears as though it was only a temporary blip — but that still hasn’t stopped local folks from flocking to hatcheries in search of chicks.

Perhaps it’s a result of all the home baking that’s become a popular pandemic pastime, or simply the realization that our food chain can indeed become broken in a crisis, but the increased interest in backyard farming will surely rekindle the debate about whether or not chickens should be permitted within Winnipeg city limits.

Currently farm animals, including chickens, are banned in the city and lumped in with pythons and chimpanzees under the City of Winnipeg’s exotic animal bylaw.

The last time the debate gained any real traction Philippe Lagacé-Wiens, 42, an assistant professer with the Department of Medical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases at the University of Manitoba, was a member of a group called the Winnipeg Urban Chicken Club.

"These things come in ebbs and flows, there was a lot of interest back in 2014-2015 when there was a movement across Canada looking at revamping animal services bylaws and at the time the City of Winnipeg was looking at it, so we took the opportunity to try and present to them the advantages of backyard chicken flocks and how they’re not dangerous," says Lagacé-Wiens, who now resides in North Kildonan but admits he used to keep a few hens in his backyard when he lived in River Heights.

"We are trying to only go shopping once every two weeks, and an egg is a meal, so having our own eggs is very helpful and fresh eggs are fantastic." ‐ Trevor Kirczenow, who is raising chickens on his farm near Dugald

"People have all sorts of ideas about how chickens attract rodents and carry avian influenza, which was all basically nonsense with regards to the risks associated with small backyard flocks," he says, "but in the end I guess what happened is there was more weight given to the testimony by animal services than given by the population that was interested in doing this and the feeling was people wouldn’t know what they were doing and there would be stray animals on the streets that would have to be picked up by animal services."

While Lagacé-Wiens acknowledges those were legitimate concerns, he says they could have been mitigated with bylaws, permits and demonstrated competence.

"In my opinion it is easier than having a cat or a dog" he says. "Chickens don’t require any attention other than scooping out their coop every couple of days, picking up their eggs and keeping the predators out."

In addition to the delicious fresh eggs his hens produced, Lagacé-Wiens also enjoyed the good feelings in the community that raising chickens brought — his neighbours often dropped by to visit his flock and the local kids loved them.

Trevor Kirczenow says chickens are fun to be around and have interesting behaviours. (Ken MacDonald)

Trevor Kirczenow says chickens are fun to be around and have interesting behaviours. (Ken MacDonald)

Trevor Kirczenow, 34 and his partner Ken MacDonald, 52, are well aware of the good feelings that come with raising chickens. The couple live on a 14-acre farm near Dugald.

"We’ve had chickens for about five years, we have horses and goats as well, and it’s nice to have eggs for sure," says Kirczenow, but an added and perhaps unexpected bonus is how much fun raising chickens can be.

"They can be very friendly, if you spend time with them they will eat out of your hand, they are really nice pets and they have all kinds of interesting behaviours, you get to know their sounds, for example when you put out some new compost for them to eat they make this very particular sound that’s like ‘ooh, that’s good stuff,’ he said.

"They really are a lot of fun to be around."

The couple raises Chanteclers, a rare breed that originated in Canada — so they are very hardy.

When living in St. Boniface, Kirczenow and MacDonald were also members of the Winnipeg Urban Chicken Association. "At the time we were trying to make this change we kind of got laughed at for even mentioning the idea of food security," says Kirczenow.

In light of the pandemic those concerns would very likely be taken more seriously now. "We are trying to only go shopping once every two weeks, and an egg is a meal, so having our own eggs is very helpful," he said, "and fresh eggs are fantastic."

MacDonald, who hails from Nova Scotia, where his family has been farming for 11 generations, also enjoys the closeness that comes with raising farm animals and still thinks it would be a positive step to allow chickens in the city.

"We put a very solid report to city council at the time and we showed that 150 municipalities across North America have succesfully allowed urban chickens, but it was a very rigorous process they set up and ultimately we failed to sway council at the time."

In addition to the concerns from animal services, MacDonald also feels there were other factors in their way, including the local chicken industry.

Kim Oost of Dugald builds a backyard coop in anticipation of starting some hens this year for the first time. (Ken MacDonald)

Kim Oost of Dugald builds a backyard coop in anticipation of starting some hens this year for the first time. (Ken MacDonald)

"At any given time there are about 80 million birds being raised by industry right around Winnipeg and the conditions in which they are being kept are, quite frankly, poor, these are birds that live no longer than six weeks in a tiny cage until they are dispensed and sent to make nuggets," he says.

"So the industry did not want us saying there were certain standards chickens had to be maintained in — that they really needed to be treated humanely — so industry really pushed hard behind the scenes and said we do not want this to happen."

If you live outside city limits and your municipality allows chickens, keep in mind raising them for either their eggs or meat or both likely won’t save you any money.

"It’s a hobby and there’s no way you can compete with the very well established business all around Winnipeg," says MacDonald.

If this doesn’t discourage you, expect to wait a few weeks to get chicks from one of several local hatcheries, then you’ll have to raise them for a few months until they are ready to start laying eggs. Expect to spend about $5 per month per bird on feed. The cost of the birds can range from a couple of dollars each up to as much as $10 to $12 each for exotic breeds.

"They can be very friendly, if you spend time with them they will eat out of your hand, they are really nice pets and they have all kinds of interesting behaviours," ‐ Trevor Kirczenow

Currently, Kirczenow and MacDonald’s neighbour, Kim Oost, is building a backyard coop in anticipation of starting some hens this year for the first time, and she is on a short waiting list to get chicks. Macdonald added that because many of the broilers and layers that Manitoba uses in its robust industry are sourced internationally, it is possible that supplies will be disrupted during the pandemic.

A Free Press article from 2010 suggested as many as 50 Winnipeggers were violating the bylaw and raising chickens in their backyards. A CBC online poll conducted around the same time asked whether Winnipeggers should be allowed to keep chickens or not, 59 per cent of respondents said yes, while 41 per cent said no.

Are there still chickens living in Winnipeg?

"I think there’s still a substanstial population out there," Lagacé-Wiens said with a chuckle. "It would be neat to get back into it now," he says.

"Food security is a big deal, eggs are an easy source of protein and it lends itself well to backyard gardening because chickens make manure and manure makes your garden grow — it’s really a positive thing for the community."

willy@freepress.mb.ca

Willy Williamson

Willy Williamson
Travel/Homes/Autos Editor

Paul “Willy” Williamson joined the Free Press editorial team in 2007, turning his back on a career as a corrections officer. His motor has been running non-stop ever since.