Raising backyard chickens is a popular activity in Alabama. But some cities do not have ordinances in place regulating the practice. Daphne, Ala., will consider an ordinance when it holds a public hearing into the matter on Monday, Nov. 20, 2017. (file photo)
When Kathy and Travis Rayner walk into their backyards and set up chairs to relax, they turn to what they call their "Chicken TV."
"It has a calming effect," said Travis Rayner, president of the Mobile Bay Area Backyard Chicken Club. "While petting the family dog is nice, and I certainly enjoy petting on my dog, there is something curiously satisfying to petting on a chicken."
The chickens in Rayner’s backyard, located within the city limits of Mobile, are an example of what has become a more mature trend in urban agriculture since rising in popularity during the 2000s.
But the practice of raising poultry inside city limits is still ruffling a few feathers in city halls around Alabama and elsewhere. The latest chicken debate will take place in Daphne, where city officials will hold a Nov. 20 public hearing on whether to legalize poultry ownership within city boundaries.
"A lot of communities have this," said Daphne City Councilman Pat Rudicell, who represents one of the oldest sections of the suburban Mobile city. "The public hearing is to see if there is a desire for it."
Regulations and misperceptions
Poultry raising in the backyards of homes inside city limits – or areas outside those zoned strictly for agricultural purposes — has seen a growth in activity as homeowners look for better nutrition in their eggs, save costs and reap the benefits of adding feathered pets to their nests.
Cities like Mobile and Birmingham have ordinances which allow for backyard chickens, although roosters are typically prohibited. Mobile faced a barrage of complaints two years ago about noisy roosters prompting a vote to outright ban them from city limits in late 2015.
Some residents in the Oakleigh Historict Garden District are complaining about noisy Roosters and they want something done about it. A recently revised Animal Control ordinance does not outlaw Roosters, but a proposal before the Mobile City Council on Tuesday could do just that.
Other cities have wrangled with chicken ownership requests. Huntsville was the most notable when, in 2014, city officials voted down a plan to loosen restrictions against chicken ownership within city limits. The decision came after a group called the Huntsville Hen Alliance pushed to roll back the regulations in an effort to promote sustainability and urban farming.
In the city of Springville – northeast of Birmingham – officials two years ago prohibited a 92-year-old woman who suffers from dementia from owning baby chickens inside her house after neighbors complained. In Jasper, located northwest of Birmingham, 32 residents signed a petition five years ago objecting to a family’s chicken coop which was built in their backyard.
Joe Hess, a professor in the Poultry Science Department at Auburn University and an extension specialist, said most cities have had to address the issue already. But there are a few – "20 to 30 percent," he claims – who prohibit chicken ownership within city limits.
"We’ve seen an upswing of people having gardens and canning and this goes into that same concept of where I handle my food and see where it comes from and that sort of thing," Hess said. "Chickens are an easy way to produce your own food in a small space."
Education has become one of the biggest allies to backyard chicken aficianados, and social media has become a valuable source.
Ed Williamson, a Mobile resident, began raising chickens shortly after he retired. He knew little about what he was doing, so he sought advice and started a Facebook page.
What started with 25 people meeting up at a local feed store about six years ago, grew to include about 2,400 people today who are active in the Mobile Bay Area Backyard Chicken Club. The group includes about 100 people who pay $25 annual dues and are regularly involved in monthly meetings. The group has also published a "Responsible Flock Management" guide, which offers advice on building a chicken coop, proper nutrition, and provides warnings about predators.
In the Birmingham area and elsewhere around the state, the Alabama Cooperative Extension System often hosts presentations on backyard flock production. County extension offices around Alabama also hold seminars and provide information to prospective backyard chicken owners.
Still, misperceptions persist. Among the most common is that chickens smell and are noisy.
Brigid McCrea, extension specialist at the Alabama Cooperative Extension System at Auburn, said that past studies have shown chickens make less noise than barking dogs, and produce less manure than a dog or a cat.
"Once they are presented with the science, they can address the concerns," said McCrea, referring to information often forwarded to skeptical bureaucrats.
Hess said there is no uniform regulation cities follow on backyard chickens. While most cities prohibit roosters, there are allowances for a restricted number of hens. In the city of Auburn, for instance, a resident can own up to four birds if they live on less than a half-acre of property. For residents who live on more than a half-acre, they are permitted six chickens.
In addition, a number of cities including Auburn require a permit before someone can build a chicken coop.
In Fairhope, a 2015 city ordinance allows residents who own 7,800 square feet of property to own four hens. Poultry ownership is restricted for personal use only.
It’s unclear if Daphne will choose to mirror Fairhope’s ordinance. The two cities are neighbors to one another along the sprawling Eastern Shore of Baldwin County.
"We’ve talked about this on and off for a number of years," said Daphne City Council President Ron Scott. "A lot of towns have done this."
Daphne is a city made up of a host of subdivisions, many of which are governed by neighborhood associations that develop their own covenants. The district which Rudicell represents, called Olde Towne Daphne, is one of the few without subdivisions that have been developed in the past 20 years.
Daphne City Councilman Joe Davis, who represents one of the newer areas of the city, said he wants to make sure that whatever the city approves, does not "hamstring" subdivisions which opt to prohibit chicken ownership.
"Often, the reason people move into these settings is because they have standards," said Davis. "I personally think that people have a right to do things in their yard as long as it does not impede on their neighbors."
Davis said within his own subdivision, there are covenants requiring dog, cat or bird owners to have a screened porch. Other regulations include prohibiting dogs or cats from leaving the property without having a leash on them.
"All I want us to be able to do is if there are parts of the city that do desire that, we are carefully wording it so we don’t force a question into a subdivision that has ruled and addressed it," Davis said.
The Mobile Bay Area Backyard Chicken Club, meanwhile, doesn’t plan to get involved in the Daphne issue. But they are hopeful that the city considers joining the popular movement.
Said Travis Rayner: "So many people are trying to get back to basics and want to know where their food comes from. Plus, chickens are very therapeutic and have their own personalities. They will get in your lap, lay down and eat your sandwich or drink your beer if you’re not careful."
LuLaRoe, best known for its colorful leggings, is the subject of two class action lawsuits. (Contributed photo/LuLaRoe)