Dusty is a golden lace wyandotte chicken that lives in Lisa Watt’s backyard in south Edmonton. Dusty shares her backyard home with Aurora, Pepper, Cheese and Freckles.
Raising urban chickens in her backyard
Thanks to Edmonton’s Urban Hen Keeping Pilot Project, chickens across the city find their roost in several backyards across the city. Watt is one of the original participants in the pilot project. She’s had her five chickens for the past two years.
The pilot launched in 2014 and began with 19 licenses extended to applicants. That number increased to 50 on Mar. 7, 2016 when Edmonton’s Community Services Committee decided to extend the project for another year.
Growing up with a family farm, Watt had experiences that city life couldn’t provide.
“I always enjoyed getting the chicks in the springtime and bringing them inside the house and watching cartoons and a general atmosphere that wasn’t available for my kids,” she says.
‘I always enjoyed getting the chicks in the springtime and bringing them inside the house’ — domestic chicken owner, Lisa Watt
The pilot project was a perfect way for her to bring some of her country memories to the city. For her family it was “like a little science experiment to see what it was like, and it’s been great.” An owner of a dog, a guinea pig, a hedgehog, three salamanders and a tortoise, Watt wasn’t surprised when her neighbours said yes to her getting a chicken coop.
As part of the application process approval from your neighbours is mandatory, as well as a diagram of the owner’s chicken coop and registration with Agriculture Canada. A recent addition to the process is a training course that educates beginners on the basics of owning chickens. When Watt submitted her application, she only had to wait two days for a positive answer that excited her whole family.
Why would you own domestic chickens?
“I’ve turned into a crazy chicken person,” Watt says. When she first got her chickens she would sit on her backyard deck for hours just watching them all afternoon after coming home from a day of work.
Chickens are “very calming and soothing, which was a surprise.” Since they have an average lifespan of ten years, raising them is a big commitment. They become part of the family when they live that long. Watt says her chickens that she purchased on Kijiji each “have their own little personality.”
Chickens lay eggs for 2-3 years and have an average life span of about 10, so raising them becomes a big commitment, Lisa Watt says
River City Chicken Collective is a group of Edmontonians who support the initiative of having chickens in the city and educate new chicken owners with a “Chicken 101” course. Two top reasons that they keep chickens domestically is to reduce their environmental footprint and to teach children about where food comes from.
“For us, it’s a food source. They are also pets,” Watt says. Each chicken will lay one egg every 24 hours over the span of two to three years. After that, they solely become pets. “I eat eggs every morning for breakfast,” Watts says.
Taking care of your domestic chickens
“My chickens are spoiled,” Watt says. “They don’t like to come out when there is snow on the ground.” Her chickens are housed in what she calls the “Chalet de Poulet” chicken coop. It used to be a tool shed, then she built an addition to comfortably house the chickens.
Watt spoils her chickens when she brings them hot oatmeal on a tray, but they’ll also eat kitchen scraps, and even French fries. She feeds them a lot of greens, specifically lettuce because, just like for humans, it’s good for them and helps their egg yolks stay yellow. Watt takes regular trips to Costco to get romaine lettuce every weekend.
They look after themselves, says Watt. She says “clean up is not that big of a deal either.” For her the maintenance commitment works out to be 20 minutes every three months.
“I go in and clean the actual inside part for cleaning up their poop.” Compared to other pets like her dog or guinea pig, the chickens “are the easiest ones to look after.”
When Watt retrofitted her shed into a chicken coop, she added an automatic door with a photocell
They are also very inexpensive to care for. Their coop is the largest expense. When Watt retrofitted her shed into a chicken coop, she added an automatic door with a photocell. At night, the chicken-door closes shut, and when the sun rises, it reopens to let the chickens strut around their enclosure.
The coop needs to have at least four square feet per chicken, which can determine the cost of the coop. However, supplies including food and bedding is easy to get within the city from United Farmers of Alberta. Watt highly recommends them when buying anything in bulk.
Watt picked up a few tips and tricks from taking care of her backyard chickens. She uses mulch to help break down the chickens’ excrement in the yard, and a litter box underneath the chickens’ indoor resting area helps contain some of the mess.
An urban chicken coop fit for a queen hen
A swing, a spruce tree and a black chain fence are just some of the elements Watt incorporates into the chickens’ coop. After drawing diagrams for the application process, the coop took on a life of its own. One side of the massive structure leads into an alleyway where it gets more sun exposure to provide extra warmth for the chickens on colder days.
“My husband likes to build things big,” Watt says. “He’s six-foot-six, so to him this is normal size.” Watt says. The coop is built with more than enough room for the chickens to run around. Inside, a hopper is filled with enough food to last two to three months, and a water dispenser is heated in the winter months.
Watt uses a heating lamp in the coop to keep her chickens warm during the deep winter months when temperature goes below -30 C, but the chickens’ feathered bodies can withstand temperatures as low as -27 C. They’re tough in more ways than that, too.
Chickens have a pecking order, with a head chicken and subordinates
Watt says her chickens have a pecking order with a head chicken and subordinates. This hierarchy affects their sleeping positions, too. With five chicken in the coop, Watt uses two sleeping shelves. The head-ranking chickens like to be on top, and the rest sleep on the level below, she says.
The inside of their coop also consists of nest boxes, which the chickens “like to keep private and up high, and out of the way,” Watt says. This preference is a genetic trait that chickens developed over time. “It’s just a natural instinct when they’re laying their eggs for predators.”
What do folks have against chickens?
“When they die what are people going to do with them,” Watt asks. “What are they going to do with them when they are no longer used as a food source for laying eggs?” For many chicken owners the main benefit is the laying of eggs as a food source. However, when her chickens stop producing eggs, like Dusty the golden lace chicken, she says she keeps them solely as a pet.
Just like a normal pet, when they get sick, you have to treat them or put them down
Diseases like bird flu are a concern for many people, but just like a normal pet, when they get sick, you have to treat them or put them down. Watt has never had an issue with disease or pests. Another common concern is chickens escaping, but each chicken has a numbered identification band registered with the the city to ensure that if one does ever escape, it can be returned to its rightful owner.
That’s something everyone can identify with, and a bit of insurance that Watt can count on for the urban chickens she’s come to love.
“It has been the most wonderful thing that we have done for our family, and I really hope that the city of Edmonton actually goes through with it and actually approves it. I really do.”