On Monday night, the Columbia City Council passed an ordinance allowing residents to keep up to six hens in their backyards. Even though I live in Mexico, Mo., I must say that I approve of the council's decision. There's something wonderful about being able to care for a simple creature that can provide you with food, and I like to see people being given the chance to become more self-sufficient.
I grew up on a farm and lived right next to a small flock of chickens my entire life. Believe it or not, those birds gave me countless hours of entertainment as a youngster. I loved gathering eggs in the evening and seeing the flurry of activity that ensued when I sprinkled feed over the fence. I always looked forward to holding the fuzzy, newly hatched chicks and hearing their tiny little chirps. And to this day, I have yet to eat a store-bought egg that matches the flavor of one fresh from the hen house.
In fact, my husband and I have decided that we'd like to build our own chicken coop this summer and get a half-dozen hens. Since we live in the middle of town, out of respect for our neighbors, we asked their permission first. But before I go further, I should clarify — unlike Columbia, Mexico's animal ordinances are fairly lax. Theoretically, one could keep a mule in the middle of town as long as the animal is well-cared for and doesn't disturb the neighbors. However, Mexico's ordinances are the way they are out of necessity; it's a small town, and there is farmland that lies within the city limits.
That said, I can certainly understand why some Columbia residents would be against the new chicken ordinance. It's normal to see dogs and cats within city limits, as these are common household pets. Chickens are not. Most of the comments I've read on local news sites opposing the chicken ordinance deal with the idea that chickens are noisy and smelly animals and will just be eyesores on the local landscape. I can assure you, when these birds are properly kept and maintained, they are none of these things.
Chickens are fairly docile birds. As long as they have food, shelter and a little space to scratch around in the dirt, they stay pretty content. They don't make much noise. Yes, roosters will crow during all hours of the day, which is why the Columbia ordinance bans roosters. But hens just cluck. The only time I've heard hens make any amount of noise is when they become startled — which doesn't happen that often — but the noise they make is no worse than a dog barking all day or cats yowling in the middle of the night. In fact, I'd rather hear the occasional racket of a few startled hens than have to listen to thumping car stereos driving past my house all night. But I digress.
As for chickens being smelly and messy, well, I won't lie. They can be, if they are not properly kept. That's the way it is with any animal that's kept in confinement, even dogs and cats. But chickens, like most other animals, are not inherently filthy. They do clean themselves. It's their living quarters that can get a bit funky, but a properly maintained chicken pen does not smell, and chickens are surprisingly easy to maintain.
Like I said before, chickens don't need much. Fresh water can be kept in any container that is shallow enough for the birds to reach, but inexpensive chicken waterers — which help reduce spillage and keep the water feather- and dirt-free — are available at almost any farm supply store. Food can be either sprinkled on the ground, or to keep an even tidier pen, one can buy a feeder that keeps food off the ground. Heck, these feeders and waterers can even be homemade.
Chickens aren't fickle about their bedding, either. We always used hay at my parents' farm, and as long as the pen was cleaned regularly it actually smelled pleasant. But straw or wood shavings work just as well. I've even heard of people using shredded newspaper — how's that for recycling? As for disposal, soiled chicken bedding needn't be tossed out with the rest of the trash; it makes fantastic garden fertilizer.
I've noticed that many Columbia homeowners are worried about how their neighbor's chicken pen might reflect upon their property, but it seems to me that many chicken owners feel the same way. A pen certainly doesn't have to be an eyesore. The typical pen that you might see on a farm is built more for functionality than looks, but there's no rule that says chicken pens have to ugly. In fact, many people have gotten pretty creative with their pens. Some are just downright pretty, built to blend right in with the surrounding property. They're like little chicken penthouses. Many of them look no different than a child's playhouse or a nice storage shed.
I'm not even going to get into the benefits of raising chickens — the satisfaction of knowing where your food is coming from, or the value of returning, in some small way, to our agricultural roots. I'll leave those arguments for the local food proponents and the agriculture officials. I just hope that those of you who are against the ordinance can keep an open mind regarding these humble birds.
If you do, I think you'll find that six little hens — provided they have a responsible owner — really don't make bad neighbors. If you're lucky, you might even be invited over for breakfast.
Jen Russell is a night news editor at the Missourian. When she's not dreaming about fresh eggs, she welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.