In the modest backyard of Rosemarie Morgan’s 1890-era house, about a half-mile from Yale University, there is a small Buddha, azalea and forsythia, Japanese cherry and plum trees, and an Amish-made chicken coop with five residents — four who lay eggs and Gloria, who is barren but one heck of a watchdog.
The fowl are technically illegal under New Haven’s zoning code, which prohibited raising hens and other livestock when it was updated during the 1950s. But these days, many dozens of backyard hens are generally tolerated under the city’s informal enforcement program — call it “don’t cluck, don’t tell” — that mostly looks the other way. With urban fowl increasingly common, Alderman Roland Lemar has introduced legislation that would allow residents to raise up to six hens.
Seattle recently allowed residents to have up to three goats. Minneapolis just legalized beekeeping.
At the center of the Brave New World of urban ag is the humble hen, whose care and keeping is the subject of Web sites like thecitychicken.com, urbanchickens.org, backyardchickens.com, or Just Food’s City Chicken Meetup NYC, which has 101 hen-friendly members in New York.
Most municipalities are much less hospitable to roosters (consider that next door every dawn) than hens. But the clear trend is toward being more permissive. Jennifer Blecha, who did a doctoral dissertation on people’s attitudes about urban livestock, surveyed the zoning codes of American cities and found 53 allow hens, 16 prohibit them and 9 make no mention. In general, Ms. Blecha said, cities are much more tolerant of domestic livestock than suburbs.
Owen Taylor of Just Food, which promotes local agriculture in New York, said the key is for people to explain their plans to their neighbors, so they know what to expect. He praised New York’s codes, which deal with potential bad behavior (smell, noise, rodents) rather than the existence of the hens, for allowing responsible fowl behavior and punishing those who create a nuisance. Citing New York street wisdom, he added, “You deal with it on a coop by coop basis.”