Cooping with COVID: Interest in backyard hens grew during pandemic

· The Pulse

More Edmonton backyards became homes to hens in 2020 and 2021 than in all previous years combined, City of Edmonton data shows.

A cap on 50 sites was lifted in 2019, opening the program up at a time when many were at home in search of projects – and thinking more about where their food comes from.

"It's all about food sustainability," Julia Watson, manager of Edmonton's backyard hens and bees program, said of the influx of people keeping urban chickens.

"I think with COVID, and the restrictions that happened during the pandemic, people started realizing 'What if we can't get food?' All these what-ifs because the world is shutting down around us. People really looked at it and saw it as an opportunity to say 'Hey, we can have some eggs in our backyard, we can have these animals, and contribute positively to the environment we're living in.'"

Food security and sustainability were among the main reasons put forward by advocates of Edmonton's backyard hens program, which began in 2014 with 19 sites. Amid the lockdowns and isolation, the city experienced a jump in the number of people applying to build coops and raise their own chickens – with 31 new licences issued in 2020, and 65 in 2021.

Although most people on the planet live in cities, urban areas account for only 5.9% of global cropland. Food insecurity due to supply chain disruptions is one consequence of this situation, but even in times when production and transport are unhindered, the scarcity of agricultural land in urban centres means people have less of a relationship with their food.

"I think that many of us are so removed from our food sources – gardening and things like that – people don't even realize where things come from," said Linda Johnson, a member of Edmonton's urban hen pilot program. She has kept four chickens since as a way of connecting herself and her family to their food.

"I wanted my children to understand and to know what their food sources were, and the role that they play in ensuring that they had safe and healthy sources of food."

Edmonton now boasts 1.5 times the national average of community gardens relative to population, in part thanks to the pop-up gardens and the new City Farm that were responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the growing Edmonton Urban Farm.

A bar chart showing backyard hen licences in Edmonton from 2016 to 2021, with total active licences growing steadily since 2018, and twice as many new hens registered in 2021 as in the year before

Data from Edmonton's open data portal indicates significant growth in interest in backyard chickens over the course of the pandemic. (Brett McKay)

The long-term goal of community gardens may be more reliable availability of fresh fruit and produce, but there are other benefits for community members as well. Gardeners who worked the city's community plots reported that both their mental and physical health were improved by getting to grow food locally.

"That first egg is really expensive," Johnson said. With the costs and work that come with keeping chickens, the path to off-the-grid eggs is not as easy as some might think. As with gardening, however, there are benefits beyond just the food produced.

"They did become like a pet because they are so interesting to just engage with. They're kind of fun, and they all have their individual personalities," Johnson said of her flock.

"And it was a really excellent way to get to know the neighbours because it was quite intriguing for people and for their children just to see the animals. We bring them in to visit and kids would want to save some extra lettuce or spinach and say 'We're cleaning out our garden, can we bring it to your hens? Can we give your hens a pumpkin at Halloween?'"

An unprecedented avian flu outbreak has struck the poultry industry in Canada this spring. Although the chance of exposure in small, backyard flocks is less than in commercial chicken farms, they are not immune from the threat of infection.

No cases have been reported in urban flocks in Edmonton so far, Watson said. The city has posted guidelines for hen owners on how to identify and report avian flu if their birds do become sick.