Owls and Chicken Ears
Thu, 05/11/2023 - 11:50am admin
For the past several years, and more recently since the pandemic, there’s been a surge in urban poultry farming. From my experience and perspective, “farming” is a poor choice of words, but nevertheless, cute little cedar henhouses have populated municipalities, and city dwellers are gathering “farm-fresh” eggs from their back yards.
One thing for sure, the trend provides city councils with something else to regulate. Municipalities regulate barking dogs, but what about roosters? I decided to investigate. Because St. Louis County has about ninety separate towns, many with their own ordinances, fire and police departments, rather than making a survey, I focused on the City of St. Louis.
The City gets down to business with the Health Commissioner’s 2012 Order issuing “Regulations for the Noncommercial Kennel Permit and Lawful Keeping of Chickens.” The chicken ordinance outlaws roosters and allows four hens [subsequent modifications allow eight with a permit] at single-family residences. And to make sure there is no confusion, the ordinance specifically defines hens as “female animals.”
Additionally, the birds must be “securely restrained” in a shelter with a roof and kept 100 feet from the house, on lots with at least 7,500 square feet of unimproved land. The permit application must provide the telephone number of “persons who can respond to any emergency involving the animals.” The health department will notify neighbors within 100 feet of the property lines on the permit application so they can object. And the chickens cannot be slaughtered.
But wait, there’s more. Obnoxious smells will be deemed a public nuisance. Numerous flies or the presence of fly larvae will be considered a public nuisance. Manure kept longer than 24 hours must be kept in a fly-proof container or will be considered a public nuisance. Any obnoxious odor or allergen from the coop will be considered a public nuisance. This public nuisance business reminds me of the movie Cool Hand Luke. Create a public nuisance, and you’ll “spend a night in the box.”
I don’t mean to appear disparaging of urban chicken farmers. In fact, when I recall the bright orange yokes and fresh taste of the eggs we had every morning for breakfast on the Shannon County farm of my youth, I’m mildly jealous. My wife, however, preemptively quashed any notions I might have of converting our barn to a chicken aviary.
On the farm, we had a small, but diversified poultry operation—chickens, ducks, guineas, turkeys—and we got eggs from them all. But one thing for sure, my grandma would have been in violation of most of the St. Louis chicken regulations had they been the law in Montier, and she would have grabbed a pitchfork to run off any inspectors that tried to enforce them.
The size and location of the shelter and unimproved land would not have been a problem. Our henhouse, located 75 yards from the house, measured 25- by 35-feet and the chickens had a fenced acre of pasture to forage for worms and insects. But a rule against slaughtering chickens? I can almost hear a dry, spitting sound exiting Grandma’s lips.
I have a vivid recollection of Grandma on butchering day. In my mind’s eye, I can picture her with each hand clamped around a pullet’s neck before simultaneously wringing their necks. Next, she dunked the feathered carcasses into a bucket of boiling water to loosen up the feathers. She paid my buddy Larry Stover and me six cents per chicken to pluck the feathers. After we plucked feathers and pinfeathers, she singed the bird’s remaining hair-like feathers (filoplumes) over a hubcap filled with flaming rubbing alcohol. In the City, I suppose folks might use a creme brulee torch, but then, slaughtering is prohibited.
Providing the telephone number of “persons responsible” for chicken-involved emergencies would have been immaterial. Except for the country store a mile away, nobody had a telephone, and the store didn’t have a telephone number—it had “rings.”
For those only familiar with mobile phones, an explanation may be required. The store’s old-fashioned phone was a 1- by 2-foot wooden box mounted on the wall, with a mouthpiece protruding from the center, a hand-held earpiece, and a hand crank on the side. When cranked, a connection was made with a central operator in Birch Tree, who would in turn ring the desired party. Since phone service involved “party lines,” the parties recognized their call by the number of rings. For example, two longs rings and a short ring or some other variation would alert the party to answer.
I only recall two chicken emergencies. One involved an egg-thieving black rat snake that scared the pants off me when I reached into a nest to gather eggs. The other occurred when a neighbor’s dogs marauded our chicken yard and randomly killed dozens of cluckers, including Henrietta, whom I acquired at the Mountain View sale barn. The dogs’ owner offered to pay the damages, but my stubborn Irish grandfather was so aggravated he refused the money. Anyway, who are you gonna call? (No, I won’t say it.)
I don’t remember an issue with flies or larvae, but manure and obnoxious odors, at times, had to be handled. My older brother may have painful memories in that regard. Several times a year the chicken house got cleaned, and Jack loaded and pushed multiple wheelbarrow loads of chicken manure a hundred yards to fertilize our one-acre garden. OSHA would not have approved of the working conditions—contaminated dust and poor ventilation—inside the henhouse. I have often wondered why we didn’t contract psittacosis (“parrot fever”), but it wouldn’t have mattered, because Grandma would have cured it with a poultice.
For egg production, we mostly raised Rhode Island Reds, which produced brown eggs. The Stovers raised white leghorns that laid white eggs. This led me to erroneously conclude that brown chickens laid brown eggs and white chickens laid white eggs. I held on this belief for years. I have since learned there are also brown leghorns that lay white eggs, and the color of an egg corresponds to the color of the hen’s earlobe—no kidding—and not the feathers.
My chicken “knowledge” proved embarrassing later in life. In February 2012, I attended the Ozark Writers League (“OWL”) conference held at the College of the Ozarks at Point Lookout, Missouri. After the morning session, a small group of us “Owls,” including multitalented author/illustrator Rochelle Wisoff-Fields, gathered for lunch at the College of the Ozarks Cafeteria in nearby Hollister.
At lunch, in the course of general conversation, the subject of chickens came up, and yours truly (Mister-thought-he-knew-something-about-chickens) pontificated about the color of eggs corresponding to the color of a chicken. Somehow in my explanation, I said “longhorn” instead of “leghorn,” which to my mild embarrassment, generated confused looks and laughter around the table.
When the afternoon session began, I thought my misstatement had been forgotten. Not so. During a break after the first speaker, Rochelle presented me with an amazing pen and ink illustration of a rooster with horns titled “Longhorn Chicken,” and the caption, “Lonnie the chicken herder.” The illustration, a prized possession, is framed and hangs on my office wall, as a reminder to be careful about what I think I know.