Monday, February 8, 2010

Urban Chickens And Ducks On Trial In Cambridge, MA

In Cambridge, MA, there is a kerfuffle over three ducks and two chickens (all female) named Potassium, Ferdinand, Penelope, Henrietta, and Frances, who live at 218-220 Putnam Avenue. They provide eggs and companionship to the humans who share the same address.

What's the problem?

Cambridge law does not specifically address the keeping of chickens and ducks. Ordinance allows "accessory use" of land. The keeping of cats and dogs and the maintenance of a vegetable garden are commonly understood to be such accessory use.

Some abutters to 218-220 Putnam Avenue have petitioned the city to disallow the chickens and ducks, claiming that the birds and their coops will attract rats, mosquitoes, and avian flu, and that they represent some kind of public health threat. City inspectors have found that the opposite is likely to be the case; these birds actually eat mosquito larvae, for instance. Beyond that, the five birds increase soil fertility, and provide food (eggs) for their owners. And they are certainly less disruptive to neighbors than barking dogs.

On Thursday, February 11th, at 7:30PM, at the Central Square Senior Center, the Zoning Board of Appeals will consider the abutters' petition, along with the appeal filed by the keepers of the birds, and will (hopefully) come to a clear and fair decision that can help guide Cambridge residents on this issue. An ideal outcome would be a clear decision describing reasonable steps that keepers of chickens and ducks could take to ensure that such accessory use would be legal. Many cities have such ordinances on the books, including New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Seattle, Portland OR, Portland ME, Philadelphia, Chicago, Madison, Sacramento, Burlington, San Antonio, Houston, Minneapolis, Little Rock, Rochester, Miami, Mobile, etc.

Should residents of the city be allowed to use and enjoy their land responsibly, so long as it does not intrude on their neighbors' use and enjoyment? Should people who are raising food on their own land in a safe and sanitary manner be protected by the law?

The answer to both questions is "yes".

It is critical for individuals and groups to regain control over their own food. The industrial food and distribution system stopped serving many of us a long time ago, and if we are not able to create new systems that do serve us, we will be in big, big trouble when the music stops.

Here's what you can do:
  1. Sign the petition here.
  2. Call 617-349-6100 and ask to be connected to the Cambridge Zoning Board of Appeals. Verify the time and location of Thursday's meeting. (If they do change it, I will post an update to this blog, but please check for yourself, just to be sure.) Tell them (very briefly!) what you think. Most importantly, show up at the meeting and share your feelings. Prepare a statement to read, if you wish. Meetings like this one can determine policy that lasts decades. Showing up can really make a difference. Anyone who cares enough to show up at one of these meetings is very likely to be heard. See, for instance, my previous post about the raw milk question in Framingham.
For more information, you can see a Cambridge Chronicle here.


Chris said...

A well prepared, rational and calm presentation to the Arlington Town Meeting carried the day even over objections from the Health Department. You might want to connect with

Marianne Elixir said...

I signed. I wish I could attend meetings too!

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for this very well written and informative post. I'm one of the bird owners from 218-220 and I deeply appreciate this sort of level headed reporting. If any of your readers would like more information about our birds and their situation I invite them to visit a web site we've put together at . We can be reached at

Unknown said...

Inconvenient Truths:

While I have no "ax-to-grind" or "ox-to-gore" in this debate, some actual poultry facts might be a useful antidote to urban romanticism:

Fact #1: Domesticated birds in small numbers in urban environments produce eggs at an amortized cost of $.71 each as opposed to their grocery market counterparts at $.32 each. This is a matter of simple economies
of scale based on housing, food, and other associated-care costs annually.

Fact #2: No chicken alive lays an egg more than once every 26 hours (contrary to some nut-job assertions on the Web.) Just think of what a bio-engineering marvel an egg truly is! BTW, in their defense, if the BU Bridge workers were as productive as hens, that job would have been finished long ago.

Fact #3: Hens only lay eggs beween the ages of 6 months to 3 years. However, they live for 12 years on average. So, after 3 years, keeping the birds is equivalent to running a poultry retirement home for up to 9 years/bird. Small farm poultry-raising only makes economic sense when the birds are eaten at the end of their "productive" life. I know this, having grown up on a family farm. By the way, the process of poultry slaughter is not something you want to experience in your backyard...or your neighbor's.

So, can we at least put to rest the unsupported claim that urban poultry-farming is a sustainable/practical alternative for food procurement? I don't seek a financial justification for raising our little Puerto Rican rescue-dog, nor would I require that of an urban chicken farmer. I do expect some base level of intellectual honesty, however.

Fact #4: Raw poultry manure is not suitable fertilizer for lawns or urban gardens. Its nitrogen content is off the charts. It actually burns lawns and fries normal soil nutrients. It is only ever used by real farmers in a highly diluted form with more benign product, such as horse manure.

Fact #5 (A corollary to #4): As all poultry manure is a combination of urine and feces (not discrete deposits), the chances of it ending up in city drains are greatly increased (as in how else do you remove the fetid water from outdoor duck pools?)

When that happens it ends providing nutrition to one of the few life forms that devour it with relish: algae blooms in Mass Bay. That results in a little phenomenon known as Red Tide.

By the way, I know this because I was the Producer/Director of the award-winning nationwide PBS documentary on the clean-up of Boston Harbor: "Tunnel Visions...into the sea of uncertainty."

I'm not suggesting that a few urban poultry-polluters are going to kill off the shellfish industry (or shellfish eaters for that matter.) But, it is a scenario that is tightly controlled elsewhere for just that reason.


Richard Gönci

Richard Gönci
Creative Director
studio amd

Alex Lewin said...


Thank you for your facts! Facts are excellent input for any discussion or debate. I appreciate your taking the time to share your knowledge with the readers here...

I do think that comparing the amortized cost of backyard eggs to the price of industrially-farmed supermarket eggs is not fair. A better comparison would be between backyard eggs and eggs from small, independent farms, where chickens live under humane conditions and can forage. The prices are more comparable.

Also, the price and availability of industrial eggs are tied pretty directly to the prices and availability of commodities like oil, transportation fuel, and corn. A disruption in the supply lines would have a serious effect on the price and availability of industrial eggs. Such supply disruptions have happened in many countries at many times throughout history. Growing your own food is perhaps the best way to insulate yourself from these disruptions. And all else being equal, the more people take care of their own food needs, the less stress is placed on the precarious global food infrastructure.

And, as you rightly point out, having birds in your backyard is not only about food. Some people are cat people, some are dog people, and some are bird people. It's not necessarily about productivity. (Luckily for my unproductive cat!)

As far as the excrement question: maybe there's a way to harness and target the chicken excrement. I know there are aquaponic systems that pair tilapia with watercress. Perhaps someone can come up with a system including some edible water greens that thrive on the output of chickens. It may be a problem that contains an opportunity.


Unknown said...


As a child my family actually did grow our own food...virtually all of it, save "luxuries."

There were four of us and we farmed 125 acres. We raised and slaughtered our own chickens and beef cattle. We had a small dairy herd that delivered surplus for resale. And, we had a 3-acre vegetable garden.

This "farm" did not sustain us financially. My heroic parents maintained all this while my Dad had a full-time job and my Mother was a stay-home full-time mom.

This is the kind of footprint it takes to be even self-sustaining from the food perspective, in part because one cannot exploit the same acreage year-over-year for any of these efforts...crops and herds must be rotated across the farm or soils will be depleted.

Since the late 60's I've been in the company of well-meaning folk who want to "Go back to the Land", or equivalent. Well, take it from me, you can only go back if you came from it in the first place. By that I mean that the skill set required to farm anything is enormous.

People who are committed to protecting themselves from the vagaries of potential global food shortages and the like would be well advised to leave the cities as the land-math just doesn't work otherwise.


Farmer Gonci

Thorny said...

Granted, keeping 3 ducks and 2 hens for egg production is not economical but the entertainment value of the birds make up for it. The few eggs that are harvested will be better tasting and have more nutritional value than store bought eggs.

These birds have voracious appitites for bugs and will chase and often kill rodents. If they attract pests as claimed, no problem, they will just eat them.

The small amount of feces from five birds composted with normal yard and household waste is great for gardening it just needs to be fully composted before use. In any case it is much less noxious than dog or cat feces.

The neighbors would have somthing to complain about if there were male birds involved but these are all females. They are less annoying than a barking dog and they are totally silent after dark
In my opinion the city should allow the flock to stay.

Alex Lewin said...

Last night's outcome: Appeal Denied, on the grounds that keeping ducks and chickens is not "customarily accessory use" in Cambridge. Does that mean that you can't do something unless a lot of people are already doing it? How can someone do it first then? Wouldn't that seem to stifle innovative use just a little bit? Government can be so stupid sometimes.

Article here:

ZM said...

Oh, but I am saddened to hear this. While I do rather think that the economics of the birds is their owners' problem (but the feces isn't, and I was glad to hear that this was being managed thoughtfully), I think it's plainly silly to deny the appeal. Particularly on those grounds.

But maybe that's because I drive down Sidney Street each day...and past a rather fine little cluster of birds.