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West End resident didn’t fly the coop — she embraced it

April, 2011

Five fresh eggs a day is just one of the benefits of backyard hens, Marci Babineau says.

“The yolks are bigger. And they’re a brilliant, dark orange,” says her smiling son, Anthony, 22. Each time he’s home for a visit, he looks forward to eating them, he says. “They taste richer.”

Babineau’s other son, Sebastien, 12, excitedly takes part in the tour of their small backyard at the edge of N.D.G., where five hens, each about a year old, are freely walking around. They’re interacting with—even bossing around—the family’s medium-sized dog.

“They poop about half of what they eat everyday,” Sebastien exclaims.

That’s no problem for Babineau, an avid gardener and gardening teacher. The nitrogen-rich scat was one of the reasons she got the chickens in the first place. Mixed with composted brown matter, it makes an excellent fertilizer.

“Part of the experiment is to not spend any new money,” Babineau says. A local grocer gives her leftover carrot peelings and other vegetable matter to feed her brood. And she and her family collect leaves from around the neighbourhood to use as bedding.

Accessed from the backyard, the coop is tucked under the house in a small room where Babineau has to duck as she moves around. She points out the heating lamp that helped keep the hens warm and laying throughout the winter, as did a vent channelled in from the stove in the kitchen above. When she’s cooking, Babineau says she can hear them laying. A fluorescent light in the coop stays on for 12 hours each day, Babineau says, since the hens won’t lay if they don’t have enough light.

Marci Babineau picked up 5-day-old chicks last year at a hatchery in Mirabel called Couvoir Simetin.

And when the temperature outside reaches about zero or higher, Babineau says, the hens go outside through a run made of chicken wire. The run is well-secured in the ground with rocks, to keep out racoons and other predators, and it leads to an outdoor coop. But when the family is home, the well-treated birds are often left to roam around the fenced-in yard.

The chickens don’t bother the neighbours, Babineau says. In fact, neighbourhood kids come to learn about hens, and her closest neighbours say they like the quiet clucking noises.

“Whatever eggs we can’t eat, we just give,” Babineau adds, and the neighbours are often recipients.

Last year, one of the hens, Daisy, escaped into the neighbourhood. There was one neighbour Babineau worried might complain about the hens. Sure enough, this elderly lady saw Daisy strut by, but rather than being disturbed by a pet chicken, she recounted a story about the chickens her mother had kept.

It used to be normal to keep fowl in Montreal, both in residential yards, and for sale in public markets.

“I think around Expo they decided they didn’t want any more animals slaughtered in the city,” Babineau says. “This was Montreal’s opportunity to show its sophistication. They didn’t want to be looked on as though they were hicks.”

“In 1966, Montreal passed a bylaw outlawing the practice,” confirms Valérie De Gagné, a spokesperson for the city of Montreal. The bylaw prohibited fowl and game from being bred, raised and slaughtered residentially, and five years later, they were also barred from public markets.

“Now, it’s the boroughs that regulate whether or not people can keep chickens,” De Gagné says. It’s not allowed in most boroughs, she explained, but the city has been getting many questions about this over the past couple of years. Babineau lives in a west-end neighbourhood where chickens are allowed. Promoting chickens in the city is just one part of Babineau’s overall mission, which she says is to develop gardeners and promote sustainable gardening practices.

“We need to be gardening—gardening everywhere,” says Babineau, whose family kept chickens in suburban southern California when she was a kid. She also raised a brood about a decade ago in Georgia.

Babineau feeds and refreshes the water for her hens twice a day, and checks the lights and collects the eggs once a day. She cleans out the coop every week or two.

“It’s not hard, and it’s not dangerous,” she says. “But it may not be for everyone.”



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