Which came first: the chicken or the rat? That’s what neighbours living on urban streets with chicken coops want to know.
Chickens have been living in Victoria for years. The City’s bylaws don’t currently restrict the number of hens, provided the eggs are for personal use only and the birds are housed correctly. Roosters are not permitted.
But rats have been in Victoria even longer, so the presence of chickens can’t be blamed for their existence. Chicken coops, however, can provide an excellent source of rat food.
“(Rats) are amazing animals that aren’t to be underestimated at all,” said Kurtis Brown of Victoria Pest Control. “If we’re not storing food properly … we are certainly inviting rats.”
Any stable food source can attract rats.
There are two species of rats in Victoria: the “brown” rat and the “roof” rat. Brown rats’ diet mainly consists of grains, which also happens to be chickens’ bread and butter. Chicken feed, if unattended, will feed a rat family, or even a whole colony.
And it’s not just the feed, either. Roof rats are omnivorous and will eat anything, including chicken eggs, baby chicks, and chicken manure. Rats are cautious, but clever problem-solvers. If it’s possible to get into the coop, they will figure it out.
“They can accomplish many things,” said Brown, laughing.
He is reluctant to blame chickens for rodent problems in a neighbourhood, a general issue recently brought to light by a Victoria News letter writer.
“Sanitation is pest control,” he said. “If there’s no food, there’s no rats. It’s as simple as that.”
Mayor Lisa Helps, who keeps chickens herself, thinks having hens in an urban area like Victoria makes sense.
“We live on an island, we’ve got limited space for growing food,” she said. “To me it makes sense that backyard chickens are allowed, but the chicken owners do have a responsibility.”
Andrew Moyer and Monica Pozzolo are among these local chicken owners.
Behind a canopy of fruit trees and a formidable vegetable garden, the couple have kept chickens since their daughter was young. The original reasons are what you might expect – fresh eggs and meat – but there is also educational and entertainment value.
“We call it chicken TV,” Moyer said. “You can’t have fires in the city (and) when you’re camping, you have to have a campfire to look at. We sit by our chickens and watch chickens do things.”
“Watching a lumbering animal without arms running around like a dinosaur is kind of fun,” he said, laughing.
The couple hoped to teach their children about the “circle of life,” Moyer said; how they grow, live and eventually end up on their plates. He also thinks learning farm chores is good for their daughter.
Keeping the coop clean is just like any other household chore, he added. “I think it’s like maintenance anywhere in a house. If you’re good at cleaning up your garbage, great. If you leave your compost bucket from your kitchen outside for a couple days, raccoons and rats and whatever else are going to get into it.”
In hindsight, Moyer admitted he hasn’t always been the best chicken owner. At the beginning they would use an open feeder, where the hens had access to food all day – which may have attracted rodents. Sometimes they would forget to put the chickens in at night, which led to problems with raccoons.
More recently they’ve tried to be good chicken owners and they rarely have issues. “We put them in at night, and built a good cage that’s sturdy and has a bottom in it so they can’t dig out and other things can’t dig in.”
Even if they don’t see rats, Moyer knows they are around.
However, if residents are keeping food contained, chickens shouldn’t be a problem for Moyer, and not a problem for Keith Brown’s pest control: “I’m all for chicken coops,” he said. “Backyard chickens are awesome. But you better build your coop right.”