No Chickens Allowed!
At least, that’s the Official Line in Miami Beach...
By Jeffrey Bradley, Florida
Five years ago, I’d never thought of chickens beyond Kentucky fried. Then one day our daughter brought home a fuzzy yellow Christmas chick someone no longer wanted. You know the rest. My wife plunked it down in my lap with a towel, and that was that. Ever since, with various additions and subtractions, we’ve maintained a flock of seven hens.
Now, my wife and I are politically active and we were pretty sure that “farm animals” weren’t allowed on the Beach. Still, we lived in a fairly quiet neighborhood just north of the mayhem of (in)famous South Beach. Our two-story house, built in the 30s, sits on about a third of an acre. It’s historically-designated, meaning we couldn’t tear it down even if we wanted without jumping through bureaucratic hoops. In the back, an office overlooked a big yard with a swimming pool. One side was obscured by a dense choke-cherry hedge, the other by a fig-draped masonry wall. The wooden plank fence all the way in the back was discreetly screened by lots of tall palm trees. You couldn’t see the back of the house from the front. We also lived in a neighborhood populated mostly by Orthodox Jews, a community that almost obsessively keeps to itself.
DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME
A word of caution. While our situation was perfect for chickens, it was also against the law. As we more or less fell into our situation, we felt we could somehow handle it. As it turned out, only a confluence of lucky circumstances allowed us to keep things going for as long as we did. Since then, we’ve moved. But we still have our chickens.
Besides, where we lived was exotic. Flocks of wild parrots screeched through the palm fronds, a stately train of curvy-billedcurlews dabbled among the swales,and Nog, the great blue heron,perched serene and sedate on oneleg. We also suspected a neighbor or two of keeping chickens; another kept bees. We knew Chinese pheasants weren’t indigenous, yet one flew regularly into our yard — we called him “Irie” because of his stunning iridescence — for a noisy and preening visit. And then there were the peacocks. They roamed the byways and medians but they were somebody’s pets, you bet. So we were hopeful of changing the law.
There was also Mr. Clucky, a rehabilitated rooster that rode his master’s handlebars around the Beach. Tourists, well, flocked to have their pictures taken with the famous bird, who became a cause célèbre, a sort of spokeschicken for animal rights. I kid you not. But even fame couldn’t keep Mr. Clucky from the clutches of the law. He lived in the closet of a studio apartment, with predictable results: crowing brought trouble. Despite a vigorous campaign to exempt him, and my wife and me diligently working behind the scenes to effect an overturn of the law, Mr. Clucky had to go. They left huffily for Vermont, last I heard.
But it necessitated a stealthy approach to raising chickens. While hens are relatively quiet, they do announce loudly whenever they produce. Luckily, I freelance and was able to quickly soothe ruffled feathers, but I can only imagine the racket when nobody was home. And we were fortunate in our neighbors. One was an elderly rabbi whose family seemed to visit only on holidays. They basically seemed oblivious to our birds. The other neighbor, Chowder, by name, was odd but tolerant. He would peer through the hedge to make small talk as the birds kicked up the compost. We occasionally had him over for dinner to keep on his good side. The neighbor all the way in the back had a yard full of junk and never even peered over the fence— although I did hear his kid making chicken noises once. Sometimes, our lack of experience could cause us to suffer: “Madge,” a hen, turned out to be “Mitchell,” the rooster, a real racket machine at that.
Fortunately we were able to rehome him in rural Miami, but I was really sorry to see him go. But the worst was Code Compliance. The standing order around our house was “No Uniforms Inside!” because officers had to see the violation to write you up. The house was configured so that someone at the front door could look directly out a glass door into the back, which meant answering a knock in a half-opened door and sticking your head out kind of way. One day my oddball neighbor alerted me at the compost heap to the presence of Code Compliance sitting in a parked car in front of my house. “Oh, don’t worry,” he said in response to my alarm. “They only wanted to know if you had any chickens. I said ‘sure,’ but told them that the birds didn’t bother anybody.”
Thanks a lot, Chowder. Still, we never did get busted.
REWARD, HEARTACHE, FRESH EGGS!
We became adept at keeping them thriving. As a former Brooklyite, the learning curve was steep. The chickens were kept from the front yard by a high wooden fence, but once or twice the gate was left inadvertently ajar, which the birds were quick to exploit. (They’re like microscopes with legs, seeing everything.) Mostly they were content visiting the office, hopping up through the open door to squat briefly on the cool tile floor, even nesting behind the computer screen on my desk. It also involved a lot of trial and error. For instance, planting a garden at the same time in acquiring some chickens is not a good strategy. Who knew that a few half-grown chicks could turn a patch of green into something resembling trench warfare practically overnight?
Still, things began falling into place and the magic of living in exotic South Florida with busy chickens nattering in the lush vegetation became more pronounced and appreciated. In time, our thriving bamboo garden inside the wooden fence entwined with curly vines became impervious to the chickens’ worst, a refuge community of raucous macaws and parrots, colorful swirling butterflies, buzzing, bumble bees—even some weird pigeons that came to stay and a pair of impulsive iguanas that “adopted” us as long as we fed them! But that’s another story.
Carving out that backyard haven was a lucky feat that we derived immense pleasure from, but let me emphasize that it’s not worth breaking the law.
Editor’s Note: We never encourage anyone to break the law, but we thought Jeffrey’s story was unique. If you are interested in raising chickens in an area where they are not allowed, work with your town’s and local governments to change the code. With the law on your side, raising chickens gets a whole lot easier.