Closing the Coop on Chickens in DC

A history of urban animals

With the current talk of allowing chicken breeding once again in the District, residents might be interested in the history of such ventures to see where we have been in earlier times.

In the early days of the District citizens regularly complained about stray animals, but these were much larger than chickens: cows, horses, goats and (a particular problem) hogs.  Early laws regarding animals dealt with geese but not chickens.  After years of ineffectual attempts to get the police to round up the creatures, the government established a city-operated pound in 1872, which set out to capture all unattended animals, including the large population of feral dogs.

Given that loose farm animals were all owned by someone and represented income (or food), taking them to the pound met with considerable resistance: “It was almost as much as a man’s life was worth to go to some sections and pick up a goat or horse,” poundmaster, Samuel Einstein, said in an annual report.  Mobs attacked the pound wagon in the streets (a famous battle was fought in Lincoln Park) and threatened to burn the pound itself if they didn’t get their animals back. 

Most of the hubbub related to the taking of hogs and goats from city streets, but geese also had their protectors. “The men engaged in the raid [on strays] did not have a very agreeable time, and in one or two instances violence was attempted by the owners of the stray animals.  On 14th and S Streets NW 11 geese were in the wagon, and the owners raised a crowd and attempted to rescue them, but by fast driving they were conveyed safely to the Pound.”

Nonetheless, continuous runs by the poundmen and the slow disappearance of farms in the city gradually brought an end to these heroic days, and by the 1890s such picturesque resistance to pound operations had largely disappeared, even if the number of larger animals captured remained surprisingly high.

By 1890 the public had become so accustomed to its new peace free of strolling pigs and goats that citizens could turn their attention to another annoyance hitherto considered too minor and common to merit notice: roving chickens.  Police regulations of 1887 prohibited at-large fowl in the two former corporations (Washington and Georgetown) and directed the poundmaster to seize such free-wheeling chickens and redeem them for 50 cents each or sell them; offending owners were fined $2-5 for each animal.  The regulations also outlawed “crowing, cackling” or otherwise annoying fowl, which could be killed by the police on sight.  Einstein lamented the new regulations in his report for that year and baldly stated that he could not comply for lack of resources.

In spite of such (largely ignored) regulations, the Rev. Dr. Chester of the Stanton Square neighborhood complained: “The chickens have torn up my grass and flowers and dropped litter on the pavement which is tracked into the house.  The question is whether we are to be permitted to keep our parks and flower beds in order and to beautify the city or whether the chickens are permitted to dig up such places and make them eye-sores.”  Explained Charles Neurath, a boy charged with failing to supervise his flock: “I ain’t the only one who owns chickens that go in the park, but lots of other people have got them too.” (Evening Star, 13 Mar 1890, p. 3).  Poundmaster Einstein continued his refusal to collect chickens, saying the pound had no area for them.

Raising chickens and pigeons in any square over 75% improved without a permit was banned in 1906, and no fowl allowed to roam the streets at all, by order of the Commissioners and regulations strengthened in 1908 (no fowl to be kept within 100 feet of any dwelling or building of assembly).  The law exempted grocers and public marketers keeping fowl in coops for 24 hours, and allowed homing pigeons.  Later orders further tightened these restrictions, which were all entered as police regulations.  Negligent owners faced a fine of $2-5, and on the second offense the bird was killed.

A Commissioners order of 1909 laid out specific conditions for raising “any kind of domestic fowl or pigeons”: houses (coops) had to be “dry, well ventilated, with window to admit sunlight,” and cleaned weekly in the winter and biweekly in the summer; perches and nests also had to be kept “cleaned, aired and sunned;” the birds required clean water at all times.

The testimony preceding the 1906 order sounds wonderfully contemporary and demands to be summarized: Anti-chicken – they are unsanitary and a nuisance, especially the crowing roosters; Pro-chicken – they are educational, good pets, can be kept cleanly, represent a bastion of property rights (including as a source of income), can be of distinguished breed (this from the Homing Pigeon Club), are of better nutritional quality if raised at home (i.e., they’re organic), and raised in more natural conditions (i.e., free-range, this from the Retail Grocers’ Protective Association).  Huffed one chicken-raiser: “The insanitary condition in this city comes more from the people than from chickens.”  And an ever-true observation responding to the rooster complaint: “Unfortunately we have a great many chronic kickers who complain against the ringing of church bells and the laughter and frolic of the child on the street.”

Such was the complacency of the populace under these improvements that even annoyances accepted today as normal came under investigation: “There is no law existing whereby the citizen may be protected from pigeons alighting upon residential property which might be despoiled by their temporary occupancy.  Several elegant residences, put up at great expense, with delicate ornamentation, have suffered from this nuisance.”  To put this in perspective, the complaint refers to privately-owned birds (which did not come under the same restrictions as “fowls”) rather than vagabonds, and a householder shooting them could be charged their value.  The MPDC Superintendent in 1895 recommended the Commissioners consider “a regulation concerning this evil.”

How many chickens were there in the city during this period?  Bureau of the Census decennial reports on agriculture in the U.S. show a surprising trend: the number increased!  1880 – 6,482, 1900 – 8,004, 1930 – 12,529.  And this, of course, was exactly at the time when acreage of farm land in the District was shrinking rapidly (1880 – 18,146 acres to 1930 – 3,071).  These animals must have been found on the very outskirts of the District, particularly in north- and southeast, where the only farms remained, and perhaps in some institutional farms, such as the Soldiers’ Home and St. Elizabeths.

Chicken and other domestic fowl have since disappeared from the city, and raising homing pigeons seems a hobby of the past, at least here.  City laws today do not prohibit such animals but are fairly restrictive.  A glance at the current Municipal Code shows that many of these regulations derive from acts of the early 20th century.

How relevant are the arguments of yesteryear that we have seen above?  When these laws were being debated, citizen complaints dealt largely with chickens allowed to wander at large in the streets and parks.  A return to that seems unlikely today.  And chicken farms of any real scale will not return to the District either – all such raising of animals commercially is gone forever.  Health concerns from droppings remains a legitimate concern; noise probably less so – some dogs are noisy also, after all.  Dogs for quite some time were banned from running “at large” when earlier it had been a quite common practice to let them roam at night; now we see dog parks where they can run off leash under supervision.  Perhaps chickens will make a regulated come-back too.

Hayden Wetzel is a licensed tour guide and regularly researches local history for preservation projects. This article is excerpted from a larger piece. He can be contacted at haydenwetzel@hotmail.com.


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