BEST KEPT SECRETS: City ChickensA little known ordinance passed in the city of Duluth has people more than a little curious about the pastime – Urban Chickens.
By: Story and Photography by Lucie Amundsen, Living North Magazine
To have chickens is to get chickens. Meaning when you raise poultry, people can’t resist picking up that little chicken trinket in your honor. Walk into Nancy Nelson’s Duluth home and you’ll see. “People give me what I call chicken paraphernalia,” says Nelson. Her collection includes a rubber chicken that produces a yolk when squeezed, a wind-up hen that lays jellybeans and several porcelain, wire and paper poultry offerings.
But Nelson doesn’t seem to mind the themed gifting. She developed a real affinity for the birds starting a couple of years ago with a friend’s flock. “At that time the city zoning regulations were unclear about chickens in residential areas,” explains Nelson, “It was a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ situation.”
The friend’s coop was in a Duluth backyard until a neighbor complained and the animal control officer said the hens had to go. “It was really sad,” says Nelson, “That’s when a group of us decided we wanted to try to get the ordinance changed.”
A loose affiliation of friends and acquaintances became Duluth City Chickens (duluthcitychickens.org) and approached the city council. “It seemed like it would be fairly simple and straightforward,” says Nelson. First the group found city council members Greg Gilbert and Sharla Gardner to sponsor the bill. Then other city entities got involved including animal control, the planning department and later the city attorney’s office. “The process ended up taking about a year,” says Nelson.
That year was spent taking up the many concerns citizens had about urban chickens. As much of our country’s population resides in cities and suburbs, our agricultural education is often limited to a grade-school field trip to a petting farm, a fall outing to an apple orchard and the antics of Foghorn Leghorn. It’s a breeding ground for misconception and the Duluth ordinance strived to address all of them.
The most prominent misperception was noise. “People associate the keeping of chickens with roosters,” says Nelson who battled the cock-a-doodle-do belief with education. The Duluth ordinance restricts the keeping of roosters, but this does not impact egg production. “Many people do not understand that hens actually lay eggs that are not fertilized and that no rooster is required.” Nelson admits the hens make “a little noise,” but assures it’s a benign sound. “It’s actually pleasant to hear a bit of clucking.”
Another concern was that a coop would “attract vermin” including mice, rats and skunks. The position of those working on the ordinance is “if you do it right, it shouldn’t be a problem.” The ordinance spells out how to maintain sanitary conditions including daily dropping pick-up and the storage of waste in a metal container with a lid until disposed. By tending the coop regularly, it also addresses the worry residents had about smell. Nelson contends that chickens “do have their own smell, but it’s not a wafting odor.” She also puts down a layer of wood shavings under the straw. “It soaks up the wetness and keep things smelling fresh,” says Nelson. “I highly recommend it.”
Lastly, before H1N1 virus came on the scene, the looming pandemic of the day was Asian Bird Flu. To mitigate the spread of disease, the city requires that city chickens have an enclosed coop and enclosed yard with netting above it to prevent contact with wild birds.
“The ordinance is very thorough and well thought out,” says Nelson.
It’s been nearly a year since the ordinance passed and people are more than a little curious about the pastime. When a community education class was recently offered over 50 people showed up and more than 25 folks tramped through Nelson’s yard on a public coop tour. “I was really surprised at the interest level,” she says.
But before you run out to the feed store or order some chicks off the Internet, there are a few steps to get out of the way first. Go to City Hall for an application or to the city’s Web site under “Licensing and Permits” to download one. The six-page document outlines the city rules for keeping chickens, including coop requirements and a form for drawing a simple site plan of your yard. There is also a $10 annual fee, which is comparable to getting a dog license.
After Nelson applied for her license she looked through many design books and adapted what she called a “small shed” into a coop. She then bought her five chicks (the maximum the city allows) from a keeper in Carlton. Her varieties are Barred Rock, Silver Laced Wyandotte and Golden Laced. “They were adorable chicks,” confesses Nelson. “And because I raised them from babies they get along with each other.”
As the chicks grew, their personalities emerged. There are a couple of shy birds, a couple that don’t mind being picked up and, says Nelson, “The last one insists on being picked up; she’ll peck at my leg until I do. I call her Ms. Curiosity because she just has to see everything.”
Five months after getting the chickens, she noticed one was squatting and acting funny. Two days later she laid her first egg. “It was really exciting.”
Keeping up the Coop
Now that Nelson is coming up on her year anniversary of keeping hens, she has the routine down. It starts in the morning with opening up the coop into the enclosed yard and giving the birds water and any vegetable scraps she has. “Letting them out has really made me understand the old expression “all cooped up,” she says.
It’s a trip back in the afternoon to collect eggs, see if they need more water and then just before dark, she closes them into the coop and away from night predators. In the winter she also makes sure the heat providing light bulb is working and that the water dish isn’t frozen over. “I bought a heated bowl that plugs in,” she explains.
In addition to daily waste pick-up, Nelson cleans out the coop entirely every couple of weeks adding fresh wood shavings and straw. “It doesn’t take longer than half an hour,” she says.
More From Your Yard
When asked her motivation to get the ordinance passed and do all the chicken chores when one can easily buy organic, cage-free eggs, Nelson talks about sustainability. “I like the idea of using our yards to produce whatever food we can. Grass just doesn’t work for me.”
Her small yard had grass when she bought her Hillside house years ago, but it’s been replaced with apple trees, strawberry plants, rhubarb and herbs.
And, of course, now there are chickens there, too. The birds produce four or five eggs a day. “I can’t eat that many,” says Nelson.
“So I give a lot of eggs away and that brings me pleasure.”