Pecks and the City
Fowl play or good eggs? Minneapolis poultry owners assert their flocks' right to roost.
(page 1 of 3)The chambers of the Minneapolis City Council, draped in red velvet and subdued by the sounds of Robert’s Rules of Order, seemed an odd place to be talking about chickens. But in December, representatives of Minneapolis Animal Control stood before the council and proposed a ban on raising roosters in the city. This came as a surprise to anyone who didn’t know there were in fact any roosters, which was probably everyone. There are: two legal ones, along with 126 hens, distributed among 15 city permit holders.
The owners of one of those roosters, Mary Britton Clouse and her husband, Albert Clouse, arrived at the meeting early and seated themselves in a center row. The Clouses operate a rescue service, Chicken Run, out of their home in north Minneapolis, providing temporary care for seized or abandoned chickens as they await adoption. Since 2001, Mary has placed nearly 200 birds in adoptive homes.
Mary wore a metal chicken dangling from her ear and clutched a written statement, prepared to speak if necessary. She had also brought photographs of neighbor children playing with her birds and a few scenes from her Lowry Avenue neighborhood—a boarded-up house, a giant pothole, and a bullet hole beside her front door—to suggest that city officials might have better things to worry about than roosters.
The Clouses hoped they had an ally in council vice-chairman Don Samuels, a native of Kingston, Jamaica, where chickens are almost as common as reggae music. Indeed, as he had promised he would do in the previous week’s Star Tribune, Samuels moved to delete the rooster language from the proposed animal ordinances. With a round of ayes, the ban was dismissed, and Samuels acknowledged the celebrating birds. “There’s a lot of crowing going on in the city right now,” he joked.
For all the concern the proposed rooster ban caused local owners, there was at least one benefit. The publicity it generated drew attention to a small but growing group of backyard poultry owners—and it brought them together. What motivates city folk to cobble together a coop and fill it with fowl? Are they back-to-the-landers looking to eat the localest of local foods? Just animal lovers in search of the next novelty? Whatever their intentions, Minneapolis chicken owners are part of a national trend.
There are some 24 billion chickens in the world, more than any other bird. In many developing nations, small flocks are distributed throughout urban and rural areas, raised by families and individuals who rely on the birds as an efficient source of protein.
The life of a typical American chicken, though, is perhaps most vividly portrayed in an untitled work by Doug Argue on permanent exhibit at the Weisman Art Museum: a perspective view down an endless aisle in an industrial chicken barn, Argue’s “infinite chickens” painting captures the scale of confinement, thousands of birds packed tightly in cages. But the work cannot replicate the lung-choking stench of ammonia-rich manure or the horrific squawking sounds that permeate such facilities.
Mass breeding is relatively new. When most Americans lived in rural areas, small-scale chicken husbandry was quite popular. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 43 percent of households raised their own chickens in 1910. But within a few decades, more people lived in cities than in rural areas. As farms became larger and more mechanized, household chicken-keeping steadily declined.
Even though many urban Minnesotans are just a generation or two off the farm, Grandma is more likely to perform the “Chicken Dance” at a grandchild’s wedding than to butcher her own birds. While chicken eggs and meat remain common food sources, most city people’s knowledge of real, live chickens is limited to an annual visit to the Minnesota State Fair, to laugh at the tiny chicks that ride a miniature Ferris wheel.
But urban chicken-keeping has shed some of its Beverly Hillbillies image and is slowly coming back in vogue—even lifestyle guru Martha Stewart keeps a household flock. The birds have their own magazine: Backyard Poultry, published in rural Wisconsin, which has seen circulation climb to 35,000 paid subscribers since it launched in January 2006. And they have their own version of Luxury Home Tours: chicken owners in such cities as Madison, Portland, and Seattle have hosted urban coop tours. In 2005, Portland’s attracted about 200 visitors. The world’s largest rare breed hatchery, a preeminent hobbyist supplier, has seen a steady increase in orders placed to urban and suburban Zip Codes, currently about 1,000 a week.
One of those Zip Codes is 55401, where, on a Sunday afternoon in late December, chicken owners on Nicollet Island hosted a party to celebrate the last crow of the rooster ban. The weather was mild, so guests mingled in the backyard of Don and Phyllis Kahn (the state legislator), along with three geese, ten ducks, twenty-seven hens, and one Japanese rooster.
A few birds were roosting in the coop and in the Kahns’ garage, but most wandered about in a large pen like a group of children released on a playground. Some pecked among the leaves and hay covering the snowless ground, snacking on decomposing gourds and pumpkins.
The Nicollet Island flock is a diverse assembly of breeds, colored golden buff to midnight black. Most have tiny heads, which jerk frequently, making them seem nervous and twitchy. Gyoza, the Japanese rooster, looks almost like a peacock, with multicolored silky plumes.
But Gyoza is not the alpha bird. That would be Peat Willcütt, who stands among the flock sporting earrings, a shock of blond hair, and sculpted lamb-chop sideburns. Willcütt shares coop responsibilities with the Kahns and neighbors Leslie Ball and Ochen Kaylan. Willcütt’s duty, at the moment, is to show some visiting children how to hold a chicken, tucking one into the crook of the arm like a feathered football. He carries the bird around the yard, petting it as if it were a cat or a small dog.