Pecks and the City

Fowl play or good eggs? Minneapolis poultry owners assert their flocks’ right to roost.

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.

 

Nearby, Mary Britton Clouse has just introduced two rescued birds to the Nicollet Island flock. Ginger and Judi, sisters who have spent their lives confined to a basement, are experiencing their first taste of the outdoors. Britton Clouse cradles one of the twin golden birds in the crook of her elbow, fussing like a new mother. “When she gets over-tired she tends to darken a little here,” she says, pointing to the comb.

The thought of doting on a chicken may strike some people as odd and make others squeamish. Yet people dress their dogs in clothing, speak to them in baby talk, take them to shrinks, and name them heirs to their estates. Perhaps hugging a chicken isn’t really that strange.

While chicken owners say they enjoy the quality and freshness of the food their birds produce, the companionship aspect is undeniable. For just that reason, partners Jon Hering and Matt Vonk keep both a city and a country flock. “It’s so fun,” Vonk gushes. Hering says he loves the entertainment of the pecking order—“who’s doing what with whom.”

Inside the Kahns’ house, logs burn in the fireplace, the kitchen table is spread with potluck fare, and Phyllis stands at the stove, making latkes. The legislator is wearing her signature thick-rimmed glasses and has a flour handprint on the seat of her pants.

Willcütt chats with another guest. “How old are your girls?” he inquires—and he’s not asking about children.

Willcütt grew up outside New Prague and, in his youth, raised chickens, rabbits, and a pet goat. Currently a student at the University of Minnesota, he describes himself as an urban agrarian: equal parts hippie and hipster.

Curtis Johnson

Like many pet owners, Willcütt delights in each animal’s unique personality. He even posts photos and endearing bios for each chicken on his website: “Buffy, seen here checking out some delicious chocolate cake, is undoubtedly the most likely of all of our chickens to shop at Lane Bryant! I’m not saying that she is fat, but really, should the ‘thud’ from a honey-colored chicken jumping down from the perch in the hen house be heard from across the garden?”

A few years ago, Willcütt began co-teaching a community-education class titled “Chickens in the City” at Southwest High School in Minneapolis. Initially, he encountered some resistance. The first administrator he approached about the class told him that raising chickens in the city was illegal. (For the record, it is legal, as long as 80 percent of your neighbors within 100 feet say it is okay.) “She said, ‘Give me a call when avian flu is over,’ ” Willcütt recalls. (State animal health officials believe the risk of avian flu spreading from migratory birds to backyard flocks is limited.) Eventually, the class was accepted, and the three sessions he has taught have sold out. Willcütt estimates that he has encouraged dozens of individuals to start their own flocks, enough to cause Minneapolis Animal Control to run out of permit forms.

Most American chickens begin their lives in warm, humid warehouse incubators. At Murray McMurray Hatchery, in Webster City, Iowa, the favorite source for chicks among locals, roughly 100,000 chicks peck through their shells on a typical Friday afternoon. The baskets of tiny chicks, available in roughly 100 breeds, look less like birds than piles of multicolored cotton candy and the cheeping is nearly deafening. On Saturday morning, the chicks are packed into special postal boxes, trucked to the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, and shipped via express mail (the plucky chicks can last three days without food and water).

Anxious customers who spent all winter studying McMurray’s full-color illustrated brochure (Willcütt calls it “a seed catalog of chickens”) pick up their peeping packages at the local post office. While adult birds can be acquired from friends, rescue organizations, agricultural supply shops, and even the Minnesota State Fair (many competitors sell their birds after judging), ordering chicks is, Hering says, “part of the adventure.”

The baby chicks are brooded indoors in a small, temperature-controlled space. A writer for Backyard Poultry who kept chicks in an aquarium in his living room says he and his wife loved watching the birds so much they called it “Redneck Television.” After a few weeks, the chicks can be moved to an outdoor coop, which, if properly insulated and heated, usually with just a light bulb, can be the chickens’ year-round home—even in Minnesota winters. Some owners build their own coops or modify a dog house or rabbit hutch while others purchase off-the-shelf products, such as the automated $1,300 Henspa or the more economically chic Eglu, a colorful plastic iMac-shaped pod made in the United Kingdom.

 

Maintaining a flock is fairly simple, though it’s not a commitment to be taken lightly. A chicken’s average lifespan is five to seven years, but they’ve been known to live twice that long. Chickens eat about a quarter of a pound of food a day, and, in addition to their feed, they’ll eat grass clippings, weeds, and even oatmeal and popcorn. “They like the quick calorie just like we do,” notes Rebecca Polston, Willcütt’s “Chickens” co-instructor. Each day, owners must let the birds in and out of the coop—and collect the eggs. “I wish I had a nickel for everyone who thinks that you need a rooster to get eggs,” Willcütt says. Hens ovulate approximately once a day and produce one egg, no rooster required. Roosters are necessary for baby chicks, though if an egg has been fertilized, it’s still edible as long as it hasn’t been incubated.

While roosters aren’t necessary for eggs, hen owners still had reason to be concerned about the ban: would Animal Control try to prohibit all poultry raising? A spokesperson for the department said the rooster ban was initiated because of a number of complaints about crowing, which many chicken owners suspect were related to illegal roosters. Law-abiding owners suggested that noise complaints about roosters be handled like barking-dog complaints, in which owners can face fines and even jail time if they fail to quiet their animals. Animal Control has no plans to make those amendments at this time.

Predators, not city statutes, are chickens’ biggest threat. Most owners have lost birds to dogs, raccoons, and foxes that breached the bounds of a coop. Recently, Willcütt came home to find that a possum had a duck by the throat; he killed the beast with a pitchfork and saved the attacked fowl.

Of course some chickens will die at their masters’ hands, and views on this practice vary by owner. While some may balk at the idea of killing a creature they’ve named and nurtured, others raise birds expressly for meat. Britton Clouse, a vegetarian, makes the people who adopt her chickens promise not to eat the birds. Polston says she drew the line between considering her flock pets or food when a sick chicken incurred a $200 veterinary bill. The next time she couldn’t heal an ailing bird herself, she braced herself and broke its neck.

Hering recalls a day he and Vonk butchered a few dozen roosters in the basement of their home, a decidedly gory process. Hering wriggles like he’s having a seizure, flapping his arms, mimicking a just-decapitated chicken. “It’s disconcerting,” he says. “Plus, it’s messy.” But, like a hunter or fisherman, he has a no-nonsense attitude toward the practice. “We eat chicken; it might as well be ours,” he says. Willcütt, who does not eat his birds, has a more spiritual perspective for those who raise what they eat: “It’s one of the better things you can do for your karma,” he says.

It’s certainly possible to save money with home-raised meat and eggs, though for most of these chicken owners, reducing the grocery bill isn’t a motivating factor. Hering says he and Vonk spent a couple thousand dollars on two nice coops and jokes that they are eating $20 eggs. “We haven’t found ours to be very cheap yet,” he says.

A few days later, in the Clouses’ kitchen, Mary combines spaghetti with sauce in a stainless-steel bowl as Albert holds their family dog on his lap. One black cat is curled up under the table while another perches on a carpeted cat tower, licking a paw with a bright pink tongue. An occasional cry, “a-roo…cock-a-rooooo…ack-roo-a-rooo,” can be heard coming from the basement.

It’s probably Robert, a recent rescue described on Mary’s 180-person e-mail distribution list: “His coloration is very unusual—butterscotch, marzipan, and chocolate—he looks like a confection, appropriate for such a sweet disposition. Robert is a noisy eater and celebrates cooked eggs, spaghetti, cooked oatmeal, raisins, greens, and lots of scratch…He doesn’t object at all to being picked up and held and is a good listener.”

Mary picks up a Christmas card from among those displayed above the kitchen table. It reads, “With appreciation from the staff at Animal Control.” She shakes her head and sighs. While Mary says her interactions with city employees have been quite positive, she was deeply hurt by the proposed rooster ban, legislation that, as she puts it, “threatens a family member.”

Roosters as family? We indulge other pet owners who might use that term. Dogs and cats, in many ways, are easier to love—they’re cute, they’re furry, and they crave our affection—they’re the “popular crowd” of the animal world. But chickens? It takes a special heart to love such squawkers, a more meek and awkward species.

Mary heads downstairs to feed her flock. The birds putter about in large cages as she portions the spaghetti into feeding cups. The scraping sound of spoon against metal bowl causes Noel, a foster rooster, to belt out a screech that almost could be mistaken for the sound of a car accident.

Mary’s dedication to chickens is evident. When she’s talking about their needs, her voice gets soft and she chokes up a little, as if she’s about to cry. “Chickens are the most abused of all animals on the planet,” she says. They are excluded from animal-cruelty laws, humane-slaughter laws, and research.

Empathy for the lowliest creatures, Mary hopes, bodes wells for other disadvantaged animals and humans. “If you can get the world to care about chickens, everyone else benefits,” she says. “More kindness in the world is never a bad thing.”

Rachel Hutton is associate editor of Minnesota Monthly.

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