by Abbie Burgess
Patrick Beilfuss knows a thing or two about chickens. Beilfuss, a city planner consultant, was hired by the city of Menomonie to help draft an ordinance allowing chickens in the city.
“This comes up in communities a lot,” he said. “If chickens aren’t allowed, it could be because no one has ever looked into it.” Changing the laws can be simpler than one might think. In Menomonie, the process began when a resident approached the city council to ask if they could keep chickens in their yard. After one and a half months, the ordinance was adopted by unanimous vote.
Beilfuss is now a chicken owner himself. For Beilfuss and his partner Tracy Chipman, both avid gardeners, chickens were the next step to see how much food they could grow in their own backyard. After Menomonie voted to allow chickens, he built an elaborate chicken coop, complete with a solar-powered gate that opens in the morning to let the chickens out. A timer shuts the gate at night to secure them from predators.
In Madison, another couple was instrumental in changing chicken ownership laws. Alicia Rheal and her husband Bryan Whiting found out the chickens they were raising weren’t legal when a neighbor, concerned that they were going to eat the birds, called Animal Control. A zoning officer told the Madison couple that they could have fifty chickens in the attic if they wanted but none outside the house. “We thought that was pretty ridiculous,” Rheal said. They set out to change city laws with grassroots support from other underground chicken owners. Support also came from the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension program.
After backyard chickens became legal in Madison, Rheal and Whiting founded Mad City Chickens, a website and community group to share information on raising chickens. Rheal teaches a Chicken 101 class for new owners and organizes an annual Coop Tour. Education is the main goal of Mad City Chickens. “We worked so hard to get the law passed, we didn’t want to have bad chicken owners.”
Chicken ownership has grown quickly in Madison. “If you talk about chickens to someone on the street or in your office, they’ll know someone who has them, or they’ll know that it’s legal,” Rheal says. “It’s pretty common in Madison. It’s not weird anymore. Driving through a neighborhood, I’ll say ‘Oh look, another coop.’”
There are no statewide laws that govern backyard chickens. Each city sets its own laws, which can vary wildly. According to Dr. Hirsbrunner of Country View Veterinary Service in Oregon, Wisconsin, prospective chicken owners should check their zoning regulations and ordinances to find out if raising chickens is allowed. Chicken ownership may require a permit and a premise ID number, which is used to identify the flock.
Most cities limit the number of chickens residents can own. Because hens stop laying as they age, this means some residents may have chickens but no eggs. The availability of fresh eggs, as well as the increased nutritional content of pastured eggs, is a big part of the appeal of raising chickens. But eggs or no eggs, raising chickens is an advantage for gardeners. “The chicken poop goes into the compost, and it’s great for gardens,” Rheal said. “The chickens eat the garden scraps. It goes around in a circle.”
Rheal and her husband don’t know who called them in to Animal Control, but their neighbors are currently accepting of the feathered residents. They involve neighborhood children by inviting them to name the chickens and be “chicken sitters” when they are out of town. Beilfuss and Chipman also enjoy the community benefits of raising chickens. “A lot of our neighbors like to come over and watch them. It’s been nice to interact with our neighbors that way.”
“We encourage people to share the bounty of their eggs and garden compost to spread goodwill,” Rheal said. “It goes a long way.”
Thinking about getting chickens? Advice for the aspiring urban chicken farmer:
• First thing’s first—check your city’s laws to see if it’s legal to own chickens where you live, and to find out what the restrictions are. Most cities limit the number of birds you can own and don’t allow roosters. Make sure to find out before you purchase and get attached to your flock.
• Consider the time constraints of raising chickens. Do you have someone to take care of them when you go out of town? Will you be home every night to put the chickens in the coop to protect them from predators?
• Do as much research as possible, Beilfuss advises. “It takes planning, and coops and fencing get a little expensive.”
• Talk to your neighbors to let them know you plan to get chickens. Give them a chance to voice any concerns they may have. They might be surprisingly supportive. Beilfuss says that before building his coop, he talked to all the neighbors to see if they had any concerns. None did. “In fact, they thought it was pretty cool.”
• Know what to expect from chicken ownership. Beilfuss explains that his chickens are not pets. “They don’t want to be touched or picked up, but they do like to hang around you.” Consider if you’ll choose to butcher after the birds stop laying (usually after three to six years).
• Find a group or a mentor who can help you navigate first-time chicken ownership. Beilfuss and Chipman relied on the farmer who sold them their chickens for insights on the quirky chicken behaviors that stumped them. For the first two days, one of the chickens stood in place all day, never moving. They thought it was ill, but the farmer presented an alternate theory: the bird was homesick. “We tried to go outside and give it more attention,” Beilfuss said. “After two days, it was just fine.”