Every once in a while, word will go out in Northeast: There’s a chicken on the loose. Everyone tags their chicken-keeping friends on Facebook, a number that seems to be growing. A couple of years ago a post showed a chicken and a turkey, led by a duck, marching single file down Grand Street NE.
For Tony Lipa, whose trio of escaped fowl spawned dozens of turducken jokes, keeping farmyard birds is all about community. Neighborhood kids come to visit them, and he loves sharing the eggs with his realty clients and friends, he said.
Originally spurred by a cousin who is a chef and was hoping for fresh eggs, Lipa has had various configurations of chickens, ducks, and even a turkey over the years.
His was one of five households with chickens we visited in Northeast to learn about the ins and outs of keeping them.
Like Lipa, Mimi Holmes in the St. Anthony West neighborhood has found community bonds through the experience. She’s part of a chicken co-op: Currently four neighbor families share the care, expenses and eggs of a five-bird flock that is housed in Holmes’ and husband Ed Stern’s yard.
Holmes started the project 11 years ago, after attending a Bioneers conference where someone spoke about backyard chickens. “How fun is that,” she said she thought. She sent notes to neighbors exploring their interest and read a lot of books about chicken-keeping. Power-tool skilled neighbor Dan Brady built a coop with her assistance, and she found some chickens from 4-H kids in Elk River via Craigslist.
“We were all newbies. We didn’t even know how to pick one up, but we got pretty good pretty quickly,” she said. The first year, they named the birds, but after great sadness when one of their first brood died, they stopped that practice. They get their birds newly hatched and keep them for about one-and-a-half years, then retire them to Isanti, to a 60-acre farm of one of Holmes’ friends.
Chickens in St. Anthony resident Suzan Cox’s mixed-age, 10-bird flock aren’t as lucky.
They will be butchered when egg-laying slows down at about 3 years, Cox said, and she staggers the age of the flock. “We treat them more like a farm animal than a pet in some ways.” She’s okay with that, but her children, 9 years old and 11 years old, are “a little more sensitive” about the birds’ fate. “But we told them from the get-go that it was going to happen,” Cox said.
“Chickens have always caught my fancy,” said Cox, and she and her husband had a small flock when they lived in a farmhouse in Ohio. In spite of the “more like a farm animal” stance, part of the impetus for the Cox’s chicken keeping is that “they’re just so much fun” and an alternative to a dog or cat. Daughter Birdy and son William hang out in the yard with them and enjoy feeding the birds leftovers and treats.
Kara Coppinger also raises chickens in St. Anthony. When she was young, living out in the country in North Dakota, her father, an electrician, brought home 200 chicks from a job — his client didn’t want them. The birds lived in their heated-floor basement, going outside when the weather was good. They raised them until they were old enough to be eaten.
Coppinger said that although she loves living in the city, she misses the feeling of living in a more rural area and keeping chickens gives her and her children a little taste of what it was like, “I kind of wanted my kids to have a little piece of country,” she said. Plus they eat a lot of eggs and she’s an animal lover.
The Coppingers’ seven chickens have the run of the yard, mingling with their three children, ages 2, 4 and 6 years old, and the family’s two dogs and young cat. Sometimes the chickens hop up the steps to the deck, and if one of the kids leaves the door open, the hens can end up in the house. Mostly, though, the chickens scratch in the ground, looking for bugs and grubs; they sprawl out in the dirt and take dust baths; they dig holes. They also can destroy garden plants.
Coppinger chooses chicken breeds for their variety of egg colors. Little Fancy, their Easter Egger, lays green eggs and their Speckled Suffolk, Treasure, greenish blue ones. Boss Queen, a Midnight Majesty Maran, one of four chicks they got in February, will give them deep brown chocolate-y ones.
Coppinger said that she “undersold” the idea of getting chickens to her husband, and in the end, they wound up with the Taj Mahal of chicken coops —an 8 x 12-sq.-ft. house where they roost (sleep) and lay eggs, complete with an automatic door that comes up at sunrise and shuts at dusk. It has an attached 12 x 12-ft. run where the chickens can safely forage. The run includes a swing and a little ladder that leads to a peep hole that coincides with a peephole in their 6-ft. privacy fence, so the chickens can look out. Coppinger also installed a baby monitor to alert the family at night if the local fox or raccoon causes trouble (once a raccoon got into the chicken feed).
Rules and regulations
To keep chickens in St. Anthony, all Coppinger and Cox needed to do was submit a request to the City Council that includes a site plan and the number of chickens. No roosters are allowed. City Manager Mark Casey said that in the past five years, 12 residences have submitted requests, adding up to a total of 56 chickens. Casey said that to his knowledge, no applications have ever been denied.
There’s a yearly permit process in Minneapolis, with three tiers, depending on the number of chickens, explained Caroline Hairfield, director of animal care and control for the City. For one to six chickens, one needs to get the signature and phone numbers of adjacent neighbors. For seven to 15 chickens, and also for 16 to 30 chickens, and/or roosters, or other fowl, signatures of at least 80% of neighbors within 100 feet are required. Chicken keepers must provide proof of taking a course on proper fowl care within a year of applying.
According to the permit application, coops, which must be approved by the zoning department and inspected, must provide four square feet per bird, be heated and have at least one window. They must include perches, and one nest box, which is where the chickens lay their eggs, for every four birds.
Connie Buesgens keeps chickens in Columbia Heights, where there are no specific rules regarding them. She’s a council member, and when door-knocking, she came across around eight to 10 residences with chickens, she said. She also remembers one neighbor who had a rooster that started becoming aggressive, so the neighbor wound up eating it — and the other neighbors were upset to lose it.
Heights City Planner Elizabeth Hammond explained that chickens fall under the City’s public nuisance ordinance and that any complaints — such as that the chickens are not being properly cared for, or are a nuisance or hazard — are handled by the Police Department. The Council considered writing an ordinance but decided not to; that might be revisited given the rising popularity of backyard chickens, Hammond said.
Buesgens got a taste for raising chickens after enjoying the fresh eggs her husband’s boss brought to work. She took a course at Columbia Heights High School, and five years ago, she got five chickens, four of which are with her still (one of them, Miss Blackwood, died of unexplained causes after her first year), and since, she’s added two to her flock.
She explained that chickens can live about as long as dogs, but after their peak egg-laying age of two years, medical problems can be common. She’s aware of only two veterinarians willing to treat chickens, although recently the vet she uses for her other animals removed fluid from one of her hens’ abdomens. Buesgens said she’s in it for the long haul with her five-year-old “girls” (that’s the way many chicken keepers refer to their birds). That might mean having a few chickens providing enough eggs for her and her husband, letting the rest live out their years with her or perhaps giving them to cousins who live on a farm.
Buesgens uses straw as bedding on the coop floor to absorb wastes and moisture. She cleans it out weekly. She feeds them organic feed and treats of mealworms. Although they’re winter hardy, their wattles can get frostbite, so in below-zero weather she puts them in large dog kennels in the garage. She lets the birds forage in her fenced-in yard, so she must protect her flower and vegetable beds during growing season.
Predators can be a problem, so the wire of her coop goes a foot into the ground to prevent digging by foxes and raccoons. Padlocks are needed for the latches. Anything short of that, raccoons can figure out, Buesgens said.
Cost of building a coop can vary widely. They can be purchased, constructed, or adapted from existing structures, such as garden sheds. Mimi Holmes estimates their coop, which was made with lumber they had on hand, cost about $200. For food and bedding, estimates range from Kara Coppinger’s at $30 to $40 per month for organic food, mealworm treats, bedding and straw to Mimi Holmes’ at $20 a month.
The benefits? For Holmes, they’re about 10 dozen eggs a month and 11 years of getting to know her neighbors, a number of whom have rotated in and out of the chicken-keeping co-op. “Even better than getting chickens into my life, it’s been a great community-building thing … I feel like we are closer on our block because of it,” Holmes said.
Below: Mimi Holmes of Northeast, above, and Suzan Cox and son William of St. Anthony, below, are among the urban chicken families who find that farmyard birds are building community. Connie Buesgens of Columbia Heights, left; Tony Lipa of Northeast Minneapolis, middle, and Kara Coppinger of St. Anthony, right, with members of their flocks. Minneapolis and St. Anthony have different rules specific to fowl, and Columbia Heights considers them to fall under the city’s public nuisance ordinance if anyone were to make a complaint. (Photos by Karen Kraco)