Rediscovering Community in the Coop

Feature Stories Fall 2010 Issue

Rediscovering Community in the Coop

By Shannon Henry Kleiber | Photos By Jim Klousia 0

They came on bikes, in strollers and on foot, carrying cameras and tripods and notebooks. There were babies and people with gray hair, men and women, teenagers and toddlers. What they all had in common were the chickens. It was a humid and hot June day for “Tours des Coops,” a tour of eight chicken coops in the Tenney-Lapham neighborhood of Madison. The almost 200 tour-goers asked questions about feeding, drew pictures of well-constructed coops, and wrote down ideas for when they, too, might raise chickens in their own backyards.

Just a few short years ago, having chickens in a coop behind your house was illegal in Madison. Still, people had chickens in their backyards, converted playhouses and garages. They just kept it quiet, and they called themselves the “Poultry Underground.”

Then in 2004, Madison joined a growing number of cities, including Brooklyn, Fort Collins and Ann Arbor, to embrace the urban chicken—legally. The idea that every citizen, whether he or she is on a farm or in the center of a city, has a right to raise chickens comes at a time when Americans want more than ever to know where their food comes from. They want to buy local food to support their neighbors and help the environment, and they also want to be more economical and self-sufficient in how they feed and nurture their families. Backyard chickens fit right into all of these movements, and have the benefit of being pets that produce food.

“The more we can do to eat locally and sustain ourselves is better for the earth,” says Gay Davidson-Zielske, who is raising her second flock in fifteen years on Gorham Street in a converted playhouse decorated with curtains and chicken-themed plates. “I’m very proud of my chickens,” she says, to whom she has given such names as “Michelle Obama’s Arms” and “Freida Lay.”

But while many say raising chickens is as easy as caring for other pets like cats and dogs (or even easier), it’s often not so simple to make it legal. Many Wisconsin communities outside of Madison do not allow backyard chickens. Madison’s burgeoning chicken community owes much to Alicia Rheal and her husband Brian Whiting, who fought to make chickens legal in the city. In 2003, the couple was visited at their Madison home by an animal control inspector, who had heard they were raising chickens and who told them that, strangely, they were allowed to have chickens in their house, but not outside it. They had 30 days to get rid of their chickens, and they reluctantly gave them away to friends. But, says Rheal, it seemed silly. She saw an article about urban chickens in Seattle and thought, why not in Madison?

 

Rheal contacted her alderman and started searching out others who would support legalizing the chickens. To her surprise, people with chickens were suddenly everywhere, and it seemed, were waiting for this moment. “We started meeting these awesome people,” says Rheal. “It became the Poultry Underground.”

It took more than a year of talking and negotiating to get the law passed. University of Wisconsin poultry experts were key in offering facts to help assuage worry about avian flu and to explain that properly cared for, chickens aren’t smelly or loud. (Roosters—which are not allowed in Madison backyards, and contrary to popular thought, are not necessary to produce unfertilized eggs—are another story). Rheal and Whiting reclaimed their chickens and built them a new coop with a greenhouse on top behind their house.

The couple’s home is a testament to urban growing—in addition to the chicken coop, they keep a large vegetable plot, bee hives, hops growing all around the sides of their house, and fruit trees, vines and bushes that yield cherries, grapes, raspberries, blackberries and nectarines. Instead of their neighbors complaining about the chickens, she says, they’ve moved their outdoor furniture a bit closer to the coop, so they can watch the antics of the birds. To Rheal, raising chickens is about nothing less than the natural cycle of birth and life and death. “Life means more than just the paycheck and the three-car garage,” she says. Rheal likes the do-it-yourself life. But she also advises that instead of ignoring the rules, people should work to change them.

Since spearheading the chicken movement in Madison, Rheal launched the Mad City Chickens web site, in part because she couldn’t answer the stream of email questions about chickens fast enough. The site is full of information, from photos of types of chicken breeds (Sicilian Buttercups, Egyptian Fayoumi, Buff Laced Polish), a calendar of local chicken-related events, and links to vets, books, magazines and merchandise. The community has a voice through Mad City Chickens’ “Chicken Chat Line,” where fans can talk about broody hens, raccoon troubles and coop construction. An occasional “City Chickens 101” class is taught either by Rheal or another experienced member of the group.

 

Because of the plethora of chickens in Madison and the success in changing the law, the city has become a symbol to others interested in legalizing urban chickens. In 2009, Tarazod Films created a movie called “Mad City Chickens.” It’s a comedic documentary that shows the passion Madisonians have for their birds. It shows that most every Madisonian knows someone who is raising chickens, if they’re not doing it themselves.

Jay Warner and his family came on the Tour des Coops to document how chickens are living peaceably in Madison city neighborhoods. Warner lives in Stoughton and is part of a group trying to get a law passed to legalize it there.Warner says it’s about the principle—he should be able to raise chickens just as he’s able to grow vegetables.

Warner was accompanied by Steve Tone, a Stoughton alderman who supports changing the law. He says people get very emotional about the chicken decision, on both sides. But he’s hoping to have chickens legalized by fall, and had already passed one legal hurdle during the summer. There is no particular chicken smell or noise, he notes, at one of the coops that is on a block with four separate houses also with chicken coops. “These chickens are not weapons of mass destruction,” he says.

In fact the chicken resurgence is representative of a full cycle in Madison. Several decades ago, it was also common to find chicken coops in backyards in the city. Bob Shaw, who has a coop on Dayton St., says his house had a coop when he moved in thirty years ago, and that in the 1930s there was a large chicken farm on Mifflin St.

Rheal also absolutely loves the personality of her chickens, the way they look, and like many chicken owners, she says they make great pets. “You can’t get a guinea pig or a hamster for two bucks and they’re definitely not going to feed you,” she says. Aficionados also wax poetic about the value of the compost the birds produce. Owners scoop hay and chicken droppings and spread them on their nearby gardens. The birds are also a natural part of Madison’s Troy Gardens, a living patchwork of 300-some community garden plots, where a coop is maintained and visiting children are invited to hold the chickens.

This attitude is what got Amy and Cenon Buencamino, a physician couple who have three young children and live in Shorewood Hills, to launch their chicken odyssey this year. Their neighbor, Marilyn Young, who has grown children, suggested the two families share chickens—a “co-op coop.” The coop would be at one house, but the two families would share caretaking duties, and the eggs. Many families find this arrangement works well—they don’t have to worry about their chickens when they go on vacation, and they still get enough eggs.

“It’s easier than I thought it would be,” says Young. The hardest part, she says, is waiting several months before the eggs come, and of course, the construction of the coop. Young says the kids have loved the chickens so far, and even her husband, who was initially less than excited about the idea, now enjoys watching how fast they are growing.

Their four chicks lived temporarily in a box augmented with a heat lamp in the Buencamino’s garage while their residence was built. Amy Buencamino says raising chickens fits naturally into how she feeds her family, which includes buying grass-fed beef, tending a community garden plot and teaching her kids about how things grow. “People want to have more control over their food,” she says. But also, says Buencamino, raising chickens connects her family even more to where they live: “It’s something that was lost and then rediscovered—this community feeling.”


Thinking about raising chickens in Madison?

Here are the requirements according to the Madison City Code of Ordinances:

  • Maximum four chickens (hens) per household
  • No roosters
  • No slaughtering
  • Chickens must be provided a covered enclosure and kept in that enclosure or a fenced area at all times
  • Coop must be 25 feet from neighbors' houses
  • An annual $10 permit and fee is required
  • Applicant must notify all residents of property, and the property owner if applicant is not the owner
Shannon Henry Kleiber is a Madison-based writer. Her second book, On My Honor: Real Life Lessons From America’s First Girl Scout, about Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts, came out in 2012. She is a former staff writer and columnist for The Washington Post.

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