by Laura Millsaps, Ames TribuneAMES, Iowa (WTW) — They have elegant, even royal-sounding names: Buff Orpington, Barred Plymouth Rock, Blue Lace Wyandotte.
Not bad for a flock of chickens pecking and strutting their way across the lawn in Ames resident Andy Larson's backyard. He and his wife, Katie, have been keeping chickens for four years.
"I grew up on a farm in northwest Illinois that was all dairy cattle and barn cats," Andy Larson said. "I wanted to branch out and learn caring for another kind of livestock. They are my little experiment."
Michelle Wilder, another Ames resident, keeps chickens as well, two hens named Coco and Ursula, which she refers to as "her girls."
"We've been doing it for a year now," Wilder said. "I had been thinking about it for quite a while as part of growing our own food. We also keep a vegetable garden, and I thought this would be a good extension of that effort. I grew up with grandparents who had chickens, and I remember racing to the chicken house to see if there were eggs. I wanted my own kids to have the same experience I had."
Wilder and Larson are part of a growing trend across the nation and state for keeping poultry in town.
In Iowa, Cedar Rapids went "pro-chicken" last year, and the issue is expected to go before the Iowa City City Council soon, with urban chicken advocates collecting names for a petition to change a local zoning law.
Trampel said that though organically home-raised birds may provide assurance about food sources, research debunks the idea that they are nutritionally superior or safer for consumption.
"Nutritionally, they are really not significantly different than commercially produced eggs," he said. "As for salmonella, it is generally carried into the coop by mice, and that can happen just as easily in the backyard coop as it can the large producer. What matters is quality of livestock care."
A recent consumer study by Tractor Supply Company conducted in partnership with American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) found that while only 3 percent of U.S. households own chickens, the level of interest in chicken ownership indicated among non-owners could potentially double ownership levels in the next year.
In Ames, keeping chickens is legal, though the city's code doesn't specifically say so. And while even roosters are not banned as they are in other city's zoning laws, Judy Parks of the Ames City Attorney's Office said they are effectively discouraged by the regulation of animal noise in the part of the city code that requires certain standards of care and control.
"For the city's part, until it would become problematic, this city has been able to avoid the need for rooster regulation," said Parks, an assistant city attorney.
Other code requirements cover the definition of adequate shelter and sanitation. Parks said there is no way to know the exact number of households keeping backyard poultry as the city has no requirement for permits.
Raising chickens to supplement one's food supply, however, is a lot bigger investment than picking up a few tomato plants, both experts and keepers caution.
"If you think you're going to save money raising your own poultry, you're mistaken," Larson said. "You're going to be in several hundred dollars for a coop and fencing, the cost of feed and of course your time horsing around with caring for them, though that's mostly minimal. I'd estimate my eggs cost about $3 per dozen to produce."
It can be a learning process, too. Both Larson and Wilder have had chickens fall victim to raccoons and weasels, even in town, and Wilder is trying to decide what to do with hens that are too old to lay eggs.
"I've butchered poultry before, but it's a messy, elaborate process, and one I'm not enthused about doing just for a few birds," Wilder said. "So there are a few free-loaders in my coop right now."
Wilder recommends researching hen house construction thoroughly before beginning.
Trampel also encourages lots of research before buying animals.
"I've had people misunderstand, believing they could feed their chickens only table scraps, when that is not a healthy, complete diet for the birds," he said. "They need a good-quality, prepared commercial feed. I've also had hobbyists call me wondering why their chickens' feet and combs were turning black, without realizing that it was frostbite. Poultry in Iowa needs a heat source to survive the winter."
Despite the investment, Larson said the birds provide entertainment as well.
"There's definitely a social order to the hen house, and it's interesting to watch it unfold," he said. "And my daughter, Ava (18 months), is enthralled by them. She chases the chickens and our beagle, Paisley, chases her, and it's just one big crazy circle."