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Fargo-Moorhead group addresses ruffled feathers on urban chickens

FARGO, N.D., - Despite their reputation for loud crowing and squawking, the three chickens in Erin Mayer's backyard were rather subdued Wednesday evening.

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One of Erin Mayer's chickens, Mrs. Clucker Nutter, in the backyard of Mayer's north Fargo home on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015. Rick Abbott / The Forum

FARGO, N.D., – Despite their reputation for loud crowing and squawking, the three chickens in Erin Mayer's backyard were rather subdued Wednesday evening.

Except for a squawk not quite as loud as an excited dog when Mayer tried to pick one of them up, the chickens mostly clucked as quietly as cats purring as they rooted for bugs in the compost pile.

She said she got the chickens this summer to teach her two children a little about farming and get a few eggs. So far, the neighbors haven't had any complaints, she said.

There's a growing number of urban residents who, like Mayer, yearn for a link to the agrarian past, and that's led to some ruffled feathers among other residents, including many city leaders who think chickens belong in the barnyard and not the backyard.

On Wednesday, Mayer spoke before the Cass Clay Food Systems Initiative Advisory Commission, tasked with studying ways to improve access to healthy, local and affordable food. Commissioners were looking for feedback on a draft advisory about backyard chickens, which they learned wouldn't create any more of a disruption than dogs and cats. They also learned there are special requirements to keep it that way.

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But, recognizing that chickens are a politically sensitive topic, the commission postponed a vote on the advisory because city leaders who sit on the commission didn't make it to the meeting. The commission has previously approved advisories on community gardens and backyard beekeeping.

Noise and disease

Among the larger cities in the metro area, only Fargo allows chickens to be reared in city limits, and even there the law is somewhat murky. Attempts to lift the chicken ban in Moorhead and West Fargo in recent years have failed, while an attempt to clarify the Fargo law a year ago revealed several city commissioners' dislike for backyard chicken-rearing.

The food-systems commission's advisory and the staff report that accompanied it Wednesday didn't take any sides. It did, though, attempt to provide a fact-based foundation for further debate, along with examples of ways other cities have regulated chickens.

The loudest chickens are the roosters and they are about as loud as a barking dog, said Megan Myrdal, the food-systems project coordinator. Hens are quieter and when they get vocal it's about as loud as a person talking.

Mayer's chickens, by the way, are hens.

Myrdal also addressed other concerns that chicken opponents sometimes raise.

The birds' manure can have a very strong ammonia smell and attract flies if allowed to build up, she said, but cleaning the coop and composting nesting material can control the odor.

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Chicken coops can attract pests and predators, Myrdal said, but no more than other pets if their food is left uncovered and they're left outside at night.

Chickens are salmonella carriers, she said, but basic sanitary practices such as washing hands and not allowing the birds indoors are ways to avoid infection.

There is some concern that people may abandon chickens when they cease to lay eggs, Myrdal said, but there are many meat processors in the area who will slaughter the birds for a small fee.

The proposed advisory noted that cities that do allow backyard chickens have many ways to ensure the birds don't become a nuisance, including capping the number of birds per household, banning roosters, requiring coops be a set distance from dwellings and requiring consent from neighbors.

Feathered pets

Wednesday's meeting attracted a few chicken owners, people who wish they could be chicken owners and one resident who isn't so sure allowing chickens is a good idea.

Cole Hooey, who, like Mayer, lives in north Fargo, said he, too, would like to raise chickens but hesitated because the city's laws are unclear and he feared he'd be forced to get rid of them. He said dogs and cats can also be loud or smelly, but the community would be less vibrant without them, and chickens should be seen in the same light.

Rick Hall, a Moorhead resident, said he used to have chickens at his Wisconsin farm, where children and adults with developmental disabilities would help raise them. He said he wished he could continue the pastime in his retirement years here.

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But Kathy Gohl, a south Fargo resident, advised caution. A neighbor has chickens and, a couple of years ago, she had problems with voles that were linked to the chickens, she said. Growing up with a chicken coop in the backyard, she said she's familiar with the birds, but there are many options here for people who want a link to the agrarian past including actual farms and petting zoos.

Arland Rasmussen, a Cass County commissioner who chairs the food-systems commission, also advised caution. Chicken owners may not always understand how much work the birds can be, he said, and when they let things go, they cause problems for neighbors and require police and other city officials to intervene.

Related Topics: NORTH DAKOTA
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