Back-yard chicken trend comes home to roost

  • Article by: KIM PALMER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 8, 2013 - 10:09 PM

Back-yard coops are still popular, but some owners get rid of birds when winter approaches.


Mary Britton Clouse and Bert Clouse of Chicken Run Rescue with some of the chickens they keep at their north Minneapolis home.


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With cold weather approaching, a lot of local chicken owners are seeking new homes for their birds.

“Winter is difficult,” said Mandy Meyer of New Prague, who advertised her daughter’s chickens on Craigslist last week.

Coops require more cleaning in winter, plus there’s extra shoveling, heating and making sure the birds have fresh, unfrozen water. Now that her daughter is heading off to college, Meyer is hoping to downsize the flock of 16 hens and one rooster, “Cluck Gable.”

But she won’t sell them for meat, she said. “If I can’t find someone who wants ’em, I’ll just hang on to ’em.”

Not all chicken-keepers hang onto their surplus poultry until they can find good homes, however. The recent boom in back-yard chickens, fueled by the local food movement, has produced a boomlet of unwanted birds that swells at this time of year.

“The numbers escalate in August as back-to-school mentality sets in, then increase as the fall progresses and explode when the cold weather actually hits,” said Mary Britton Clouse, founder of Chicken Run Rescue, a home-based shelter program in Minneapolis.

Chicken Run has seen its numbers increase dramatically in recent years, coinciding with the rise in urban hipsters and locavore foodies who have been inspired to try their hand at small back-yard poultry operations.

In 2001, Chicken Run rescued just six birds. Last year, Clouse and her husband, Bert, fielded almost 500 surrender requests for “urban farm animals,” mostly chickens, and rescued more than 30, many with “special needs,” such as chickens that lost feet to frostbite or reproductive cancers linked to constant egg-laying. Some of the rescues have been waiting for new homes for more than a year, she said. (In the meantime, they live in the couple’s back-yard coop and, during the cold months, in their basement.)

“I knew this was going to happen,” Clouse said of the explosion in surrendered and abandoned chickens. “All the other sanctuaries and shelters have noticed an increase. It’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion.”

Chicken Run takes requests from Minneapolis Animal Control, the Animal Humane Society and wildlife rehab clinics. Some of the birds come from cockfighting seizures, but many have been abandoned or neglected by owners who don’t understand what’s required or realize that chickens are “a long-term commitment,” according to Clouse.

Some new coop converts discover that keeping fowl is more work than they expected. Others give up their hens after they stop laying eggs — or after they get sick and require expensive medical care. And quite a few folks discover that the baby chick they bought to lay eggs is never going to.

“ ‘Whoops! I have a rooster.’ That’s a big one,” Clouse said.“People get chicks from hatcheries, and they mis-sex the birds. Or they throw in a baby rooster for extra body heat” during shipping.

‘Interest is increasing’

Still, the popularity of back-yard chickens shows no signs of abating.

More cities and suburbs now allow small coops, and other municipalities continue to debate whether chickens belong in residential neighborhoods. Two Lake Minnetonka communities, Deephaven and Woodland, recently took up the issue. Farther north, Centerville and Circle Pines recently began allowing back-yard coops, with municipal approval.

“At our store here, I would say interest is increasing,” said Audrey Matson, owner of Egg/Plant Urban Farm Supply in St. Paul. “I do not think back-yard chickens and beekeeping have peaked.”

Many of her customers initially want chickens for the eggs but end up keeping them as pets once their egg production drops off. “A lot are surprised to find they like them as as pets. They’re fun to have around and fun to watch. They have personalities.”

And there’s a brisk chicken trade on Craigslist and other online forums.

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  • Some birds come from owners who don’t realize that chickens “are a long-term commitment,” Clouse said.

  • Several of the chickens being housed by Mary Britton Clouse and Bert Clouse of Chicken Run Rescue, at their north Minneapolis home.

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