eat Willcutt's home on Nicollet Island straddles two worlds. The front-yard view -- a swath of downtown Minneapolis skyline -- is as urban as it gets.
But the view out back could be a scene from rural Nicollet County: a chicken coop, adorned with vintage farm tools and filled with fowl -- 30 hens, two roosters, a dozen ducks and three geese, to be precise.
Willcutt, a University of Minnesota student who shares chicken chores and eggs with several neighboring households, sees nothing incongruous about poultry farming in the heart of the city. He's been raising animals and growing his own veggies since he was a kid in Rice County.
"With chickens, you can harvest food even in the winter," he said. On a frigid February afternoon, when most urbanites were snug indoors, Willcutt was out feeding his flock a homemade treat of rice, yogurt, garlic and cat food, tossed with olive oil. (They also eat commercial feed and kitchen scraps.) "We don't throw away food anymore. We have our own garbage disposal."
The Nicollet Island flock is large, as residential poultry populations go, but no longer a rarity. Back-yard chicken coops are hatching in cities and suburbs all over the country, from New York to Seattle, and a growing array of books and websites are offering advice and support. Willcutt operates a site, www.urbanagrarian.com, takes part in an online forum with 110 local members and teaches "Chickens in the City" classes. "It's a great way to meet interesting people who share the same values," he said.
Melissa Driscoll of Minneapolis, who has raised chickens most of her life, taught a similar class during the 1990s. "But there's a lot more interest now," she said.
Chicken-related questions to the University of Minnesota's animal science department have surged in recent years, said poultry expert Jacquie Jacob, who now averages one such call each week.
And the number of small-animal permits issued in the city of Minneapolis nearly doubled between 2006 and 2007, from 31 to 57, said Tom Doty, manager of field services. More than three-fourths of the 2007 permits were for fowl, according to Marilyn Fisher, manager of shelter operations.
How did the humble chicken suddenly acquire urban cachet? The locally grown food movement is a big factor, said Paula Pentel, an urban studies instructor at the University of Minnesota. Consumer scares, such as last year's spinach recall, have raised concerns about long supply chains, she said. "People are interested in having more control over their food sources."
That's why Chelsie Glaubitz, a university student who keeps five hens in the Prospect Park neighborhood, asked for a coop for Christmas two years ago. She had no agricultural background, but wanted to grow her own food. "It tastes better, and it's better for the environment," she said. "I have major reservations about industrial agriculture and animal welfare."
Her housemates don't share her fervor. "They think I'm kind of a hippie," she said. "They'll eat the eggs, and if I'm gone for a few days, they'll help, although some of my roommates are more scared of eggs from the back yard than from the grocery store."
For Chris Magnuson of Robbinsdale, it's satisfying to cook with eggs laid by her three hens. "I feel more connected and pride of ownership," she said. "When I make pancakes, I love cracking our own chicken eggs."
Chickens make great pets, according to Driscoll, who keeps three in the Longfellow neighborhood. "They're fun to watch, and they're good for gardening because you get great manure. The chickens love the compost pile. It's kind of a recycling system."
And some of today's poultry keepers are "die-hard foodies who want eggs you can't find in the store," Willcutt said. "I started keeping ducks because I couldn't find duck eggs and I wanted to cook with them. They have more fat. They're particularly good in custards and desserts."
His eggs, their shells a subtle rainbow of hues from chocolate brown to minty green to creamy yellow, taste far superior to those from the supermarket, he said.
"It's kind of amazing, the freshness. Two minutes later, they're sunny-side up in the frying pan."
But not everyone thinks urban chickens are such a great idea. Jinny Kolar, a longtime resident of St. Paul's Hamline-Midway neighborhood, was dismayed to learn that her next-door neighbor was seeking a fowl permit and trying to organize neighborhood chicken cooperatives.
"I don't think a 40-foot city lot is the right place," Kolar said. "When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time on my grandparents' farm. I know how noisy and smelly chickens are. I moved to the city to have nothing to do with that style of life, and here it is coming to my back yard." (St. Paul Pioneer Press columnist Joe Soucheray sided with Kolar in a recent column headlined "Dumb clucks coming to Midway.")
The neighbor who sought the permit, Faith Krogstad, said most neighbors have supported her plans, and she's tried to reassure the others that she will be a responsible chicken owner. "I don't want to be controversial," she said. "I don't think three birds in a back yard should be a big deal."
Chicken advocate Mary Britton Clouse of Minneapolis says that the decision to raise chickens is more complex than it appears. "People are promoting it with the angle that it's more sustainable and healthier for the animals," she said. But if people are buying chicks that came from hatcheries, they're still supporting commercial poultry operations and what she considers inhumane practices. She encourages people to view chickens as "companion animals" rather than egg factories, and to consider adopting abandoned hens rather than buying chicks. (For more information, visit www .chickenrunrescue.petfinder.org)
Because chickens blur the line between pets and livestock, communities have widely varying policies on urban fowl. In Minneapolis and St. Paul, residents seeking a permit must collect signatures of approval from a majority of their neighbors. Minnetonka doesn't require a permit at all, allowing five chickens per half-acre, said community service officer DeeAnn Bloom. Eagan, which last year denied a teen's request to raise hens, considers chickens farm animals, said Gene Van Overbeke. They're prohibited unless the site is zoned for agriculture and at least 5 acres.
Some cities that frown on urban fowl are under pressure to become more chicken-friendly. In Duluth, a group (www.duluth citychickens.org) is trying to get the city to relax its policy against coops in residential areas. And in Madison, Wis., a group called the poultry underground persuaded the city to pass a 2004 law allowing residents of single-family homes to raise chickens in their back yards.
Roosters, which can wake the neighbors with their crowing or be used for illegal cockfighting, are more controversial than hens. Minnetonka doesn't allow roosters; Minneapolis and St. Paul do, as long as they're specified in the permit. Other complaints about urban chickens range from odor to landscape damage. The Nicollet Island chickens used to free-roam -- until they dug up a neighbor's freshly planted garden, Willcutt said.
Driscoll once had a neighbor complain that her coop was attracting rats. "Now I don't leave food out overnight, and there's been no problem," she said. "I try to keep people happy. I give them eggs, and I always say, 'If you have a problem, talk to me first.'"
Compromise between chicken fans and foes is likely to continue. Urban agriculture is more than fad; it's a trend with legs, according to Pentel.
"We're starting to see some different system changes. Finding ways to get more ecological function out of our urban areas is going to continue to be important."
Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784