Long ago chicken breeders must have seen poetry in the clucking, scratching, strutting birds that they tagged with fanciful breed names like Midnight Majesty Maran, Barred Plymouth Rock, Brahma and Silver Laced Wyandotte.
Today an increasing number of those heritage breed hens are pecking away in backyards across the Twin Cities, providing shimmering brown, pastel and cream-colored eggs for new chicken hobbyists.
“We were sitting outside talking, and I heard the faint crow of a rooster in the neighborhood, and I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun for us to do that?’ ” said Kanut Laoharawee, a graduate student at the University of Minnesota.
After several weeks of research and reading, Laoharawee and his partner Tom Rogers spent three weekends building a coop. They’re getting started with four chickens that are taking up residence in their fenced yard in the Camden neighborhood of Minneapolis.
“We are really into food; we cook every day. It’s our hobby,” said Rogers. “During the lockdown, we’ve gotten into baking and making pasta from scratch. We’re thinking about cracking one of our own fresh eggs in a few months, and we’re pretty excited.”
Two birds, one stone
This spring, farm stores, garden centers and breeders are reporting an unprecedented run on laying hens.
There are two motivators driving the interest. First, as social activities slowed during the lockdown, people began looking for new interests — and companions — to fill their empty hours. At the same time, heightened anxiety about the grocery supply chain made the idea of producing at least some food at home ever more appealing.
“We’re having a season I describe as legendary,” exulted Leslie Johnson, store manager at Egg|Plant Urban Farm Supply in St. Paul. “We’ve sold between 125 and 250 chicks a week since March; that’s insane.”
Egg|Plant purchases day-old female chicks that arrive via the U.S. mail from an Iowa hatchery. People who purchase these tiny balls of fluff keep them indoors under a heat lamp for two months before transferring them to outdoor henhouses. As the chicks double in size each week, owners are encouraged to handle them to make them gentle and friendly.
People who want to skip the baby bird step and start with hens ready to lay can buy 4-month-old Silkies, a breed prized for 4-H projects, from VJP Poultry, a hatchery in Forest Lake.
“Silkies are the poodle lap dog of chickens; their temperament is calm and docile so they’re a good choice for families,” said hatchery owner Victoria Peterson. “I’ve seen a phenomenal increase since COVID started; the phone never stops ringing, and I don’t even advertise. The season is usually winding down by now but I’m still going strong.”
TV host Elizabeth Ries frequently mentions her backyard flock when she’s ad-libbing on the set of “Twin Cities Live” on KSTP.
“It’s my No. 1 conversation topic. I’m always squawking about my chickens,” she said. “In the past two months, I’ve gotten more questions from viewers about how to get started than in the previous eight years that I’ve been doing this.”
Ries was inspired to get started after reporting a story on a suburban chicken keeper when the trend of city chickens was relatively new.
“I thought, well gosh, I could do that,” she recalled.
Since then, a free-range flock has been a constant as she married, moved, had two children and is now expecting her third.
“I can’t imagine a home and a yard without chickens,” she said. “Right now we have three — Chippie, Daisy and Allie. I love their little noises when they’re rustling around. It’s so calming to take care of them, it’s like a moving meditation.”
Gathering eggs from her Minneapolis coop with her children, Bernadette, 5, and Franklin, 3, is a daily ritual for Ries.
“We find two or three a day,” she said. “We keep it simple, scramble them in lots of butter with that yolk that’s so bright orange it’s almost red. The best egg you’ll ever eat is the one that comes out of your own backyard.”
Learning the lay of the land
Bob Lies teaches basic chicken-keeping to customers who buy chicks at Egg|Plant, which he owns.
On a recent Saturday, with his speckled brown Sussex hen Cosmo perched over his shoulder, Lies conducted a two-hour online course for new city chicken keepers.
“There’s lots of reasons to do this, but if you think you’ll get cheap eggs, forget it,” Lies told the class. “They will be beautiful eggs from happy chickens, but they will not come cheap.”
Adding backyard birds is not done on impulse. Lies calculated that it takes a minimum of $500 to get started. The chicks themselves cost just a few bucks but they need a coop with nesting boxes and a run, bedding material for the floor and other equipment. While chickens are omnivores that snap up scraps from the kitchen or garden, they also require formulated feed.
After keeping his own flock in his St. Paul yard for the past dozen years, Lies is well-equipped to take fledgling students under his wing. His sage advice ranged from protecting chickens from predators — raccoons, owls, the neighbor’s dog — to managing their manure and understanding poultry psychology.
“They are social creatures. You don’t get just one. Three is the absolute minimum; I say five is a good number,” he said. “Hens have distinct personalities, and one is the boss. She will be mean and aggressive to the other chickens but not to you. Everyone has a spot in the pecking order, and they work that out. You can sit and watch their little soap opera for hours.”
Siri Pontaut, 13, took careful notes during Lies’ online lecture. This spring as her classes shifted to home, and her activities dwindled to nothing, the Edina girl persuaded her parents to invest in a few chickens.
“I like the idea of raising creatures, bonding with them. When everything gets crazy, animals are content to be themselves and enjoy the moment,” said the incoming eighth-grader.
Now her wooden play set has been replaced with a coop, and the family is awaiting their three chicks.
“Siri broached the idea and got us on board. She’s naturally responsible and curious,” said Siri’s mother, Susan, who is working remotely, giving her time to be involved. “There’s a scientific aspect to this, a biology lesson in the backyard. I think it will be a great learning experience for her.”
“Plus chickens are cute and fluffy,” Siri pointed out.
But not everyone who adopts chickens will go the distance with them.
Just as dogs, cats and other companion animals are surrendered to shelters and rescue groups, chickens are also abandoned by owners who can’t or won’t take care of them.
“Well-intentioned people fail. They enter into this without an appreciation of what’s involved,” warned Mary Britton Clouse, an animal rights advocate who co-founded Chicken Run Rescue with her husband.
“People grow up with dogs and cats that are looked on as family members. Chickens are different. People don’t have the same feeling for them. Too many use them and then discard them.”
Referred by animal control officers, Clouse has picked up chickens left in parks, bird sanctuaries, alleys and golf courses. She’s seen abandoned birds injured in attacks by other wildlife and neglected hens and roosters that have lost feet to frostbite.
Clouse cares for dozens of these forsaken chickens but closely guards her south metro address for fear that people will “dump birds” there. She keeps a short list of chicken lovers willing to foster the chickens she takes in.
She frets about a surge of urban chickens, especially as winter approaches.
“People don’t want to go out and take care of them. It’s inconvenient when it’s 20 below,” she said. “I discourage backyard chickens, but if people do it, they should suck it up and honor their responsibility for the life of the bird.”
There’s a Listserve discussion group and a pair of Facebook groups for Minnesotans who raise chickens, where participants can try to rehome birds they can no longer keep.
The online groups are mostly places where members share and seek ideas on managing their backyard flocks and post pictures to show off chicks, imaginative coops and freshly gathered eggs.
Eight years ago, Jessica Henke started the Minnesota Backyard Chicken Group on Facebook, now grown to 2,200 members.
“I was trying to find information relevant to Minnesota, and I was having a hard time getting my questions answered,” said Henke, of Forest Lake. “We’re seeing a big uptick now in people getting started.”
Ries has come up with a suggestion that she offers to those who are debating whether to get going with their own urban flock.
“Ask someone you know if you can be their chicken sitter for a few days when they go on vacation,” she urged. “See what’s involved and find out if it’s for you. If you go into it with your eyes open, it will be good for you and good for the chickens.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis freelance writer and broadcaster.