Poultry in Motion

THERE IS A photo album making the rounds of the crowded ThomasDale Block Club: photos of a chicken coop under construction, of the completed coop, of chickens, and of Melissa Driscoll with the chickens in her life. Driscoll is a self-described "chicken fanatic"--"Ever since I was a little kid I've just been in love with chickens," she has announced by way of an introduction--and on one of the first beautiful spring evenings in St. Paul, upwards of 50 people have gathered to hear her lifetime of experience on raising chickens in the city.

"I truly believe that you can raise animals, love them, and eat them," Driscoll says. "I think that can be an ethic. The way we raise meat in his country isn't very loving." Driscoll is a spirited and immensely quotable speaker, but, frankly, working against her tonight are Grace and Gretel, two caged bantam chickens in the front of the room. The chickens are a terrible distraction, an extravagant spectacle of tics--they lurch around their cage, preening, shuddering, scratching, aggressively jabbing at their mash and kicking up a rattling spray of grit. There is in their head-tossing strut and nervous energy something oddly suggestive of the neurology of the most hyperactive professional wrestlers. I can't keep my eyes off the chickens, and am almost irritated that Driscoll keeps saying such amazing things and forcing me to my notebook.

"My husband has one rule," I hear her say. "No chickens in bed." And a moment later: "Chickens have a relationship with their own manure. They don't thrive in a completely sterile environment." I miss something about a "repugnant zone," something to do with animals, manure, and behavioral avoidance, a concept that is apparently alien to chickens. But I'm not quite sure.

Grace appears to be hyperventilating and is glaring malevolently at her audience; she is making a noise that is something between a wheeze and a croak. Gretel just keeps jabbing away furiously, apparently taking advantage of Grace's temporary respiratory distraction.

"Chickens are a lot like dinosaurs," Driscoll says. "When I look at a chicken's feet I think of Tyrannosaurus Rex. They're bloodthirsty animals; they'll kill mice and eat them. When I was a kid and we butchered chickens, we'd give the other chickens the intestines and they'd eat them. They love eggs and they'll eat chicken. They'll eat their own kind." Actually, Driscoll says, chickens on the whole are basically voracious and indiscriminate eaters, period. "They love worms, curdled milk, moldy old cheese, weeds from your garden; they love compost and will eat all the bugs. Chickens get bored, so you have to sort of mix things up and provide them with some variety. It's kind of fun to watch them eat yogurt. That's really their life, food, and looking for food. When it comes to what they can or can't eat, I just basically trust the chickens' instincts."

Driscoll grew up on a hobby farm and has kept chickens all her life. She is presently the coordinator for the North Country Coop and lives with her husband in the Longfellow neighborhood. At the moment she has four chickens in her backyard, and teaches two or three community-education chicken classes every year. "Usually we get between five and 15 people for these classes," she says. "I was really pleasantly surprised by this turnout. I think these days you have fewer and fewer people in the city who have any kind of farm connection--particularly with kids--and people are starting to get interested in bringing a little bit of that farm lifestyle into town. It's about making the city a really liveable place."

The city of Minneapolis prohibits the keeping of hooved animals, making chickens the last real barnyard option for the urban farmer. There is no limit on the number of chickens one may keep, but a city permit is needed, and that requires the consent of 80 percent of the neighbors residing within 100 feet of the applicant, who is also subject to annual inspections. The slaughter of chickens is also prohibited within the city limits. Currently there are 23 chicken-only permits registered in the city of Minneapolis. Driscoll has never had a problem getting the necessary neighborhood consent and, aside from a one-time problem with rats, has never had any complaints.

"One thing people need to realize," she says, "is that the animal-control people are going to look at your chickens as pets, and you have to provide for them as such. In the city a chicken is always going to be a pet, and kind of not a pet. You've got to have the space and a structure to protect them from the environment. You need to guard against predators like rats and raccoons. I let my chickens out in the day and shut them up at night. Raccoons love a chicken dinner. It's sad when you go out to the coop and it's just a bloody mess in there."

Driscoll's four hens will generally provide her with two to three eggs a day, except in winter when production is down. "Getting the eggs is really the fun part," she says. "You get the freshest eggs ever, straight from the nest to the frying pan."

The other obvious benefit of keeping chickens is their steady production of the most virtuosic fertilizer. "They've got the hottest, most potent manure," Driscoll says, "just the most amazing stuff for your garden."

Driscoll orders fertilized eggs through the mail--"Towards the end, when the egg is actually chirping, well that's pretty exciting for a chicken fanatic," she says--but there are plenty of other options for the aspiring chicken farmer as well. One may buy a chicken in person from a breeder or through the mail. "Getting live chickens through the mail is, like, normal," she insists. But she does have one final bit of seemingly sound advice when picking that first chicken: "Get a chicken that doesn't have any puss in its eyes."

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