Snickers huddles with her two sisters beneath a coop, trying to stay warm and out of the wind. But when former WORT News Director Molly Stentz approaches the trio with a bag of their favorite treats,they brave the winds and peck at the ground, eating every mealworm in their path.
Snickers, or at least Stentz thinks her name is Snickers, is a chicken living outside of the town of Brooklyn, about 20 minutes south of Madison. She moved there with her sisters, also chickens, a few months back, having spent most of her life living in Stentz’s near-east side backyard.
Before moving to the country, Molly and her partner John had kept chickens in their backyard for around a decade.
While chickens usually conjure images of Wisconsin’s ample farmland, surrounded by cows, goats, and other animals only seen in rural areas, the city of Madison has allowed backyard flocks of chickens since 2004.
Stentz says that keeping chickens in the city is easier than it looks. The only thing to really watch out for, they say, is urban predators.
“The predator situation in the city is more intense than people realize,” Molly says. “Because a lot of yards in Madison are so small, there’s not a lot of room to escape. We have lost chickens, and I feel like a lot of people who have raised chickens have lost chickens, to, we had a hawk kill one, hawks are I think the biggest predators, but then (there is) coyotes and foxes. (It depends) on which part of town you’re in, and how close you are to the Arboretum.”
Still, Stentz says that chickens can be rewarding for urban homeowners, not just in the eggs that can be turned into breakfast, but as an easy educational tool for children to learn about raising animals.
Currently, the number of hens allowed in a backyard flock in Madison is capped at four. But a proposal going before the city council tomorrow night could raise the number of allowable hens in a backyard flock to eight.
The proposal, introduced by alders Grant Foster of District 15 and Yannette Figueroa Cole of District 10, would leave much of the current rules surrounding backyard chickens in place: coops cannot be built within 25 feet of any residential structure on a neighboring property, no roosters are allowed, and chickens owners must get a yearly license from the city, which costs $10.
Alder Figueroa Cole says that the reason she signed onto raising the limit is to help families on a strict food budget fight inflation.
“I think now, with the rising cost of eggs across the nation, it has become more significant for people who are already raising chickens to have an additional supply for them to feed their families,” Figueroa Cole says.
According to a memo from the city’s zoning commission, there are currently 114 annual chicken licenses issued by the city.
Snickers doesn’t produce many eggs these days. In their prime, a hen can lay an egg every day. But after about three to four years, egg production slows down. Stentz says that these days, with their aging chickens, they usually only get a small handful of eggs a week.
That, Figueroa Cole says, is the driving reason why they think the number of allowable chickens should be raised.
Originally, the ordinance called for the number of allowable chickens to be raised to 10. But members of the city’s plan commission raised concerns at a meeting last week, saying that while allowing six or even eight chickens would be mostly negligible to neighbors, allowing 10 could invite sanitation or noise complaints, says Matt Tucker with Madison’s Building Inspection.
“There’s something else going on here, when you have someone with ten or more chickens at their property,” Tucker says. “There tends to be other issues going on above and beyond traditional chicken keeping.”
That’s what happened in Middleton, where until last year, there were no limits on how many chickens a house could have.
Kathy Olson, President of the Middleton Common Council, told WORT that starting in 2021, the city began to tighten their chicken ordinances after she saw a rise in complaints about the noise and smell of backyard flocks in her district. In April of last year, the city finalized their new ordinances, limiting the number of allowed chickens to six or eight, depending on the size of the property.
Olson says that the ordinance has been successful in Middleton, and that the number of chicken-based complaints have dropped.
Many municipalities around Dane County allow for some amount of backyard chickens. In Stoughton and DeForest, you can keep up to six chickens. In Sun Prairie and Verona, you can have up to four.
Stentz now lives in the country, where there is no real limit on the amount of chickens she is allowed to keep. Still, she says that more people getting into urban chicken raising is a good thing.
“I just think the more people doing it, the more people can support each other,” Stentz says. “(There would be) more tips, more normalized, it would be easier, (because) then it’s like, if you do have a problem or you do have a question, there’s more people you can ask.”
The ordinance to increase the number of allowable chickens will go before the full Common Council for a final vote tomorrow night.
Photo courtesy: Molly Stentz