Property Rights

Backyard Chickens Make Headway in Iowa, Stall Out in New York

Fowl regulations are improving in some places, ruffling feathers in others.


More and more local governments around the country appear to be embracing the rights of residents to keep and raise egg-laying chickens in their backyards. The fact more cities and towns are warming to chicken ownership is, itself, a particularly welcome and timely development. As concerns over food inflation and egg shortages grip the nation, having a steady supply of tasty, inexpensive protein in one's own backyard can be a blessing.

The term "backyard chickens" refers generally to egg-laying hens, rather than nuisance-y roosters (which belong only on true farms or t-shirts). Backyard chickens, I write in my book Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable, are prized for their eggs, free fertilizer, and ability to control (read: eat) small pests such as grubs. That's why chickens, I write, have become "the face of backyard livestock." As I also detail in my book, several major U.S. cities—including Denver and Seattle—have moved to allow backyard chickens in recent years.

Backyard chicken ownership can present challenges. My friend's neighbors here in Seattle have lost several chickens to foxes and raccoons—a reasonably common problem. Chickens can carry and transmit diseases. They sometimes also fly the coop, becoming "the fowl in [a neighbor's] foyer" until they're returned. Inevitably, too, chickens that live long enough stop laying eggs and, eventually, die.

Despite these challenges, chicken ownership is on the rise. Story County, Iowa, home to Ames, is one place that's moving to allow residents to raise backyard chickens (which appear already to be legal in Ames). And Cecil County, Maryland, lawmakers are also considering allowing backyard chickens. But the proposal there would prohibit people living in "urbanized residential areas" from raising them, the Cecil Whig reported last month.

"Many counties in Maryland including Baltimore City are more lenient than Cecil County when it comes to chicken ownership," the Whig notes. "In Baltimore City, residents may keep up to 4 hens on lots that are under 2,000 square feet, which is around 1/25th of an acre."

In Palatine, Illinois, lawmakers are considering reforms that would reduce the significant regulatory hurdles potential chicken owners face there.

"Residents are allowed to have backyard hens—not roosters—with a special use permit," the Daily Herald reported last month. "That means they have to submit a plan, have a public hearing before the zoning board of appeals, and get approval from the village council."

The council will consider removing at least some of those needless hurdles sometime this year.

Despite the apparently improving climate for backyard chicken ownership, countless cities and towns around the country still prohibit or severely restrict backyard chickens. In a column last year that focused on a Pennsylvania town's campaign to bar a local couple from raising a few hens and ducks in their yard, for example, I noted fights over similar prohibitions in Iowa and New Hampshire. Other restrictions are still making news today.

In Eaton Rapids, Michigan, for example, local officials in October told a woman whose family had been raising chickens in their two-acre city yard for decades that she'd have "to remove the birds from her property or face a 90-day misdemeanor and/or a $500 fine." The owner, Carolyn Adams, 77, was forced to give up her flock.

A new zoning plan that Utica, New York, residents had hoped would include provisions for chicken ownership failed to take hold this year. One opponent of backyard chickens in Utica, explaining her opposition to chickens, cited fireworks, dust, her neighbor's cannabis smoking, and "many people from other cultures living throughout the city who do not understand our ways."

There are many excellent reasons to support the right of people to own and raise backyard chickens. While both chicken ownership and regulatory reform appear to be on the rise, the challenge advocates face is to explain the benefits of high-quality eggs, pest control, property rights, and "other cultures" to people who may be disinclined to embrace them.