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Urban chickens fly under Duluth's radar

DULUTH, Minn. - There's a small group in the city -- a handful to a dozen, depending on the rumors -- who live in fear of having their secret revealed. They will discuss their secret only with other secret-keepers, the only ones who can be truste...

DULUTH, Minn. - There's a small group in the city -- a handful to a dozen, depending on the rumors -- who live in fear of having their secret revealed. They will discuss their secret only with other secret-keepers, the only ones who can be trusted, because they know what could happen if it becomes public.

Or maybe they have reason to be, um, chicken.

"The city is telling them it's illegal," said Nancy Nelson, a Duluth resident who doesn't have chickens but wants them. She is organizing an effort to make them legal in the city. "If people admit to having them, they'll have to get rid of them."

Sort of. Under the Duluth charter, according to City Attorney Bryan Brown, it is illegal to raise chickens in any Duluth residential zone. Still, animal control seems to have what amounts to a "don't ask, don't tell" policy. They're not going to seek chickens out; people who have chickens said they've been told by the city that if any of their neighbors complain, they'll have to get rid of them.

"It's not at the top of my list of concerns," said Carrie Lane of the Police Department's animal control office. "It's not something I panic about."

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Many people who are interested in raising urban chickens talk about being more environmentally friendly and being part of a sustainable-foods lifestyle. That's the case for Chad Johnson and Kirsten Aune who, along with their 3-month-old and 4-year-old children, live at the top of Goat Hill in Lincoln Park/West End and have raised chickens in their backyard since April.

Aune said none of her neighbors have complained -- in fact, many bring their children to play with them.

"We're responsible with our chickens," she said.

Their 11 birds lay about seven eggs a day, which Aune said her family eats constantly.

"There's nothing better than fresh eggs," she said. "They have dark yolks that are rich in vitamins and nutrients."

Aune said other benefits of having chickens are that they reduce waste by eating food scraps, the birds eat ticks and mosquitoes during the summer, and their manure is great for the compost she uses to grow vegetables during the summer.

For others, having chickens is simply a fun hobby -- but one that must be done in relative secrecy. Jon and Allison Hinkel, who live in Lakeside, have had what he jokes are three "secret chickens" since spring.

Before getting them, Hinkel said he called the city and asked if keeping chickens in his backyard was legal. He was told it wasn't but that no one would do anything about them unless neighbors complained. He asked his neighbors if they would be OK with the chickens before he got them and, since then, he said he's received no complaints and also has had people coming over to look at them.

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"There's a great charm about them; they're unusual," Jon Hinkel said.

Not everyone has been able to keep their chickens. Marian Syrjamaki-Kuchta raised several chickens at her home across the street from the University of Minnesota Duluth. After one complaint, she said she was asked to put them out of view from other neighbors. But after they got loose last summer, Syrjamaki-Kuchta said she was asked to get rid of them. They've since been relegated to a farm in Rice Lake Township.

Syrjamaki-Kuchta wants them back, so she, along with Nelson and a few others, have formed Duluth City Chickens ( www.duluthcitychickens.org ), which is in the initial stages of working to change the zoning laws restricting them. They argue that numerous other cities allow urban chickens, including New York, Chicago and San Francisco, and that they often are cleaner and quieter than pets such as cats and dogs.

Lane said she rarely gets calls about chickens -- about six or seven in the past five years -- but those who do call bring up issues such as noise, smell and vermin when cages aren't kept clean, and even some concerned about bird flu. There also have been problems in the past with people raising roosters for fighting.

Still, Lane says she sees positives about being allowed to keep chickens.

"A lot of the people are trying to be eco-sensitive, trying to eat foods that don't have hormones and chemicals," she said. "The person at UMD is trying to do right by her chickens."

She said if the laws were to change -- which would be up to the Duluth City Council -- standards of care would have to be developed.

"I've been to houses where the chickens did not have a good life," she said. "There are laws people have to take good care of their dogs or cats. I don't know if there are similar laws about chickens."

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The Duluth News-Tribune and The Forum are both owned by Forum Communications Co. Urban chickens fly under Duluth's radar By Brandon Stahl 20071210

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