CHICAGO – The City Council is poised to send a message to residents: We don't want your clucking chickens.
Coming up for a vote Wednesday is a proposal to ban chickens, a former barnyard denizen that is pecking its way into cities across the country as part of a growing organic food trend among young professionals and other urban dwellers.
Chicken lovers say the birds make great pets, don't take up much backyard space and provide tasty, nutritious eggs.
Cities including Madison, Wis., and Kent, Wash., have passed ordinances allowing people to keep chickens. In Ann Arbor, Mich., a councilman says he plans to introduce a resolution to allow hens to be kept for eggs, and the Board of Zoning Appeals in the upscale Indianapolis suburb of Carmel recently approved an exception to city rules to allow a family to keep three hens in their backyard.
But the Chicago alderman who proposed a Chicago ban say chicken lovers forget that the birds attract rodents.
"This past summer I started hearing that residents were letting chickens out of their yard and they were leaving poop and mice were feeding off of it," said Alderman Lona Lane. "Then we started getting rodent-control problems and, sure enough, it was the chickens."
There are also concerns about parasites the birds might carry, and the possibility that they could transmit bird flu if it makes its way to the U.S., said Dr. Marek Digas, the supervising veterinarian at the city's Commission on Animal Care and Control.
"It is something we should consider," he said.
Many neighbors of chicken-keepers aren't happy, either. This year, the city received more than 700 complaints about chickens — though mostly about the racket from roosters.
"We don't encourage people to keep roosters because of the noise," said Johannes Paul, one of the founders of Omlet, a British company that sells a dome-shaped chicken house called the eglu in the U.S for $495.
"The chickens will produce eggs more than happily without a rooster around," Paul said.
Chicagoan Kim Jackson said her two chickens, Papoo and Chalmers, do a little quiet talking but that's it.
She says they don't smell, largely because she and her husband regularly clean up after them. But even if they didn't, "it's not nearly as bad as a dog as far as how far-reaching the smell will get," she said.
Although there are no firm statistics on the number of city chickens, they're becoming so popular that Backyard Poultry magazine was relaunched a couple of years ago after halting publication in the 1980s. And Paul said U.S. sales of his company's designer chicken coops have doubled every year since they were introduced here in 2005.
Those who have eaten eggs from their own chickens say they are far fresher and tastier than store-bought eggs.
"And they're so productive for the garden," said Owen Taylor, training and livestock coordinator of Just Food, a New York-based nonprofit group. "They aerate the soil, eat bugs and they look like little tractors, tilling the soil."
Taylor said he was surprised that Chicago — a city that banned foie gras in restaurants over concerns about cruelty to geese and embraced rooftop gardening — isn't more welcoming of chickens.
"The mayor has bees on the roof of City Hall so I was thinking Chicago was ahead of its time in terms of livestock regulations," said Taylor.
Some say the experience of chicken-keepers in other cities proves Chicago's proposed ordinance is unnecessary.
"You hear the same argument (that) they're loud, they smell ... that there would be wild chickens running amok in Seattle, but that hasn't been the case,' said Angelina Shell, of Seattle Tilth, a nonprofit organic gardening and urban ecology group.
What may doom them in Chicago, say chicken supporters, is that for all the talk about noise, smell and disease, chickens simply don't look like they belong in today's modern city.
"It's a gentrification issue," said Erika Allen of Growing Power, a nonprofit group that promotes urban gardening around the country. "People move in and they don't want chickens next to their house so they go and complain."