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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, July 30, 2014

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In Living

Neva and her "pet" chicken in their Milwaukee backyard. (PHOTO: Royal Bonde-Griggs)

In Living

Melissa Scanlan checks on her bees inside their pod. (PHOTO: Royal Bonde-Griggs)

In Living

Chickens roam freely in fenced, city yards. (PHOTO: Royal Bonde-Griggs)

City folk keep chickens, bees


Get on your overalls, Milwaukee, because thanks to recent ordinances that legalized the keeping of backyard bees and chickens, urban farming is now a reality.

At the end of May, the Milwaukee Common Council voted to permit residents – for a one-year trial basis – to keep chickens in their backyards if they met specific criteria.

Urban chicken keepers will have to get written consent from their neighbors and property owners (if they do not own their home) and pay a $35 fee through the Department of Neighborhood Services. The permit entitles them to keep four chickens – no roosters – if they have a coop that's at least 25 feet from their house and at least 16 square feet of space per chicken. They cannot slaughter the birds.

Tracy and her 13-year-old daughter, Neva, plan to purchase a permit at the end of the month, but recently, they opened their yard to three chickens that were in need of a new home. Spotty, Una and Chirp are about a year old and they live in a large coop that was build by Tracy's landlord. The backyard is large and fenced, with multiple lush gardens.

The three chickens have free roam of the yard, but Tracy says she had to put up fencing to protect her vegetable garden. "They'll eat jalapenos right off the plant," she says. "But actually, that makes me appreciate them even more."

Because chickens can fly, their feathers need to get clipped so they can't escape. "The feather clipping doesn't hurt them," says Neva.

Neva, who is the family's chicken expert, says the hens are very easy to care for. They eat everything from vegetables to couscous along with cracked corn and grit.

"The grit goes to their gizzard and grinds up their food because they don't have teeth," says Neva.

Una is an "Easter Egger" hen, Spotty is a Barred Rock hen and Chirp is of the Road Island Red variety. They lay about two eggs every day and one of the hens lays blue eggs; the other two lay brown. They are all about a year old and have a five-year lifespan. Neva says they have a "pecking order" that puts Spotty on top and Una at the bottom of the power chain. She says that they are docile and not particularly affectionate.

"They don't mind being around kids, and you can hold them, but it's not really their thing," she says.

Neva says she wanted to keep chickens for a long time and she did most of her chicken research on the Internet and through reading books. "They have always been an appeal," she says. "They are extremely interesting to me. They all have different personalities."

So far, the neighbors have not complained about the yard birds. Mostly because they are quiet animals – although they like to cluck when a storm is on the way – and because Tracy and Neva are vigilant about picking up poop.

"It makes incredibly good fertilizer for the garden," says Tracy.

Neva and Tracy did a lot of research to prepare for the winter months ahead and decided the chickens will live outside in an unheated coop with a heating pan under their water bowl. Tracy says it was a tough decision to decide whether or not to heat the coop because there are opposing theories as to what's best for the birds.

"We received solid advice that heating the coop in winter will actually weaken their ability to deal with winter and they are actually more likely to get sick from the cold," she says.

Urban beekeeping has been legal in Milwaukee since March 2010.

"We have issued nine beekeeping permits," says Todd Weiler of the Department of Neighborhood Services.

Melissa Scanlan bought one of these $80 permits and currently has about 5,000 honeybees living in a pod in her Washington Heights' backyard. At some point this summer, she estimates she'll have up to 50,000 bees.

Scanlan, who is an environmental attorney, attended a beekeeping class prior to receiving her bees last month. She bought her bee pod from the Milwaukee company Sweet Water Organics for $475.

Scanlan says she became interested in keeping bees after reading a lot about the collapsing of bee colonies.

"This is serious. Bees pollinate our fruits and vegetables and trees. It is pretty sad to think about a world without bees," she says.

Scanlan's bee colony came from the Urban Ecology Center and the cost was $100 for the swarm. Bees can also be purchased through the mail, but Scanlan liked the idea of buying local bees that had already lived through a Wisconsin winter.

During the winter months, the bees stay inside the pod and surround the queen. They flap their wings to keep the queen in a constant 92-degree environment. The queen lays 1,000-2,000 eggs every day throughout the year.

Scanlan organizes a community garden in a vacant lot directly across the alley from her home, so her bees can travel back and forth between the pod and the garden. The bees make honey inside the pod, which can be harvested regularly, which is one of the perks of beekeeping.

Like those who want to raise yard chickens, Scanlan had to get written permission from her neighbors before bringing in the bees. "Mostly people are excited about it, but bewildered," she says.

So far, no one in Scanlan's family – which includes her husband and three young children – has gotten stung. She reminds yard visitors that, unlike wasps, honeybees die when they sting someone, so they are less likely to sting if they are left alone.

"They are calm and quiet," she says.

Talkbacks

CoolerKing | July 25, 2011 at 6:58 a.m. (report)

While I commend people for doing this, I'm somewhat skeptical about the "trend" factor here, i.e., "all my friends are doing it I should too". I hope I'm wrong, but I wouldn't be surprised if I see chicken rescue organizations in the future. If you've never raised chickens before, please research it to make sure it's right for you. There's more to it than penning them up, feeding them and collecting the eggs.

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janemarek | July 22, 2011 at 6:02 p.m. (report)

Why raise the birds if you can not slaughter them? This a conspiracy of KFC proportion!

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