Representatives of the local food movement, the environmental community, and Evanston’s Backyard Chickens appeared before the Human Services Committee Monday night, May 3, in an effort to remove the ban on chickens from the Evanston code through an ordinance presented by the Environment Board. The primary purpose of the change would be to allow residents to keep egg-laying hens in their backyards. But concerns raised by Aldermen about coyotes, rats and enforcement costs, as well as concern for the wellbeing of the chickens themselves, stalled the ordinance in committee as Aldermen asked for more information.

Carl Caneva of the City’s Health Department traced the origin of the proposed ordinance to the screening of the documentary film “Mad City Chickens” at the Evanston Public Library last September. The film, about the return of chickens to Madison, Wis., when that city passed a law similar to the proposed ordinance, drew a crowd of about 125 people, Mr. Caneva said. Evanston’s Backyard Chickens, an advocacy group, formed shortly thereafter and began working with the Environment Board to get the chicken ban overturned.

Paige Finnigan, co-chair of the Environment Board, cited the Climate Action Plan as the genesis of that group’s interest in the ordinance. The CAP calls for less transportation of food and an effort to consume food produced closer to home.

Debbie Hillman, co-founder of the Evanston Food Policy Council, agreed and supported the ordinance as one way to encourage residents to think about where food originates. She said that backyard chickens, like gardening, are one way to reconnect with the earth, nature, and weather at a time when citizens have become “very cut off.”

Ahron Solomon, of Evanston’s Backyard Chickens, said that he hoped to raise chickens not only for eggs but to keep as pets. When Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward, asked what would happen to chickens after their prime egg-laying days had passed, Mr. Solomon said he and many in the community saw chickens as pets and not egg producers or food. He admitted, though, that 80 percent of his group focused on chickens as food producers while the remaining 20 percent put them in the same category as cats and dogs.

Council’s concerns fell into four main categories: predators and pests, as expressed by Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward; enforcement costs, expressed by Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward; purpose as sustainable resources or pets, expressed by Ald. Jean-Baptiste; and a general disapproval of viewing animals as food, expressed by Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward. The remaining member of the committee, Alderman Mark Tendam, 6th Ward, expressed unqualified support for the ordinance.

The coyote and rat questions could not be readily answered by the ordinance’s supporters. The Committee received conflicting information about the coyote threat. The City’s Chief Animal Warden, who in a memo said that she believes hens will attract coyotes, but a Certified Wildlife Biologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources wrote in an e-mail, “Coyotes are territorial, so it is unlikely that the presence of chickens would attract more coyotes than you already have.” Mr. Caneva said that he had asked Madison if their ordinance had increased coyote activity, but had not yet received an answer. The Committee asked for more information, including a response from Madison.

Mr. Caneva, Ms. Finnigan and Ald. Tendam all answered the rat question the same way: if the chicken coop and food storage is clean and secure, then chickens will not attract more rats than we already have. “I do think that one of the important parts of the ordinance is that [the hens] are secure,” said Ald. Tendam. Chickens are an investment, he said. Keeping them is not inexpensive. Owners are not likely, he said, to keep their investments in a way that will attract rats. The remainder of the committee was skeptical, though, and wanted more information concerning the rat threat.

Ald. Jean-Baptiste said he was confused as to whether the purpose of the ordinance was to allow people to harvest their own eggs or to keep chickens as pets. Tradeoffs of odor, attraction of rodents, and some noise that might be acceptable when weighed against the benefits of sustainability and food raised without chemicals by concerned families are weighed differently if the chickens are to be kept as pets. “It’s a different analysis,” he said.

Domesticated chickens have a lifespan of up to 14 years according to the Lincoln Park Zoo. They produce eggs for only four or five years, and peak egg production (up to four eggs per day) lasts only two years. After egg production slows or ends, hens become, in Ald. Holmes’ words, stewing chickens, or “chicken and dumplings.”

But Ald. Fiske appeared to shift the analysis reference by Ald. Jean-Baptiste 180 degrees by focusing on the well-being of the chickens themselves. Saying that she bought only free range eggs and that the enclosures contemplated by the ordinance seemed too small, she said, “I’d feel a lot better if [the hens] had a place to roam around and enjoy life.” She also said that educating residents about food origin could be achieved by visits to farm museums like a living farm in Iowa.

“I’m having a hard time seeing chickens as pets then after two years… becoming food,” said Ald. Fiske. “I can’t see slaughtering chickens as humane.”

“I can’t pass judgment,” responded Ms. Finnigan. There are vegans, vegetarians, and meat eaters in Evanston, she said, and the ordinance is not about judging any one group against another. Many of those who would raise chickens in Evanston would do so for eggs and “chicken and dumplings,” she said.

Ald. Tendam said that taking people to a museum or living farm to show them “where food comes from is almost worse than saying it comes from the fridge.” Keeping hens shows that food can come from your backyard, and teaches residents that “food comes from a source, a living, moving source.” The local agriculture movement is about sustainability, and he expects the movement to grow and backyard farms, including raising hens, to become more and more commonplace.

“You might want to look at the definition of ‘free range,’” Ald. Tendam added. In fact, according to the USDA website, “free range” means only that the hen has some access to the outdoors. No time, space, or quality of the outdoor environment is specified, meaning a one foot by one foot cage, and only 10 minutes outside, would qualify as “free range.”

A “Chicken Ordinance Survey” completed by the Green Urban Policy class of DePaul Professor Hugh Bartling in February may answer many of the question posed by the Committee. The survey, of 23 cities and towns that “enacted poultry ordinances between 2005 and 2009,” sought to determine whether allowing hens was a good or bad decision.

The Cities, ranging in size from St. Paul, Minn., one of the Twin Cities, to tiny Moab, Utah, revealed that 15 cities reported the decision was positive and 6 reported it as neutral. No cities reported a “negative.” None of the survey respondents reported increased problems with rats or coyotes.

Council now awaits more information. Specifically, Ald. Holmes wants to know what an estimated cost of enforcing the ordinance will be, and if the proposed license fees will cover those costs. Ald. Grover wants to know if Madison, Wisconsin has reported any problems with rats or coyotes. And Ald. Jean-Baptiste seeks some clarification as to the ordinance’s purpose.

Chicken Ordinance

The proposed Chicken Ordinance would allow residents to keep between two and six female chickens (hens) within the City of Evanston. Roosters are not permitted. Chicken coops must abide by setback and other zoning requirements for accessory structures (such as garages and storage sheds). Hen owners must register with the Illinois Department of Agriculture and pay a City license fee of $10 per hen per year. Slaughtering of chickens by residents would be prohibited, though nothing in the code would prevent an owner from taking a live hen to a butcher to be slaughtered.

Ald. Grover, saying that she is “”neither a city girl nor a country girl,”” asked why roosters would continue to be excluded and was told by Paige Finnigan, co-chair of the Environment Board, that they are noisy and tend to be violent. “”Plus the hens do not need them”” to lay eggs, added Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward. “”They’re not necessary,”” said Ms. Finnigan, causing many males in the room to shift their eyes from side to side and sink deeper into their chairs.

Ald. Grover also asked about the two-hen minimum. Ahron Solomon of Envanston’s Backyard Chickens said that chickens are social animals, not solitary creatures, and need companionship. Also, chickens huddle together for warmth during winter months. “”Six seems like a lot,”” said Ald. Grover.

Debbie Hillman of the Food Policy Council said that registration with the State Department of Agriculture was not required but was added to the ordinance to give Council an added level of comfort.

It has always been legal to keep chickens in Chicago, according to a memo from Evanston’s Health Department. Oak Park, Northbrook, Hoffman Estates and Arlington Heights also allow residents to keep chickens. Skokie, Schaumburg, Wheeling, Palatine, Park Ridge, Niles and Buffalo Grove do not.