Chicken lovers fight for their backyard birds

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Andrea Anderson
Saturday, February 15, 2014

Amelia loves to fly.

Gypsy likes to roam the yard.

And Peaches, well, she just looks like a peach.

These backyard chickens are seemingly happy pets to Peter Underwood, a Whitewater resident who has the Taj Mahal of chicken coops.

Inside the coop is a heater, dainty curtains and a bay window for the gals to sit and look out at the snow that covers grass they grazed last summer.

Underwood and his wife have had backyard chickens since 2012 and now welcome that other Walworth County residents will be able to have chickens in their backyards.

The Walworth County Board voted unanimously Tuesday to allow chickens in residential zones of towns and villages.

Cities regulate backyard chickens with their own ordinances.

Underwood is among a group of Walworth County people who are passionate about backyard chickens and are willing to fight to get laws changed to accommodate their birds.

Dale Wheelock, a local poultry farmer and Delavan resident, is another. He worked closely with chicken lovers for about a year to draft the ordinance amendment approved by the Walworth County Board.

Wheelock said people are joining the chicken movement partly because it aligns with their desires to be more in tune with what they are eating and know the origins of their food.

In 2012, Underwood helped push the city of Whitewater to amend its ordinances and allow residents to have up to six chickens.

Underwood and his wife didn't know they had been violating the city's old ordinance until they received a violation notice. He had thought he was OK because he had asked his neighbors before he and his wife got chickens.

Knowing they couldn't imagine their lives without chickens, he set out to amend the city ordinance.

The city council passed the amendment Dec. 18, 2012, after Underwood spent three months attending meetings and working with city officials.

Now, a little more than a year later, Amelia, Gypsy, and Peaches are an integral part of the family.

"We can't imagine not having chickens," Underwood said. "When we sit here during the summer and (to) not have them cruising around the backyard would just seem wrong."

Wheelock said the Walworth County ordinance that regulated backyard chickens was written in the 1970s,

"Back then, people didn't want to have them (chickens)," Wheelock said. "They were so far away from their food."

Things have changed.

"People are concerned about what's in their food, and I think there are a lot of misconceptions about what is in their food," Wheelock said.

People notice the difference in taste of eggs bought from a store compared to backyard chickens.

Having backyard chickens also is a way to be more sustainable and to take a stand against commercial farms.

"There is value in valuing your food much differently when you are the person responsible for producing it," Underwood said. "Every time we bring in an egg from our coop, we are amazed. You don't think about that when you get it from a grocery store."

Backyard chickens are not for people looking to save a buck or two, Underwood said.

Although the chickens save on the cost of fertilizer and dandelion killer, the cost of feed, the chickens, the coop, and other necessities total more than the few dollars shoppers pay for a dozen eggs at the grocery store.

For Wheelock and Underwood, it's about the birds.

Backyard chickens are nice pets and make good 4-H projects, Wheelock said.

The Walworth County and Whitewater ordinances allow up to six chickens, do not allow roosters, and allow chickens to be outside of coops as long as they are being watched.

Whitewater coops must be at least five feet from side and rear property lines and 25 feet from a neighboring residence. In rural Walworth County, coops in residential areas must be movable, at least 20 feet from a neighboring residence, and at least 10 feet from side and rear property lines.

Three or four other people have backyard chickens in Whitewater, Underwood said, but he's confident the city will have a dozen people raising chickens in the future because of growing awareness about the movement and more resources in the community.

"It's continuing to gain momentum as people get more involved," Underwood said.

Wheelock is not sure how many more people will have backyard chickens now that it's allowed in rural areas of Walworth County. A number of people have had them illegally for years, he said.

"It's not going to be every house," Wheelock said. "There is going to be a few."

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