Adventures in Ordinance Change

During the past few years thousands of American families have started a backyard chicken flock. Bringing a breakfast’s worth of fresh eggs into the house is as prideful and delicious as growing and enjoying home grown vegetables.


Gardening is legal and encouraged everywhere. But sadly, many towns have enacted ordinances banning chickens inside city limits. Positive change is sweeping the nation.   Town and city councils everywhere recognize that many citizens want to legally keep a small flock. They are learning that it can be done without causing problems. So, many towns have changed anti chicken ordinances to allow families to keep a flock under certain conditions.


Anyone interested in buying chicks and eventually housing them in a backyard coop should first check to make sure it’s legal in their town. Most municipalities post ordinances on their website, so this is a good place to start research. It may be even quicker to call the city clerk to ask if chickens are permitted. If the answer is, “yes” a family has the legal liability to keep chickens as long as they follow local rules. If it is “no” don’t give up. When approached properly the council just might alter the ordinance to allow it. Ordinance change is democracy in action.


Anti Chicken Ordinances

Before World War II keeping chickens in town was common, even in huge cities like New York, where it is legal today. A backyard flock helped put food on the table.  During the war, the government encouraged homeowners to plant victory gardens and welcomed citizens to keep one or two hens per family member for eggs.  In wartime many families produced upwards of 40% of their food in their yard, freeing up commercially produced eggs and vegetables to feed soldiers and sailors.


That quickly changed after the war. Millions of young baby boomers left the farm life behind. They moved into new suburbs, launching an era of tidy, unblemished lawns and a few lollipop trees. Neither suburbanites nor local governments wanted farm animals inside city limits. Newly approved ordinances prohibited millions of people from keeping chickens on their own property. Some of those ordinances remain today. Times are changing and recently dozens of towns have altered their code to welcome chicken flocks.


Back in 2009 the Indian Creek Nature Center in Cedar Rapids held its first backyard chicken workshop. About 50 people attended. Back then, chickens were banned from this city of 125,000 people. Rebecca Mumaw attended the workshop and was so determined to legally keep a few hens that she, and other attendees, formed a group to encourage the city council to change its law and welcome chickens into municipal backyards.


In her words here’s how she did it:


“Des Moines and Ames had never banned chickens, and I first contacted the Ames Animal Control Director. He told me that they never had any problems with chickens in his town.  So, I contacted members of the Cedar Rapids City Council. Only about one in three was interested. Fortunately, we were able to form a group of families who wanted to keep chickens. The Nature Center let us meet at their facility and helped connect us.

“The small group always remained positive and followed a strategy that often works to encourage action from any political body.  Mumaw continued, “Our group formed a list of elements of what we wanted in an ordinance. They included a maximum of six hens, no roosters, no slaughtering, and no chick sales.  With the help of a local university professor, we developed an information packet that addressed common misconceptions about chickens. Do they smell or are noisy? Do they attract predators, other pests, or disease?  The council accepted our points.


“We then began attending city council meetings and usually had three people speak in favor of an ordinance change at every meeting. People of all walks of life participated.   Some were young couples with children, others were older. They generally represented a cross section of the demographics of the city. Each told why they wanted to keep chickens and the benefits to the community. We then started a Facebook Page to show the council we were organized and almost immediately had 1500 likes.


“We were persistent and always respectful of people who disagreed. Finally, after 18 months, the council voted to change the ordinance and chicken-keeping became legal. Now, ten years later I’d say the effort was worth it. Our animal control staff tell me they love working with families who keep chickens because they are so responsible and cause few problems,” she said.


Like many families Rebecca Mumaw loves her small flock. She likes knowing where her family’s food comes from. Kitchen scraps and garden weeds help feed her hens, and their droppings are excellent fertilizer.


Since Rebecca Mumaw led a successful effort to change the town’s code to allow chicken keeping, many other communities have modeled new ordinances after Cedar Rapids’. Ordinance change is happening all over the country, but many municipalities still ban small flocks.  The time is right for change, and forming a group like Rebecca Mumaw did and following their course of action may encourage any city council to welcome families to engage in such a pleasant and productive activity by changing their ordinance.


Ordinances of cities small and large that allow chickens can be viewed on the Indian Creek Nature Center’s Website. Go to Click on Programs and Events. Then click on Backyard Chickens.  A list of towns that allow chickens will pop up. Click on any town and their ordinance will appear.  Most vary slightly to meet local conditions, but odds are good that one of the town ordinances can be a model for your town.


If someone’s town prohibits keeping chickens, be positive and persistent.  The emergence of COVID-19, four years ago, has created anxiety about food security. Any family producing both vegetables and eggs in the yard is less dependent upon the grocery store. City councils recognize this and many are likely to consider changing their laws to allow it.