Given Iowa's agrarian past, Thomas Rutherford never contemplated that his plan to raise a handful of chickens in his Davenport backyard would run afoul of the law.
After all, chickens - even miniature goats - are allowed within the city limits of Seattle, the city Rutherford and his family lived in before moving to Davenport a few years ago.
"I assumed that since we were moving to Iowa, the ordinances would be less restrictive, rather than more," said Rutherford, who constructed a small wooden coop and began raising chicks in the spring of 2008.
Before the fuzzy yellow birds reached maturity, however, Rutherford learned the city prohibits in-town chicken raising. Tom Warner, Davenport's corporate counsel, said that in 1993, the City Council overhauled its animal ordinance and made an amendment prohibiting "livestock and poultry" in any non-agricultural land.
Rutherford ended up dismantling the coop and finding a temporary home for his chickens with a farmer outside the city limits in September. Since that time, he's fought a one-man battle with City Hall, urging aldermen to look at either amending the ordinance to allow urban poultry, or at least provide a mechanism such as a special-use permit or exception ordinance that would allow people to keep chickens as long as their neighbors support it.
"The city has been promoting local food and things like the farmers market," he said. "Really, there's nothing more local than your own backyard. This is a very environmentally friendly thing to do."
It's also a growing national and state trend.
New York City, Oakland, San Francisco, Houston, Chicago, Seattle and Portland, Ore., are all "chicken-friendly." Numerous Web sites, such as backyardchickens.com and urbanchickens.org, extol the virtues of non-rural poultry and help rally supporters to get laws changed.
Stacey Driscoll, who helped organize the group Friends of Urban Chickens in Iowa City, is pleased that the City Council there is starting to come around. In September, aldermen there held a work session and are contemplating an ordinance change. A fledgling Cedar Rapids movement called Citizens for Legalization of Urban Chickens, or CLUC, is also working to bring poultry into town.
"I think the interest is there because there is a move toward sustainability and knowing where your food comes from and how it's treated," Driscoll said. "It's more an issue of wanting to be able to take the food chain back in our own hands."
Greg Brenneman, an ag engineering specialist with the Iowa State University Extension Service in Johnson County, said people aren't flocking to the movement, but it is definitely a growing trend.
There are legitimate issues, however.
Chickens produce a fairly large amount of waste, much of which is less solid than that of dogs, cats or other animals typically allowed in urban areas. Chickens, especially roosters, also can be quite loud and have a propensity to get loose if allowed free range, he said.
"I don't have a strong opinion one way or the other," said Brenneman, who noted that backyard chickens are allowed in the town of Swisher where he lives. "I am a bit skeptical in thinking about the size of lots typically found in town. Like anything, it would need to be managed, and you have to be considerate of your neighbors."
Rutherford said he would limit the number of chickens he keeps to six or fewer and would not include roosters. He has spoken with most of his neighbors and doesn't sense much resistance. In fact, several are hopeful of getting some fresh eggs. Now, he's hoping to get some action from the City Council.
"I spoke with (1st Ward Alderman) Nathan Brown, and he's been very sympathetic, but reluctant to touch it because it's outside the mainstream and might be a hard sell," he said. "If they let people keep dogs, cats, parrots, iguanas and other pets, why not chickens?"
Brown said he is willing to have the discussion at the council level.
"Obviously, Davenport used to allow chickens, and there must have been a good reason to not allow them," he said. "I know Mr. Rutherford would be a good neighbor and respectful to those living next to him. I worry about others that might abuse the system. Times change, though, and this might be an option to look at. But we really need to poll the rest of our constituents at our ward meetings before deciding something like this."