Some people adopted a cat or a dog to keep them company during the COVID-19 pandemic. Jacob Willardson adopted chickens.

The Grand Forks 12-year-old bought Lena, Stella, Betty, Honey, Goldy and Mother Clucker on April 27, 2020 as a sort-of COVID project, he and his mom Sara Willardson explained on Thursday. Jacob has raised them since they were chicks. The six chickens -- as well as four chicks the Willardsons bought in June to comfort a "broody" Goldy that they plan to give away when they’re grown -- live in a well-maintained coop in the family’s backyard. They produce as many as six eggs per week per bird.

“I used to hate eggs, actually, before we got these,” Jacob said, gesturing toward the chickens as they hunted and pecked their way around the yard. “Once we got these, I love eggs. I eat ‘em every morning. It’s crazy, the difference in color of the yolks. They’re just so much better.”

He’s wanted a flock of the small, flightless birds for years, Sara said.

“This is just kind of my way to feel like I’m living in the country,” Jacob explained. His dad’s job at Altru Health System nudges the family toward a more suburban lifestyle near Kings Walk Golf Course in southern Grand Forks. His grandparents, who live farther afield, used to own chickens, too.

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Stella, Mother Clucker, and Lena roam the Willardson family's Grand Forks back yard on Thursday, July 1. Joe Bowen/Grand Forks Herald
Stella, Mother Clucker, and Lena roam the Willardson family's Grand Forks back yard on Thursday, July 1. Joe Bowen/Grand Forks Herald

Possible ban

But the birds have become the center of a debate at Grand Forks City Hall, where City Council President Dana Sande is pushing to amend city code to prohibit anyone from owning chickens within city limits. Beyond a philosophical sort of objection -- chickens are farm animals that, in his view, shouldn’t live in a city -- Sande said they also create a noise issue because other domesticated animals bark at the chickens.

And allowing residents to keep chickens, Sande said at a City Council meeting on Monday, creates an avenue for disagreements among neighbors. At that meeting, he said he’s received several complaints about residential chickens from people who live in the ward he represents. In a Friday phone call with the Herald, he declined to detail those complaints other than saying they started about two years ago, to his recollection.

“I’m not going to get into that,” Sande said. “We already have enough problems pitting neighbor against neighbor.”

Sande said he would detail those complaints if the Herald told him who provided the newspaper with an email Sande sent earlier this year to other council members about his objections to a library board nominee. The Herald declined.

Council members, acting as the city’s Committee of the Whole, held the first of three votes necessary to ban Grand Forks residents from keeping chickens within city limits. They voted 4-3 to advance a ban to their next meeting, which is scheduled for Tuesday, July 5.

Jacob Willardson, 12, demonstrates how to hold Betty, one of the chickens he keeps at his family's home in southern Grand Forks, like a baby. Joe Bowen/Grand Forks Herald.
Jacob Willardson, 12, demonstrates how to hold Betty, one of the chickens he keeps at his family's home in southern Grand Forks, like a baby. Joe Bowen/Grand Forks Herald.

Should Grand Forks allow residents to keep chickens in city limits?

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  • Yes

    47%

  • No

    46%

  • No opinion

    7%

Permits

City policy allows residents to keep chickens if staff at Grand Forks Public Health sign off and if the chickens' coop is at least 75 feet away from any neighboring homes. If the coop is closer than that, the chickens’ owners must receive written approval from each neighbor within that radius. City leaders reduced that 75 foot radius from 200 feet in 2008.

Jacob Willardson received a permit for his chickens on April 15, 2020 -- nearly two weeks before he bought them -- but it lapsed when the year ended. He renewed it in May of this year, before the family bought the four chicks, and the current permit is set to last through the end of 2021. Sara Willardson said they thought the first permit lasted indefinitely. Jacob has received the necessary written permission from the neighbors immediately to the east and west of his house.

The Willardsons live in Sande’s ward and, presumably, are the people about whom other residents have reportedly complained. They're the only Grand Forks residents with an up-to-date permit to keep chickens on their property.

But, since Monday’s council meeting, city staff have received one application to renew a lapsed chicken permit and another brand-new application, according to Javin Bedard, an environmental health manager at the health department. That, Bedard said, means there have been unpermitted chickens within city limits.

“There must be a few,” he said.

Neither of the recently received applications lists an address in Sande’s ward.

Regardless, Sara Willardson said she hasn’t heard any complaints about her son’s chickens.

“I’d just like to know what’s wrong with ‘em,” she said of the birds. “I would definitely try to rectify it if there’s a problem.”