Hens are among the oldest domesticated animals, and for good reason. They’re compact, inexpensive, harmless and easy to care for, with a lot more smarts and personality than most people give them credit for. They reward minutes of daily care with a damn fine egg, one with the high, orange yolk and inimitable fresh taste. Perhaps most importantly for the average harried New Yorker, “It’s like having a stand-up comedian in your backyard,” asserts Owen Taylor, training and livestock coordinator for the New York nonprofit Just Food.
Chickens it seems, make great pets. Yes, pets.
Probably to the infinite amusement of any outlander, hens (but not roosters, their noise-polluting, sometimes belligerent menfolk) are considered pets under New York City law, and are therefore legal in any number, so long as they don’t cause “nuisance conditions.” Following in the footsteps of long-established microflocks in immigrant neighborhoods, more and more Brooklynites are joining the urban poultry boomlet.
Gesturing toward the kitchen of the Grocery, the beloved restaurant in Carroll Gardens, Sharon Pachter, co-chef/owner, explains: “We always wanted to have a pet, and a dog was never an option. Our life is so totally stressful and demanding, and our days off are a continuation of that.”
A lot has changed, however, since she and her husband and fellow chef/owner, Charlie Kiely, got a flock of six chickens from a rural relative. “The chickens have forced us into this amazing relaxation. We just have one day off, if that, but I started to notice that we would go and have coffee outside, no matter what the weather was . . . and let the chickens run around and just hang out there. When I realized that, that we were just talking and hanging out, without feeling stress-well, that’s an enormous change in our lives. It’s really pleasureful.”
“It’s not about the eggs. We don’t even eat that many eggs. I mean, when we do have one, it’s a wonderful egg,” says Kiely. “But we’re not procreators, so this is it. They’re our pets and they produce this wonderful gift for us every morning.” A dog might win out on the charisma or cuddle fronts (although apparently a chicken can be leash-trained), but what kind of meal has your poodle produced for you lately?
Some city chicken farmers, like Greg Anderson, who tends a small flock at the Walt L. Shamel Community Garden in Crown Heights, have rural roots. “When I was growing up [in Selma, Alabama], whenever you needed a chicken, you just went into the backyard. I had knowledge of raising chickens and living with them. When you move to the city, you tend to forget that knowledge. But I have it. Now it’s about remembering and relearning the techniques. The knowledge is there.”
Other Brooklyn poultry enthusiasts are greenhorns, drawn to urban hens by a DIY sensibility. “People are dying to know where their food comes from,” says Declan Walsh, head of the Red Hook Poultry Association. “People are so suspect of the food system-anyone who’s scratched the surface, anyway.”
One way to get closer (a lot closer) to your food is to have it move in with you.
Think of it this way: A factory farm egg’s journey can take hundreds of miles and two months to get to your skillet (the FDA allows 30 days for an egg to get from the producer to the grocer, and another 30 days for the eggs to get from the dairy case to your fridge). Compare this to the two seconds it takes to cross the average Brooklyn yard.
However cramped your Kings County lot might seem, it’s downright palatial compared to the space allotted to each industrial laying hen, which is smaller than a page of this magazine. And you can expect your homegrown free-range egg to have 2/3 more vitamin A, three times the omega-3 fatty acids, 220 percent more vitamin E, and a whopping seven times the beta carotene.
In addition to seriously upping your locavore chops (think of the props you’ll get from bringing a dozen eggs instead of a bottle of wine for your next host), raising your own eggs helps shrink your carbon footprint. With a diet consisting largely of table scraps (think leafy carrot tops, potato peels), chickens become mega-composters as well as eggs on legs. Each chicken can divert 84 pounds from the waste stream every year. If just 10 percent of the 930,000 New Yorkers with access to backyards kept three chickens (the minimum suggested flock size) for a year, that works out to almost 12 tons of organic waste that went from landfill to lunch, with the capacity to save the city over $11 million. You’re also cutting down on the greenhouse emissions associated with refrigerated transit and storage, especially when you take into account that a fresh, unwashed egg can sit safely on your counter for days.
All this comes with the added bonus of some seriously rich soil for your vegetable plot, window box or local community garden. Declan Walsh, who has raised 30-40 layers a year in his Red Hook backyard for the past six years or so, confesses, “Friends and neighbors, people who know us, they knock on the door and ask for eggs. But what I still can’t believe sometimes is that people come by and knock on my door and ask to buy [my chickens’] shit. I feel like some kind of weird dealer or something. People come by my house asking for bags of shit.”
Apart from the value of your über-compost, there are a few other idiosyncrasies to New York chicken keeping. In a city where there aren’t a lot of cars, and even fewer Agways, how’s the average backward farmer to lay hands on, say, a couple bales of bedding hay?
“When I started, I had no access to feed or hay or a car,” recalls Meghan Ryan, who keeps three hens in her Williamsburg backyard. “The closest places to buy these supplies are in Staten Island or the Bronx, and who wants to carry a 50-pound bag of feed on the subway?”
Faced with a droopy hen, Sharon Pachter recounts, “I called every vet in Brooklyn and when I asked them ‘Do you deal with chickens?’ I felt like everybody was rolling their eyes and laughing at me.”
And most country hens aren’t living in such close quarters with their farmers, let alone their farmer’s neighbors. For some, the sight and sound of hens evoke a more bucolic way of life. Charlie Kiely recounts that his Carroll Gardens neighbors tell him “that when they do hear [the hens], they kind of like the country feel.” Meghan Ryan’s Williamsburg landlord told her “some tenants moved into a floor above mine specifically because of the chickens. They thought it was cool.”
Surprisingly, the biggest challenge of country chickens-smell-seems to be much less of an issue in the city. One thing about living in close quarters with your poultry is knowing very precisely the state of their coop. “If we didn’t clean this up every day,” says Charlie, gesturing toward his chicken run, “we’d basically be living in their shit. Luckily, everybody likes it clean.”
“My neighbors on one side have their clothesline right next to the coop, and they’ve never said anything about the smell,” says Meghan. “I’m that obsessive.”
But not everyone is so thrilled. For some, it’s a blow to their New York street cred; it’s hard to convince your high school classmates you’ve really made it big in The City when a hen next door is letting everyone know, in no uncertain terms, that she’s just laid an egg. Meghan Ryan’s 20-something across-the-way neighbors were less than pleased than the ones who lived upstairs. “Get a farm,” they told her. “This is Brooklyn.” Then they called 311.
“A health inspector came by my apartment one morning without any advance notice,” she recounts. “I know that nothing I’m doing is illegal, but I was still nervous. But [the inspector] took a look around and said, ‘This is the cleanest coop I’ve ever seen. I wish I had this in my backyard.'”
For the moment, however, her neighbors remain unmoved. “I just want to convince them that a view of a chicken coop is a lot better than a view of a trashed lot, which is what this was when I moved in,” she says. “I want to respect my neighbors, but we live in a city. There’s going to be noise, whether it’s chickens or construction or a yippy dog or someone’s new baby. Maybe I’ll be able to win them over with some eggs.”
Hopefully, as New Yorkers grow more and more of their own food, hens will become just another part of the urban landscape, and Brooklynites won’t have to chose between home and homestead.
As Greg Anderson puts it, “I’m living a double life. I’m an urban professional. My second life is as a farmer. I’m trying not to lose either, but to blend them together. Growing up, I knew what it meant to supply your own food, but I lost a lot of those life skills. Now I understand, you don’t have to lose past knowledge for the sake of future knowledge. We have to remember both are important.”
To find out more and find other New York chickens and their keepers, check out Just Food’s 249-member City Chicken Meetup Group, or buy Just Food’s City Chicken guide at justfood.org.
Bird Watchers: Backyard hens are a blast for Charlie Kiely, Declan Walsh, Greg Anderson and Maria Mackin. Though Mackin’s dog Casper might not agree.