A Neighborhood Captivated by Chickens
Martha Lazar, a photographer who lives in a small apartment building on Butler Street in Cobble Hill with her husband and daughter, decided last July to join the nationwide growing community of urban chicken raisers by buying three baby chicks.
Andie, a silver laced Polish breed named after the pop artist Andy Warhol for her crazy pom-pom feathered head, Edie, the Easter Egger named after Warhol’s Hollywood muse, Edie Sedgwick and Lou Lou, another Easter Egger named after Lou Reed, famed rock star out of Brooklyn, are now full grown hens, each hatching an egg a day and living it up in a neat and stylish chicken coop in Lazar’s Brooklyn backyard.
For a neighborhood like Cobble Hill, a rising social hot spot near to the F train and minutes away from the bustling hub of downtown Brooklyn, it is unusual to have the pet of choice be a hen. Just walking about the neighborhood one can see the parade of stylish pooches gracing the streets, but for three families, including Lazar’s, the idea of raising hens in a backyard is not just a style but a way to become reacquainted with the origin of food as its transparency becomes more and more opaque.
“I think many people started reading Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma and started thinking about where food comes from,” said Lazar. “There was one farmer in particular in the farmlands outside of the D.C area, who raised chickens and something clicked about us wanting them and also wanting Lindsey to know where food comes from.”
The two Easter Egger breeds she keeps are known as such because of the colorful sage green eggs they hatch. They are mixed breeds that carry the colorful egg gene. Lazar, like so many others who have taken it upon themselves to raise chickens across the country, does it for the eggs.
“The eggs are more healthy and since they graze and eat the grass, they are much higher in beta keratin, so the yolks are a much richer, deeper color,” said Lazar. “These are more flavorful and not as runny.”
What hens are fed is vital to their health. They usually eat grain and Lazar’s hens have a taste for blueberries, but raw potato peels and avocado are poisonous to them.
However, maintaining the hens come at a price.
For the cost of $500 the hens in Lazar’s backyard live rather comfortably in a coop called an eglu, made by U.K based company, Omlet. They chose such an expensive coop because Lazar’s husband did not want their backyard to look like a farm.
A cylindrical, meshed part of the construction, called a run, enables the hens to roam free from their hatching area which is separated from the run by a door and which tidily includes a pull-out tray that enables Lazar to empty their wastes into the compost bin she keeps for the plants.
“It can be inexpensive definitely,” she said. “You can make one out of an old playhouse, or a dog house or you can just find scrap wood and make one for less than $100 easily.”
In New York City it is not illegal to keep hens but Lazar, echoing the advice of chicken blogs and websites, suggests letting the neighbors know about potential hens to avoid any complaints.
None of the neighbors on Butler Street have complained. “Some people would walk out onto their roof and peer down and say ‘you have chickens?’ But before we asked everyone in the building if they minded and we promised everyone eggs,” said Lazar.
According to the health code of New York City, roosters are illegal because the loud crowing can be a nuisance. It also says if keeping hens for poultry purposes, a permit must be issued by the Commissioner and hens should be kept in coops and runways.
The fight to keep chickens in other areas where it is illegal is constantly being fought, resulting in more and more residents winning the ability to raise chickens in their own backyard. Places like Florida, Alabama and California allow people to keep chickens with certain restrictions. But in D.C chickens are not legal because they are in violation of local health laws.
In February, the town of Huntington on Long Island voted to allow chickens on residential properties after residents petitioned for months.
Some public health officials are concerned that backyard chickens could elevate avian flu risks. But according to WorldWatch.org, an independent research organization that analyzes global issues, advocates insist that birds raised on a small scale are less likely to carry diseases than factory-farmed poultry.
With scares like salmonella and E.Coli, the eggs are guaranteed fresher when the chickens are raised in a backyard or on a farm. According to a 2006 GRAIN report compiled by the international non-governmental organization, the H5N1 strain of bird flu which can affect humans is essentially a problem of industrial poultry practices.
Owen Taylor, organizer of the Just Food New York City Chicken Meet-up NYC project, aimed at connecting potential hen owners with already experienced raisers, recently organized a bike tour of the South Bronx community gardens, like Taqwa and the Garden of Happiness, where chickens are kept.
Along with Green Thumb, a program that supports community gardens in the city, they successfully gathered 30 riders who expressed interest in keeping chickens, stemmed mainly from wanting to become more aware of the origins of the food they eat.
“The chicken has become the symbol, a mascot even, of the local food movement,” said Taylor, who knows of at least 30 community gardens around the city that raise poultry, mostly for their eggs. “We’re the biggest city in the country, so to have it here I think blows people’s minds.”
Taylor however, is unsure of if the new scale at which it is happening is because of the recession or the climate change, but he is sure that it is increasing.
Emily Ann, also a Cobble Hill resident who raises three Rhodesian Red hens with her husband Jimmy Jellinek and their two young children, started out wanting chickens to bring some of the country into the city, but soon enough realized that it was a good way to show their children where food comes from. Ann is a vegetarian but her husband eats the eggs and he said that there is no difference in the taste.
“I’d like to say they taste profoundly better but I can’t tell the difference. But there is a satisfaction that they’re your eggs,” he said.
They bought their hens when they were already grown and they are kept in the same type of coop as the Lazars’.
Keeping chickens in the city is not without its downfalls. Predators like hawks and raccoons prey on the birds. Last November, what would have been a fourth hen of Ann and Jellinek’s, was mauled by what they assume to be a raccoon.
But in all, chickens are easier to maintain compared to dogs and cats. Just feed them every day, let them roam around the yard considering that there aren’t too many plants and in the winter, watch them adapt. But they do require vaccinations to keep away bacteria and disease.
Buying chickens from a site like MyPetChicken.com allows for the purchase of full-grown hens or chicks ranging from $3 to $10 each. They usually arrive through the mail.
“There’s a green gel to keep them hydrated and when they first hatched they had enough food in them to last three days,” said Lazar of the baby chicks she purchased on MyPetChicken.com last July.
For Jellinek and Ann, the hens turned out to be a practical pet. “We wanted a pet and it turned out to be the easiest one to have. It’s not like you have to walk a dog every day,” said Ann.
Lazar has friends who were trying to decide on a pet and they too thought about keeping chickens. “We have a lot of people who either think we’re completely insane or they think it’s pretty cool,” she said. “They’re a pet and when they get older and aren’t laying we’ll still keep them as pets.”
With sites like UrbanChickens.net, BackyardChickens.com, the U.K’s Hencam showcasing life in the coop and another Cobble Hill resident, BJ Reynolds, who has a blog dedicated to the daily life of her hens, more people may soon flock to raising hens.
“I think it’s caught on already,” said Ann.
But Jellinek has mixed feelings. “I don’t think it’ll catch on more around New York. But then again, it might,” he said. “I think that it’s absolutely ridiculous to have chickens. It’s ridiculous that we have chickens and I love it, but to me it’s more of a curiosity than a trend.”