Chickens Scratch Their Way Into Even More NYC Backyards

By Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska on July 27, 2014 11:20pm 

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 Raising chickens is gaining popularity in the city.
Raising Chickens in New York
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NEW YORK CITY — Amid the din of traffic from nearby Atlantic Avenue, a busy Brooklyn neighborhood is the unlikely place where people can buy fresh, organic eggs, courtesy of more than a dozen hens who live in a community garden.

Once considered only a passing craze, New Yorkers spread across the city are buying coops and learning to raise chickens in their backyards.

“It’s becoming a growing hobby,” said Lydia Ahonen, who runs City Chicken Institute workshops in the Imani Community Garden on Schenectady Avenue in Crown Heights.

The free workshops, which began about five years ago, are attracting an increasing number of people from various backgrounds, Ahonen said.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, a group of roughly 10 people who attended the workshop included a student of sustainable agriculture and a family who bought two chickens several months ago and is dealing with neighbors who are unhappy about the noise they make.

"I’m interested in chickens because I want to eventually start my own veggie farm, and chickens are a vital part of it," said Man Cheung, a New York-based photographer, who went to the workshop.

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It's difficult to assess how many backyard coops there are in New York, because no permit is required to keep them, but Ahonen said "people are definitely more and more interested in it.”

During the class, co-hosted by Just Food, a nonprofit focused on access to locally grown food, the group learned about the benefits of keeping chickens, their habits, how to feed them properly and even how to entertain them. (One way to entertain chickens is to hang a cabbage from a string at a height that will allow them to jump up, swing it and rip off leaves.)

Similar workshops are also held at Paradise on Earth garden in the Bronx.

Ahonen said that raising chickens has numerous advantages, including getting free organic eggs. Chickens eat food scraps and their manure provides nitrogen, which can be mixed with fertilizer.

In Briarwood, Queens, Shiv Knight, 22, a car mechanic, who currently has four chickens, saw other benefits as well. His backyard has become a local “tourist attraction” since he and his brother, Navin, bought them about three years ago.

“It’s a conversation starter,” he joked. “And local school kids get a kick out of it, too.”

He said they bought the chickens — including several Plymouth Rocks, large chickens with black and white feathers — because their father used to raise hens in their native Guyana when they were kids.

The hens, Knight said, produce several eggs a day, enough for their needs. The only downside is that the birds “started pecking the tomatoes,” said Knight, referring to numerous vegetable beds in his garden.

But raising chickens in an urban setting can also create a number of problems.

Jamal Smith-Wright, who came to the workshop in Crown Heights from nearby Prospect-Lefferts Gardens with his wife and daughter, said his two chickens "make a lot of noise" and some neighbors are not happy about it, especially since the birds wake up pretty early.

“They wake up as soon as the sun is up and as soon as it goes down they go to bed,” Ahonen said.

Ahonen said that before buying chickens, people should discuss it with their neighbors.

“A lot can be avoided by sitting down [with neighbors] and talking to them,” she said, also suggesting “bribing them with eggs.”

“People like free stuff and organic eggs are expensive,” Ahonen said. “If [neighbors] feel like they are benefiting from the chickens, then they will get excited about it."

In general, the city does not have strict rules about keeping chickens. People can raise as many of them as they want, the Department of Health said, however roosters are illegal, as are domesticated geese, ducks and turkeys.

The owners are obliged to keep the area where they raise the hens clean.

Otherwise, according to the Department of Health, "a property owner can receive a violation for creating a nuisance, which generally means odors that are detectable outside of the property."

Fines for nuisance violations can range from $1,000 to $2,000, according to the Department of Health.

Ahonen said that prospective chicken owners should also take into consideration that hens should ideally have at least 4 square feet each to live.

She also advised against mixing small breeds with large ones because larger ones may attack smaller birds.

The hobby can be expensive, she said. The prices for a hen, which are usually ordered online, range from 95 cents to $20. To feed about 20 hens costs approximately $200 a month, Ahonen said. Chicken owners also need to buy a coop, which usually costs several hundred dollars, and vets may charge about $200 a visit, Ahonen said. 

But she said she believes it’s worth the cost, adding that it’s also a lot of fun to watch chickens scratching the soil or playing amongst themselves with a small ball. “It’s like watching a soccer game,” she said.

For more information about City Chicken Institute workshops, go here. Chicken enthusiasts can also connect and share information on the City Chicken Meetup NYC page.

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