Carroll Gardens/Cobble Hill/Boerum Hill is quickly becoming a locavore haven: new visions of the sustainable food movement are cropping up in various forms. There’s the new on Atlantic Avenue, and restaurants like Breukelen and that feature locally grown delights. A statement was made on the corner of Bergen and Smith streets this year when a quixotic crop of corn found its way into a street planter, followed by a rich green carpet of the cover crop winter rye. Bergen Street was also home to the inaugural Farm City Fair.
But there is another, more clandestine side to the new face of the local food movement: backyard birds. Chickens, that is.
Chickens have long been a part of the urban landscape in NYC: community gardeners have been raising chickens for decades in all five boroughs. The egg fever is catching on, though. In our own neighborhood, local residents are raising hens for fresh eggs as well as the sheer enjoyment of caring for these unique pets.
Urban chicken keepers raise hens – not roosters, which are illegal in New York City.
Keeping just a couple of hens provides enough eggs – two a day on average – for Rose Unes, 62, of Carroll Street in Gowanus. Unes has been keeping chickens for the past six years, and hasn’t bought eggs in the store since. Instead of traveling down the block, to bring home eggs that have potentially traveled hundreds or thousands of miles, Unes travels mere steps to her backyard.
Unes keeps her two “Rhode Island Red” hens in a colorful coop that she built herself behind her house. Supplies included cedar siding from Dyke's Lumber Company on 6th St., Home Depot and Lowe’s. The total cost of building her coop was $250.
Chicken rearing is nothing new for Unes. Raised on a farm in Minnesota where her family raised 500 chickens, Unes grew up raising – then cleaning and dressing – chickens. Today, she enjoys the eggs, “They’re delicious!”, she says, as well as the organic compost.
Chicken manure is a rich source of Nitrogen and can be combined with other garden and food waste to create excellent compost for your garden. Unes plans to use some this spring in a cantaloupe patch, which enjoy rich fertilization.
So far, the neighbors have been supportive. Unlike roosters, chickens make little noise – aside from a sweet purring sound and proud clucking after laying an egg. They also recall a time, not too long ago, when urban livestock were a common scene:
“The neighbors think they’re great," Unes said. "A while back an old man who lived across the street – he had lived on Carroll Street for 60 years – remembered people having horses. Sometimes people stop in front of my house – I think they hear the chickens and wonder where the noise is coming from.”
Martha Lazar, 43, of Butler Street in Cobble Hill, keeps two “Easter Egg” chickens, named Lulu and Andie, in an “Eglu": a stylish (and more expensive) design-forward chicken coop created by the UK-based Omlet company. She has kept chickens since 2008, and has already inspired two neighboring families to get some hens of their own.
Lazar’s inspiration for raising chickens came from her seven year-old daughter.
“I wanted her to know where food comes from," she said. "I had been doing a lot of reading about food production and the problems with it. Plus, we really like animals – we have a house cat and a fish.”
Lazar’s daughter has been able to take a chicken or two to school for Earth Day and even to a friend’s school () for their annual .
Both Lazar and Unes raised their hens from day-old chicks. Unes travels to Warwick Feed and Seed in Warwick, NY – an hour and half drive.
Lazar orders her chicks from www.mypetchicken.com -- the only place she’s found where you can order small quantities of chicks. Most hatcheries cater to commercial chicken farmers, selling in batches of 25 or more.
Having chickens does pose some challenges: mainly warding off predators like hawks, possums and rodents. Both Lazar and Unes have a painful story about losing a chicken – Unes lost one hen to an opossum and Lazar’s hen Edie succumbed earlier this year to unknown causes. Lazar has had pests like raccoons try to break in to her coop - her husband bravely fended one off one night, who managed to scratch poor Edie. Both Unes and Lazar have seen hawks perch near their coops. And they’ve both had to tighten up security – being extra careful to secure the coops at night, and adding extra chicken wire to close gaps that potential pests could break through.
Chickens will also nibble on your vegetable patch, and jump as high as they can fly (about 6 feet). This becomes a question for coop and "run" design, which both Unes and Lazar have gotten creative with (see photos).
Maggie Groening, 49, an urban chicken keeper in Windsor Terrace, says the “most challenging thing about keeping chickens is getting the supplies for feeding them.”
Like many urban “chickeners,” Groening travels to the Bronx or Staten Island to purchase organic feed. While Groening, Lazar and Unes all provide their chickens with treats from the kitchen like salad greens and vegetable scraps, chickens require nutrient and mineral rich feed to supplement this. Unes picks up organic feed in New Jersey, where she works, while Lazar buys feed in the Berkshires when visiting her in-laws.
Urban chicken keepers often choose heirloom breeds, to promote biodiversity, for the beauty of many unusual breeds, and for a rainbow of eggs. Rhode Island Reds produce medium brown eggs, Easter Egg chickens (or Araucanas) lay medium green or blue eggs, Leghorns lay white eggs and Plymouth Bard Rocks lay light brown eggs.
Urban “chickening” is now a national phenomenon. And here in the city, the movement is swelling. Urban Livestock coordinator at Just Food, Owen Taylor, says it would be impossible to count how many chickens there are in the city.
“That would be like counting people’s pet cats!" he said. But Taylor does administer a popular online social forum, the Just Food City Chicken Meet Up group, which now has roughly 500 members. Just Food’s City Farms program also runs free public workshops on chicken health and husbandry in partnership with groups like GreenThumb, BK Farmyards, and the New York Restoration Project year-round.
Unes and Lazar have become chicken ambassadors: Unes teaches a “Chickenomics” course at Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and Lazar maintains Brooklyn Feed, a blog on her chicken rearing adventures and other homesteading hobbies.
And keeping chickens can also ensure good Karma.
“The easiest thing about keeping chickens is giving away the eggs to neighbors and friends," said Groening. "That goes a long way toward establishing chicken good will.”
Unes offers another boon for chicken raising.
“Having chickens is really cool because instead of taking a bottle of wine to a friend’s for dinner," she said. "You can bring a dozen eggs.”
For more information on keeping city chickens, visit Just Food, or purchase their City Chicken Guide, which explains the ins and outs of keeping chickens and lists sources for coop supplies, feed and feeding supplies.