How did this program get started? Chickens and cities don't inherently seem to mix.
Actually, cities and chickens do mix. Urban agriculture is huge in other countries, and people have been doing it in New York since the city existed. Just Food got started with it after an annual community gardening conference in the spring of 2005, when someone who had been in the Peace Corps gave a workshop on chickens and asked, "Is this possible in New York City?" Everyone got so excited. Organizations like the Cornell Cooperative Extension, Added Value, and Heifer International came together to make it happen. We didn't know if it was legal in the city, but we researched the law and found out it was. Although you can't have roosters — because of the noise.
Where are these city chickens hiding in our midst?
The chickens are primarily in people's backyards and in community gardens. I don't see a lot of them in Manhattan, although there are some in Harlem and on the Lower East Side. I've heard of them in midtown, but I haven't actually seen them. The backyard gardeners and community gardeners are mostly in Brooklyn and the Bronx.
Who's taking part?
When we started looking into it, most people who had chickens had immigrated from Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic. Some were from the South, and these people wanted to keep the tradition alive. Now, there's a similar movement among folks who call themselves locavores, who are responding to climate change and want to make the food they're eating grow closer to home.
The chickens are great for kids. They give kids a sense of where their food comes from, and they attract visitors to the gardens.
What are you doing to expand the number of chickens in the city?
In 2006, we wrote The City Chicken Guide. And last year we gave out our first grants to two gardens in the Bronx. We built model coops to illustrate the ideal environment for chicken health and happiness in the city.
And that entails...?
Coops that have perches and nesting boxes and are easy to walk into and clean. You need to clean out the coop once a week and change the bedding, which is usually straw, although some people use wood shavings. As far as size, you typically want three to four square feet per hen. That's incredibly luxurious, considering most chickens live in less than one square foot and sit in a cage laying eggs all the time. Coops need ventilation, and they should be covered on top, so wild birds can't steal the chickens. There are a lot of falcons in New York City. Chickens need access to the outside, too. They need to be able to scratch in the dirt and look for insects. That's natural chicken behavior.
Besides having adequate space, what do you need to consider if you want to raise chickens in New York City?
It's an every day responsibility. Their water and food need to be changed at least once a day. They do soil their food and water, and that's a health issue.
Another obstacle would be your neighbors. It's really important that your neighbors know about your plans. It's legal, but the health code says you can't cause a "nuisance condition." You don't want your neighbors calling the city on you because they smell the chickens or hear noise. Develop a strong relationship with them. Give them eggs.
And how good are those eggs?
They are the most delicious eggs you'll ever have. These chickens are eating worms, weeds, bugs, and fresh greens. They have a diverse diet of healthy food, and you can really taste a difference. The yolks are richer, deeper, and way more flavorful. Chickens have a 36-hour cycle, so they lay eggs twice in three days.
Does anyone raise chickens in the city for, um, roasting?
I would assume that some people have them for soup. But that's not something we support. We don't give out information on slaughtering. We prefer people keep them for eggs and have them live a happy life.
How are chickens as pets?
They are stand-up comedians — very funny and entertaining. They have very distinct personalities, and just watching them scratch around in the garden can keep you occupied for hours. They play with toys. A lot of people keep them just for their sense of humor. But they do need friends. They are social animals, and they also keep each other warm at night. I'd start with three chickens.
Where do you buy them?
Most hatceries will sell a minimum of 25 at a time, and many people don't want that many. Neighborhood groups have come together, placed an order, and split them up. I'd also recommend going to your local greenmarket and talking to the farmers there. They may know of sources.
For more information on raising chickens in the city, or to order The City Chicken Guide, visit Just Food.
(Images: Just Food)