More City Dwellers Raising Chickens

07/16/10 7:34AM Amy Eddings
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(Host) A century ago - even just 60 years ago -- raising your own chickens wasn't unusual. 

Now, even in Vermont, most people get their eggs in cartons, and their chicken wings wrapped in plastic. But there are a growing number of people nationwide who are reviving the art of chicken rearing.

As part of a collaboration with Northeast public radio stations, WNYC's Amy Eddings reports on backyard chicken farming in an unlikely place.

(Eddings) Here's something you don't expect to encounter in Brooklyn:

(Chicken clucking, loudly and angrily.)

(Eddings) The sound may be out of the ordinary for New York City, but the sentiment is not.  This chicken is complaining.  Greg Anderson translates.

(Anderson) "She's trying to convince one of the other chickens to get up off the eggs so she can sit on them."

(Eddings) Anderson and his wife, Debbie, share the tasks of raising six hens with other members of their community garden, down the street from their row house in Crown Heights. Every morning, the Andersons feed and water the hens, and they check the coop for their reward: fresh eggs.

(Anderson) "Ah, let's see....well, they're sitting....  Hey ladies! We have two! Two pretty big ones. A white one, and a brown one."

(Eddings) The eggs are warm to the touch.  Debbie Anderson says they taste better, and are more satisfying, than supermarket eggs.     

(Debbie Anderson) "What I get out of it, is a connection to where my food comes from."

(Eddings) The Andersons are part of a new chicken keeping movement in America, spurred by an interest in local, healthy food.  Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn't keep statistics on such small-scale farming, anecdotally, it says there are a growing number of people raising chickens in suburban and urban areas.  Most people are keeping the birds for eggs, not meat.  There are dozens of chicken-raising websites and online forums. 

Many cities' public health and zoning ordinances don't allow chickens.  In the Northeast, that's true in Boston, Albany, Providence, and Hartford.  Meanwhile, chicken bans were lifted last year in New Haven, Connecticut, and Portland, Maine, due to demand from would-be backyard farmers. 

In New York City, roosters are illegal, because of their crowing. But residents can raise as many hens as they want, as long as they don't stink, make too much noise, or attract flies and other pests. 

Megan Paska rents an apartment in a three-story row house in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Greenpoint. She was able to convince her landlady to let her keep four hens in an old doghouse out back.

(Paska) "I had already been doing gardening and composting. You don't need a whole lot of space for it. We've got a yard. The chicken manure can go in the compost bin and make our garden grow really well. It sort of completed the trifecta."

(Eddings) Chickens may be newly hip, but they're old school in New York City's black and Hispanic neighborhoods. Karen Washington's community garden in the South Bronx started raising chickens ten years ago, after someone dropped off several chicks.

(Washington) "We city folk didn't know anything about raising chickens. So a lot of the members who were from Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic or down south, they said you know what. I know how to take care of chickens."

(Eddings) Now, Washington is in charge of the garden's 11 hens.  She says she used to have 12, but a raccoon killed one, a reminder that caring for livestock isn't totally carefree. 

Chickens can carry the bad bacteria, Salmonella, and federal health officials suggest common sense precautions, such as handwashing.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture has re-energized its informational campaign about bird flu.  It's not a major threat to humans, but it can wipe out entire flocks. 

And backyard farmers must keep their chickens from getting too wet, or too cold.  Greg Anderson sat in the coop with a hen under his coat one winter to warm her up.  He didn't mind.

(Anderson) "It's great, I love it.  I'm a misplaced country boy, and I think I've found my place."

(Eddings) And intrepid New Yorkers and others across the country have rediscovered a chicken's place in their backyards. 

(Host) Northeast environmental coverage is part of NPR's Local News Initiative. The reporting is made possible, in part, by a grant from United Technologies.

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