Chickens Become Garden Attraction

September 13, 2010 at 12:18 am Leave a comment

Lower East Side chickens

© Margarida Correia. Chickens have become a community attraction at a Lower East Side garden in Manhattan.

It was the perfect midsummer evening for strolling city sidewalks and forgetting about life’s troubles for a while.  But not for a committed group of city chicken keepers who had a pressing issue on their minds:  how to keep their birds safe from salmonella.

The group huddled at a Lower East Side community garden to listen to tips from invited speaker Martha Callaghan, a USDA animal health technician.

If the birds have swollen faces or aren’t their usual chipper selves, she explained, it’s a sign that the birds are sick, though not necessarily from salmonella as there are no specific symptoms for the disease.

The 16 chicken fans  — all members of the Just Food City Chicken Meetup Group —shared their knowledge and experiences, their voices at times drowned out by the chirping of crickets and tree frogs or the zoom, zoom of motorcycles on the street.

Just a few feet away two hens and a -SHHH “non-hen” or rooster (roosters are illegal in New York City) were tucked away in the garden’s newly built luxury coop. The rooster was one of two roosters that had been abandoned in the garden last winter, victims, the gardeners surmised, of a cock fight.  The gardeners gave one to an upstate farmer — he was too territorial, they said — but the other they kept.  In the spring, two hens donated by a longtime community resident joined him and the three roamed in the garden range-free until the coop was built.

“The community loves him,” Kathleen Webster, co-chair of the M’Finda Kalunga Community Garden, said of the rooster.  She explained that the chickens have become a garden attraction, drawing people from nearby Chinese and Latino communities, nostalgic perhaps for the countries they left behind.

“Chickens were quite common to this neighborhood before the mass infusion of money destroyed some of the local community gardens and their “casitas” or garden sheds where people played cards or just hung out,” Kathleen explained.

While the chickens may be a novelty for average New Yorkers, they’re a normal part of the landscape for urban gardeners.  Owen Taylor, organizer of the Just Food City Chicken Meetup Group, said he counted some 30 community gardens that kept chickens three years ago.  He’s since stopped counting.   “It’s been normalized,” he said.   “It’s no longer shocking.”

Isabel Goldberg, one of the more than 400 registered City Chicken Meetup members, keeps two hens — one an “Easter egger” that lays blue eggs — in her North Bronx backyard.   She started with three chickens in April 2009.

“I like good eggs,” she said when asked why she keeps chickens.  “Supermarket eggs are tasteless.”

When it comes to city chickens, though, Crown Heights, Brooklyn, rules the roost.  The neighborhood is home to a 40-hen community coop that provides fresh eggs to some of the city’s poorest residents through a CSA program run by bk farmyards, a Brooklyn-based company that farms people’s backyards, schoolyards, and underutilized urban land.  The hens produce three dozen eggs daily.

Their Lower East Side sisters aren’t nearly as productive, laying one egg every two to three days.  But that doesn’t seem to diminish the community’s affection for the birds.

“I love you,” the garden’s resident chicken whisperer coos as she reaches out to stroke the Lower East Side hens.

In the world of urban chicken keeping, anything goes, especially if it helps chickens lay a few more eggs.

Entry filed under: City Farmers, Community Gardens, Community Supported Agriculture, Local Food Production, Urban Agriculture. Tags: , , , , , .

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