By Cathy Erway
A little over a year ago I stood amidst a swarm of chickens at Queens County Farm Museum. They were attracted to my brass boot buckles, so I was told, and I was frankly a little frightened by them. Until then, the only time I had encountered chickens that closely they’d been on my plate. As they pecked relentlessly at my feet, a bobbing whirlpool of auburn, those Rhode Island Reds taught me my first lesson about the social science of chickens: the flashiest are often at the bottom of the pecking order.
This year, on Mother’s Day, I became a part-time mom to a small flock of heritage breed hens. There are four in total, and they were raised at a farm in upstate New York from chicks to the roughly one and one-and-a-half-year-olds they are now. One lays pastel blue-green eggs, one has iridescent black plumage. The flashiest one, a Silver Spangled hen named Yoko, seems to have found herself at the bottom of the pecking order, the poor dear. But there’s plenty more drama to play out, which I just can’t wait to see. Firstly, how will they do, these girls who were raised in rural country and transplanted to New York City? It sounds like the classic fish out of water tale. Here in Brooklyn, they’ll live in the newly installed green roof garden at Sixpoint Craft Ales. Their diet will comprise organic feed, spent grains from the brewery, greenery from its garden, compost, shipped-in worms, and maybe – for calcium – some crushed oyster shells from neighboring restaurants.
They have a generously sized coop, which was built by a small handful of staff and friends, quite sharply, I might say. But we’re not in Kansas anymore. With a sleek, A-frame construction and four rooms in total, it’s kind of a modern bungalow for the farm-dwelling bumpkins. Are they comfortable? Will they like the provisions we’ve painstakingly picked out for them? Are they ultimately better off elsewhere, without us? Are chickens the new chihuahua? Just a fashion accessory and little else?
Now that I’ve gotten the worst of my concerns off my chest, I’ll move on to what’s inspiring about this. Bringing living animals into the small, contained ecosystem that we’ve created — a roof — is a huge responsibility. But I’m not playing around, and neither are the good-souled city chicken keepers who I’ve come to meet. Sure, it may seem stranger than keeping a dog or a cat. Like most pets, chickens provide companionship; but they come with big benefits. Fresh eggs are the foremost, and good laying hens should lay around four or five per week. There is the added advantage of seeing directly how certain feed affects the eggs’ taste and quality. The chickens’ poop and eggshells will accelerate the decomposition of and fix valuable nutrients in the compost, used in turn to feed the plants. All told, they’re a major player in the game, and they’re more winter-hardy than many plants to boot. And chickens are social creatures, with a social world of their own; unlike dogs, they don’t need your attention.
As I stood outside the coop after placing the birds inside for the first time, I watched them grappling with their new bearings. Nighttime was just setting in, so pretty soon I was just listening for any sounds up in the roost. It seemed as if they had made a huddle, low hums and twitters confined to the center of the enclosed house. A distinct sound of feathers brushing against one another could be heard.
I’d be lying if I said that my maternal instinct took me by surprise that night. I’m ready. These girls are going to thrive. And much like the way they have formed a union to weather their adjustment, I feel lucky to have a strong support system in fellow urban raisers like Annie Novak from Eagle Street Rooftop Farm, Megan Paska from BKHomesteader, Stacy Murphy of BKFarmyards, all the folks at Just Food’s City Chicken program and the resources they provide, and more acquaintances with a few layers in their yards, all making an honest and practical relationship with these birds as well as the food on their plates. Maybe we’ll inspire you to raise a few, too. Stay tuned.