Up With Chickens
Fowl play in the backyard
Many local coop keepers start out getting chickens for their children.
Photo by Sally Green
A pall of loss shrouds Lauren Dustin’s face. Just a few hours earlier this morning, despite her best efforts to create a safe yet spacious Shangri-La for her chickens to enjoy on her Pound Ridge property, a hawk killed one of her birds. “You need to keep them safe. Otherwise, you lose too many, and it is too heartbreaking,” says Dustin. “If they are taken by a predator, and you are attached, it’s very painful.”
Whether it’s coyotes, foxes, hawks, or even neighborhood dogs, predators are the unfortunate top challenge to raising chickens at home. Despite this, seeing chickens snuggled in a child’s arms, it’s easy to see why many locals are going cuckoo for these birds.
Some choose their chickens for their appearance. Others, for the color of eggs they lay. Some find themselves with chickens by chance. Others order them diligently by catalog, enjoying opening a box of real-live peeps in the spring. However they come to take up roomy residences beside homes in Bedford and Pound Ridge, the chickens, it seems, definitely come first.
Dustin’s foray into feathered friends came about five years ago, when she rescued two abandoned chickens and a rooster. Without much time to plan, she converted a wooden playhouse outgrown by her son into a coop, now called the Taj Mahal. “In the beginning, I adopted chickens from people who didn’t want them anymore,” she explains, pointing out birds with names like Fancy Pants and Chicken Dinner. One chicken even arrived after being bullied in another coop. (Yes, there is such a thing as pecking order!)
She cheerfully shares her refrigerator with upwards of 70 Tupperware containers of home-cooked “chicken bowls”—cheesy grits or canned beans mixed with leftovers—that she creates each week to supplement the feed for her 16 chickens and two roosters. She also shares beautifully bowed boxes of colorful eggs in hues of pink and blue that she delivers to neighbors, who call her the Egg Fairy.
During peak egg-laying season, before it gets cold, chickens can lay about an egg a day at the height of their egg-laying years. After a few years, egg production declines. Which seems to lead people to get more chickens. Before they know it, they have a new clutch.
Down the road a ways, Dustin’s friend Sally Green picks up one of the favorites in her brood. “I hang out with my chickens,” she says with a smile, as she offers a tour of her protected chicken run. “When I’m outside gardening, I let them out with me.” Think: free range.
In proud mother-hen fashion, Green shares photos of the building of her coop, and of her sons and neighborhood children playing with the chickens in her yard over the years.
Getting chickens for children is a common starting point. In Bedford Village, the connection between chickens and children has led Ester Aguzzi, who runs the Country Kids Schoolhouse out of the family home, to expand their coop into a small barn.
Like many families who raise chickens, it began with the idea of serving fresh eggs to the children, and being able to show them where eggs come from. “It’s a fabulous thing for kids to see,” says Aguzzi. She also says, “It warms my heart” to watch the kids interact with the birds. Her grandson even learned how to count by collecting the eggs each morning.
It’s not all fun and games in Chickenville, however. Besides keeping them safe from predators, getting water and food to them in the snow and giving them access in and out of the coop in the winter are some of the challenges chicken owners face. With planning, though, chicken keepers say these issues can be alleviated.
Dustin installed automatic doors that open the coops at sunrise and close them up at sunset, eliminating the need to be home at specific times to do so. Many owners have also paired up with local animal sitters to help if they are away.
They all say the therapeutic benefits of keeping the birds, along with the added bonus of fresh eggs, greatly outweigh any obstacles. “I just like animals, and the chickens, they’re like pets, right?” says Dustin, listening to them coo and cluck as they scratch around her chicken run. “You look at them and feel warm.”
Birds of a Feather
Not ready to take the plumage plunge? For a taste of what it’s like to raise chickens, locals can join the Intergenerate Egg Co-Op at the John Jay Homestead in Katonah. Started in 2011, approximately 25 member families pay $250 each per year to participate, raising about 40 chickens at the Homestead. Each member is given a day and time slot to check the chickens, open or close the coop, collect eggs, and feed and water the chickens.
A few times each quarter, each family is assigned to a Saturday coop cleanup.“Most people are doing it for the love of chickens,” says Jenny Weisburger, point person of the co-op committee. “The eggs are an added bonus.” Members get a share in the eggs produced by the chickens. At the peak of the season, families can earn about 15 eggs per shift. In winter, they receive about five eggs per shift. “It’s really a great system for people who want to try it,” says Weisburger. “We even have some members who have their own chickens and belong to the co-op. It’s a nice way to meet people who like the same things you do.” If those “things” happens to be chickens.
In Pound Ridge, there is a limit to how many chickens someone can raise on their property, with special permit: no more than 200 head of poultry is allowed. Crowing roosters must also be enclosed in a structure “secure enough to muffle their sound.”
In Bedford, the number of chickens one can raise depends on lot size, with a total ban on roosters on one acre or less.