Ups and downs of the Great New York City Chicken Frenzy

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Backyard chickens. (Image via Brokelyn.com)
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Jed Lipinski

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A fun story appeared on DNAInfo this morning about a company called Victory Chicken, which delivers chickens and chicken coops directly to people in New York City. Among other endorsements, the company claims that "chickens are the perfect holiday gift” and that they “provide fresh year-round eggs and make funny little pets.”

“It's the equivalent to having cats,” Victory Chicken founder Noah Leff of Bedford-Stuyvesant, who created the company two years ago, told the DNAInfo reporter.

But Leff's enthusiasm seemed to fly in the face of recent pessimistic reports on the growing trend of poultry husbandry in the city. Since chicken-keeping has picked up among Brooklyn gardeners, the New York Times has been steadily reporting on the difficulties of city coops.

Back in October, a story in the Dining section reported that elevated levels of lead had been found in eggs laid by chickens in the city’s community gardens.

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“Homeowners who keep chickens in their backyards have little way of knowing whether their eggs might be contaminated unless they have them tested themselves,” the article concluded.

Just days later, the sudden appearance of eight chickens in the Warren-St. Marks Community Garden in Park Slope sparked outrage among garden members who claimed they were not consulted about the decision. As the Times wrote, opponents worried that the chickens would “bring stink, vermin, flies, lead poisoning and possibly even avian flu into the neighborhood,” and made themselves clear about it at a meeting characterized as “rancorous and sometimes profane.”

Hurricane Sandy introduced a new wrinkle to the challenge of raising urban chickens. As we reported on Wednesday, chicken owners in Red Hook whose backyard flooded during the storm were obliged to relocate their feathered pets indoors, with quirky if malodorous results.

The chickens—one of whom is named Chicki Minaj—were eventually returned to their outdoor lot, where they encountered another chicken whose owner was unable to care for it. But according to yet another chicken-centric piece in the Times, that chicken, Cindy, has since disappeared, and may be wandering the flood-damaged streets of Red Hook as we speak.

Still, the city’s lax regulations on chickens do make them a relatively bureaucracy-free proposition. The Zoning Ordinance of the City of New York stipulates that, although it is illegal to keep roosters, ducks, turkey and geese in the city, raising chicken is perfectly okay in all districts (i.e., Residential, Commercial, and Manufacturing). There is also no limit to the number of chickens one can raise. Then again, as one’s chicken population increases, so does the likelihood of creating so-called “nuisance conditions,” such as excessive noise, smells and vermin. Nuisance conditions are illegal, and fines range from $200 to $2,000.

Further complexity awaits prospective chicken owners in the fact that most hatcheries require you to buy a minimum of 25 one-day-old chicks. The reason for this is that the chicks need to huddle against each other for warmth. You can’t just have three or four chickens bouncing around in a chilly cardboard box in the back of a UPS truck. And when you think about peering into a delivery box filled with 25 fluffy golden two- or three-day-old chicks, raising them all on your 65-square-foot patio in the East Village may suddenly seem like a realistic and totally feasible idea.

(This is where Victory Chicken comes in, by the way. Their $785 “Rosie Package” provides three hens, a locally built coop with an attached chicken run, a whirlwind “Chicken 101” course, a 50-lb bag of “grower” feed and an ongoing “chicken support” system. Their slogan: "Do it for your family. Do it for your country. Do it for the eggs.")

Nonetheless, as the enraged chicken opponents in Park Slope suggested, avian flu remains a reality. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention says that the avian influenza A virus can affect domesticated chickens who come into direct contact with other infected poultry or surfaces contaminated with the virus. The more New Yorkers start raising chickens, the higher the odds of an avian flu outbreak.

As the CDC makes clear, such outbreaks are of particular concern because of 1) the economic impact and trade restrictions an outbreak would pose, and 2) the possibility that avian flu “could be transmitted to humans.”

Molecular biologists are on it. In 2011, researchers at the University of Cambridge and the Roslin Institute of Scotland successfully created genetically modified chickens that block transmission of the virus to other birds. For now, scientists have no plans to distribute these transgenic chickens to poultry farms in the New York region. Whether the types of New Yorkers Victory is targeting with the "Rosie Package" will be comfortable eating eggs laid by genetically modified hens, however, is a question for a future Times article.