Brooklyn’s backyard chickens: Where are they now?
It’s been nearly a decade since Manny Howard published “My Empire of Dirt,” a memoir about transforming his Flatbush backyard into an urban farm and subsisting for a month off only the plants and animals he could produce there.
It was books like Howard’s that sparked a surge of interest in urban agriculture — and, perhaps, a mild obsession within the New York media world with the backyard chickens of Brooklyn.
As recently as 2016, the City Chicken Meetup from Just Food had over 800 members, according to The New York Times. That group is no longer active. Victory Chicken, a Bedford-Stuyvesant startup that acted as an urban chicken-keeping one-stop-shop, is also defunct.
If you Google “urban chickens” today, you’re as likely to find an article on the movement’s unintended consequences, like abandoned birds or a salmonella outbreak, as you are to find a glowing profile.
So, were backyard chickens a passing fad, like feathered fidget spinners or cronuts with wings? Or is the movement alive as ever, now minus the press hype?
It’s impossible to say how many of Brooklyn’s backyard chickens have flown the coop, but the Brooklyn Eagle did check in with some of the urban ranchers spotlighted in news stories at the height of the craze to see who’s still tending their flock.
Martha Lazar is intimately familiar with the media’s urban chicken fixation. Reporters from the Wall Street Journal, New York Daily News, South Brooklyn Post, NBC and ABC’s Nightline, among other outlets, stopped by her Cobble Hill home over the years to document the hens she kept in the backyard.
“We joked they should have a publicist,” Lazar said. “It was ridiculous.”
Lazar started keeping chickens around 2009 and writing about the experience on her blog. The misadventures detailed there include the time she was pecked in the eye by a chicken, the time a raccoon got its paws on one of her hens, leaving the bird with a nasty neck gash, the time she had to reach inside her chicken Edie to dislodge an egg from the bird’s abdomen and the time her hen LuLu started crowing like a rooster.
Lazar says she loved the experience of urban chicken-keeping, but she no longer has birds. Around two years ago her final hen went to live across the street with some chicken-keeping neighbors, and she decided to devote her backyard to extra garden space.
“It was a very natural time. Our neighbor was also down to one chicken, so it made a lot of sense to have them have a buddy. It was very organic,” she said.
Isaac Esterman’s backyard chickens also had a run-in with a raccoon. One night he heard a commotion and ran outside just in time to see the predator slinking away. His hens were unharmed, but the event took its toll nonetheless.
“They were never quite the same after that. A little traumatized, a little more skittish, a little less friendly. Which I don’t really blame them for,” he said.
Esterman and his chickens were profiled in a New York Post article in 2015, during his stint keeping three hens in Park Slope. Soon after, he moved to a house in Ditmas Park with his hens, but shifting life circumstances caused him to move again in short order — this time to an apartment without a yard.
Fortunately for Esterman and the hens, his parents had some friends upstate who kept a flock of 30 or 40 chickens. Late at night he crept into the coop and placed his birds in a dog crate, then drove them to Columbia County and dropped them off at the farm the next day.
“It’s probably a better situation for them up there,” Esterman said. “I went like three days later to kind of look for them, but I couldn’t see them … It was sad. Because those are pets.”
Simone Mogul not only kept hens in her Prospect Park South backyard for 10 years, she made a nice little side profit selling their eggs. Brokelyn featured Mogul and her hens in a 2010 article.
About a year ago, Mogul moved to Philadelphia, where it’s illegal to keep chickens. She dropped her last remaining bird, an elderly hen, off with a friend who kept a flock.
“Driving down the NJ Turnpike with an older hen in the back felt a little funny, but I’m glad we got to re-home the one hen that was left after 10 years,” she told the Eagle in an email.
Mogul is now pushing for legislation through Philadelphia’s City Council to legalize chicken-raising in the city. She’s hoping to have her coop up and running again by next spring.
The urban chicken-keeping movement is not without its critics. Mia Sacilotto says she rescued three abandoned hens near the Poly Prep Campus on the edge of Dyker Heights in December 2017. She found a home for two of the birds, Edna and Penelope, at Catskill Animal Sanctuary in Saugerties, New York, and took the third, Coretta, to live in a micro-sanctuary in Bushwick.
Sacilotto believes the birds were likely abandoned by urban chicken keepers. According to a spokesperson for Catskill Animal Sanctuary, that’s not uncommon, especially when keepers receive roosters — which, unlike hens, are illegal to keep within New York City limits.
“In the last 30 days alone we’ve had two separate inquiries about roosters who need to be re-homed due to city ordinances,” the spokesperson told the Eagle in an email.
According to the spokesperson, there are currently four chickens living at the sanctuary who were found wandering the streets of Brooklyn, and historically there have been “many more.”
There’s another spot Brooklyn’s unwanted chickens tend to turn up: Imani Community Garden in Crown Heights, where volunteers take care of a community flock.
“A lot of people in the city try backyard chicken-keeping and then decide it’s not necessarily for them,” said volunteer Becca Mason. “So we’ve got a couple foster chickens that came to us from unknown origins. They were just left here one day.”
Another common source for the garden’s flock are science classes in local schools that hatch baby chicks without a plan for the animals once they grow into chickens.
“What ends up happening is that 50 percent of them are roosters, so 50 percent of the things they’re hatching are illegal to have in the city,” said garden volunteer Robert Callahan.
The garden is currently fostering one such rooster named Spike. According to Callahan, the DOH is “politely asking us to move it.”
The volunteers host workshops at the garden for Brooklynites interested in backyard chicken-keeping, and warn them against some of the most common pitfalls. Callahan’s top two tips for aspiring urban chicken keepers are to find an ethical hatchery, by visiting in person if necessary, and to be wary of secondhand Craigslist chickens, who may be too old to lay regularly or may spread illness to the rest of a flock.
“You really can’t trust a human being who’s trying to get rid of chickens,” he said.
When it comes to where Brooklyn’s backyard chickens are today, Mason has a lead — look up, she says. Toward the rooftops, that is.
“We’ve had a couple people here who are putting them on the roof,” she said. “I’m wondering if it’s now evolving to the point where people don’t have backyards anymore.”
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