Isiah Sidberry and his wife couldn’t believe their good luck when they found their dream home in Medford this past spring. The previous owners asked the couple if they would keep the coop and chickens in the backyard. They heartily agreed.
"My wife wanted to get a coop, so it was perfect," says Sidberry, a cook at South Oaks Hospital in Amityville. "This made it easier because it came with the house."
Now their son, Isiah Jr., 6, accompanies his mom, Dana, 30, and dad to feed the chickens and scoop up the eggs from the five chickens in their coop.
"The fun part is watching them run across the yard," says Sidberry, 29. "It’s entertaining."
The Sidberrys are among a new "breed" of homeowners who are keeping chickens in their Long Island backyards in growing numbers. While there are no statistics kept on coop owners, the uptick is seen in how hard it has become to get chicks and feed, and the number of new members on social media pages dedicated to the activity, such as Long Island Chicken Keepers.
People in the chicken business, such as Rent The Chicken owners Jenn and Phillip Tompkins of Pennsylvania, say sales are up 15 to 25% in the metropolitan area over the past three years. Their company rents out four egg-laying hens, a chicken coop and feed for about $1,150 for the summer. Long Island summer communities are big customers, says Phillip "Homestead Phil" Tompkins.
A variety of customers are setting up coops: Families who are home schooling, parents of children with autism who say it is calming, and even empty nesters who love them as pets. "The therapy they provide can be amazing," says Tompkins.
For many, it has become a family affair, and a way to teach their children responsibility. For some, it was spurred by a worry about food insecurity during the pandemic. And for others, it’s just about getting back to the earth and connecting with the source of what we eat. Growing food also cuts down on carbon footprint, some say.
Most say it gives them a sense of homesteading, even on small suburban plots.
"My goal is to be as self-sufficient as possible," says Nick Sarin, 39, of Manorville, who has large gardens, harvests syrup from his maple trees, grows edible mushrooms and cultivates berry bushes that produce enough fruit to make jam and fruit leather treats for his kids for a year. He is also a beekeeper. His six hens allow for three or four dozen eggs a week, which his family of four mostly consumes.
"People are unsatisfied with the quality and practices of industrial farming," he says. "I know what we are feeding our animals, so yes, we know it is healthy conditions."
Many chicken keepers say the freshness of the egg is what keeps them going. Once you eat an egg soon after it is laid, it is hard to go back to store-bought egg, they say.
"Eggs in a store have yolks that are pale yellow," Sarin says. "Mine are a deep orange."
Limiting carbon footprint
For Jill Werfel, 55, and her wife, Kim Frost, 50, keeping chickens is part of a lifestyle of growing and raising as much of their own food as possible. In addition to growing zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables, the couple keeps two coops with eight chickens on their 3-acre property in Stony Brook, where they have lived since 1993.
"For me, it is about limiting my carbon footprint," says Werfel, adding that her pet peeve is packaging. "And it is nice to know the chickens are getting raised with dignity and being treated and fed well. Who would ever think that they would love spaghetti?"
Getting the kids involved
In Southampton, Amanda and William Krzenski started their "brood" last year during the pandemic.
"Because of remote schooling, we knew we would be home, and we had time to invest to start a flock," says Amanda, 46. She and her husband have two daughters, 10 and 11 years old.
Now, taking care of the hens has become a part of their daily routine, and the hens have gone from egg providers to pets. They let them out during the day when they can watch for predators. The family eats lots of "delicious" eggs each day, and share more with family and friends. Baking with the eggs is a favorite for Amanda.
But not everyone is pleased with the boom in chicken keeping. Long Island Orchestrating for Nature (LION), a leading fowl rescue and advocacy group, feels more laws are needed.
"For every good chicken owner, there are 10 that don’t know what they are doing," says John Di Leonardo of Malverne, president of LION.
For instance, because roosters are not allowed in many Long Island towns due to noise disturbances, the male chickens are killed at an alarming rate by hatcheries, he says. In addition, females are bred to overlay to produce more eggs, he says.
Also, he says, when people get bored or even overwhelmed by the responsibilities of chicken raising, they often dump the chickens in sumps or other areas.
"We rescue hundreds each year," says Di Leonardo, a vegan. "I wish people would do more adopting and less shopping. Anyone getting fowl should be aware of the responsibility of them."
Many agree that the proliferation of chicken keepers has brought problems. Codes are rather strict in most towns. In addition to not allowing roosters, the codes give such tight setback restrictions from both house and property lines, it makes it almost impossible to keep chickens for those living on an average size half-acre property.
Keeping the coops clean is a daily chore, and chickens get diseases just like other pets do. (Chicken keepers suggest finding a veterinarian who specializes in the animal.) Plus, poorly cleaned cages can attract rats and other vermin.
Predators are also a problem. Hawks and foxes love the taste of chickens, so coops have to be built well and maintained.
In Smithtown, there are no restrictions on the number of hens. "We’re lucky," says Nicole Palmer, 22, who lives in the town with her relatives, who have kept chickens for decades and currently have about 30. "You can have chickens and roosters [here] with no limitations."
But not so in other towns. The Facebook group Babylon Backyard Chicken Alliance has filed a petition grieving codes in the Town of Babylon against restrictive chicken keeping, including keeping roosters. The group is in discussion with the town to offer chicken-keeping classes. In the proposal, town residents would be required to take a class before applying for a permit, and would learn about sanitation, costs, feed, time constraints and security.
"Chickens are a 10-year commitment, even though they usually only lay eggs for three years," says Matthew Ambrosio, 40, a makeup artist and North Babylon resident who runs the Babylon group. "They are cute little chicks that grow to be messy chickens."
His chickens' eggs have become part of his everyday life. He exchanges them for wine with friends, eats them daily, and gives some to a local food pantry. And he appreciates the hues of the eggs. "As an artist, I am obsessed with the colors," he says. "They are pink and blue and lavender. Some are chocolate brown." Those dark chocolate ones, Maran eggs, originated in France and are sought after by pastry chefs.
For Amanda Krzenski, the family foray into chicken keeping in Southampton has inspired more thoughts on sustainable living and farming, such as having goats and maybe even cows; something not feasible on Long Island, she says. She and her husband have thought about more acreage, maybe in Pennsylvania.
She is surprised at how much she loves her family's new lifestyle: "I never thought I would be a crazy chicken lady, but here I am!"
Eve Kaplan-Walbrecht of Garden of Eve Organic Farm in Riverhead has been selling organic eggs and raising chickens for years. (She sells laying hens for $15 each.) Her tips for keeping backyard chickens healthy:
Protect the coop from raccoons, foxes and coyotes that have been spotted on Long Island.
It’s OK to let the chickens run around the yard when you can watch them. Otherwise, they should be in the coop or in a free-range run area with fencing along the sides and overhead.
Get high-quality food online or at your local Agway.
Search the internet and ask social media groups for advice on parasites, mites, infections or trouble laying eggs (being “egg bound”), which can save you a trip to the veterinarian.
Refrigerate the eggs if the house is hot in the summer. Keep them on the counter in winter or if the air conditioning is on. They will keep a good two weeks. After that, there might be some disintegration where the yolk isn’t as sturdy and the whites are runny.
Wash the eggs only if they are dirty from fecal matter or other contamination.