No one would be surprised to see a dog running around a backyard -- but chickens? Indeed, Long Islanders are flocking to the chicken bandwagon and more egg-laying birds than ever, it seems, are clucking, scratching and pecking their way across lawns.
"The demand is huge and growing," says Bill Van Schaick, general manager at Talmage Farm Agway in Riverhead, which stocks baby chicks and premade coops. The store sold 500 more birds this April than last -- many to so-called "urban farmers" who are raising them at home.
"We wanted our kids to know and understand where food comes from," says Mare Dianora, 39, who keeps four Rhode Island Reds in a tidy coop at her house in Sag Harbor. She and her husband, Claes Brondal, were the first to get a permit to raise chickens under the village's newly passed ordinance last summer.
In Commack, Patti Whitaker and Rich League have had birds roaming around their 1/4-acre property since 2010. "I wake up and they're staring at me through the back door," says Whitaker, 47. The family has collected enough eggs to recoup a year's worth of chicken feed plus the $375 they spent on the coop.
Local interest in keeping chickens has "skyrocketed" over the past five years, according to Mark Bridgen, director of Cornell University's Long Island Horticultural Research and Extension Center in Riverhead. He cites the down economy as a driving force -- not that keeping chickens is dirt cheap.
The biggest investment is in the coop. Options range from modest pens to custom-built palaces costing several thousand. JPD United in Farmingdale has three models of premade coops priced $1,500-$3,500. "We've had a lot more people coming and asking about them," says sales associate Shawn Dunegan.
Williams-Sonoma recently added a $1,499.95 coop, a two-tiered cedar affair with nesting boxes, a galvanized-metal roof and a mesh-enclosed run for up to six chickens. As for the birds, they're getting easier to come by, too.
Garden of Eve in Riverhead is now selling adult, ready-to-lay chickens for $10 each. Birds generally lay five eggs a week and keep at it for four years or so. The farm hosted a two-day Chickapalooza in April that drew more than 300 people to workshops covering the basics of chicken-keeping.
KEEPING UP WITH THE BIRDS
Danielle Benz of Smithtown got her birds two years ago, after noticing that many of her neighbors had chickens. She built her coop from pictures she found online. "There's not a lot of work involved in raising chickens," says Benz, 47. It's mostly keeping their water fresh, food filled and the occasional cleaning of the coop. "And the eggs taste amazing."
After prodding from their teenage son, Veronica Duclay, 43, and her husband, Thierre, 46, bought a $1,000 coop for an eight-bird flock in their Huntington Station backyard. Upkeep is "easier than having a dog," Veronica Duclay says. "They're really whimsical characters, and you get a gift from them every day."
Chickens by the numbers
Cost of a ready-made coop: $600 to $1,690+
Cost of an adult-size waterer: $30
Cost of 50 pounds of feed: $16 to $18
Cost of an egg-laying hen: $10
Average life span of a chicken: 7 years
Average number of eggs a hen lays per week: 5
Cost of a live chick: $4.25
SOURCES: Garden of Eve, JPD United, Talmage Farm Agway
Before you start
If you're ready to take the plunge into raising chickens, here are three things to know:
1. CHECK THE CODE Not every municipality allows residents to keep chickens or other fowl. For example, the Town of Smithtown has no restrictions, but you can be cited if your birds become a nuisance. The Town of Huntington allows no more than eight chickens or combination of chickens and/or other fowl. Check with your town clerk for guidelines.
2. CONSIDER HOUSING A coop gives chickens a place to roost and lay -- but it also needs to secure them from predators. "If you have problems with raccoons in your garbage, you'll have problems with raccoons and your chickens," says Chris Pinto, field manager at Garden of Eve in Riverhead.
3. PLAN YOUR FLOCK Generally speaking, chickens lay 5 or 6 eggs a week for four years or so. Fresh eggs can keep for several weeks in the fridge. Also consider what you will do with chickens that stop producing eggs: living retirement -- or coq au vin?
North Fork Hen House Tour 2013
WHEN | WHERE 10 a.m.-3 p.m. June 15.
Pick up maps at Cornell University's Long Island Horticultural and Research Center, 3059 Sound Ave., Riverhead
COST $5 per vehicle
Visitors will see at least 12 chicken coops on this self-guided tour. Stops range from private homes with backyard coops to small family farms to a large, free-range farm operation. Eggs and frozen, dressed birds will be available for purchase at some locations along the way.