In the early evening, when Crista Guarelia and her fiance, Michael Duva, both 47, relax in their Greenlawn den, they keep one eye on the sky.
"Hawk!" they yell, jumping up and running out back when one circles overhead.
They don't want a repeat of the traumatic moment when they found a hawk dining on Haley, a chicken who until her untimely demise was one of the beloved chickens and ducks residing in a spacious coop in Guarelia's acre of backyard.
"I name all of them," said Guarelia, who works for a major accounting firm from her home. "I joke with my friends that I practically put them in bed with pajamas on. We treat them like children."
Drama, death, birth, love, and eggs: such is the life of the growing numbers of backyard chicken enthusiasts on Long Island who are part of a national resurgence in home poultry raising, which was commonplace as recently as the 1960s.
Where permitted (usually with limits on flock size and bans on noisy roosters), chickens are catching on among people who want fresh, unadulterated eggs or who object to how chickens are raised on commercial farms. They get to choose from over 100 breeds, some of them needing rescue from endangered status, with a broad palette of colors, feather styles, sizes and personalities.
"It's all part of the green revolution," said retired teacher Pam Krauth, 69, of Nissequogue, of the growing interest she's seen in the last two years, while raising chickens herself for the last 34 years. "People want to know where their eggs come from and how old they are. There are no antibiotics or any chemicals."
Sales of bird increase
Domestic poultry sales were up almost 30 percent last year from 2009 at the Talmage Farm Agway and Garden Center in Riverhead, where people come from as far as New York City to buy chicks, feed and supplies. Last year, Talmage sold 4,500 baby birds -- mostly chickens but also turkeys, ducks and guinea fowl.
This year's annual Chicken Day in March, when the first new chicks come in from an Ohio hatchery, was the best attended ever, said Tara Besold, who has sold baby birds there for 19 years.
"My kids looked at me, I looked at them, and we all looked at my husband, and he said, 'OK let's get them,' " said Lisa Peters, a mother of five and animal lover with three dogs and assorted other pets.
Now, five new chicks -- two Easter eggers, two blue Americanas, and a fly tie -- are joining Snickers, a Rhode Island red; Oreo, a black Australorp; and Milky Way and Almond Joy, both buff Orpingtons at the Peters house. They live in a coop Bill Peters built with the help of the three youngest Peters, boys aged 14, 13, and 7.
"The neighbors are fine with it," Lisa Peters said. "They get eggs." She added, "There is such a difference between the eggs they give us and the ones in the store. Most commercial eggers [egg-producing chickens] never see the sunlight. Every day, our 'girls' come out and see the sun . . . We give them organic feed."
Not just egg producers
The "girls," as they are often referred to by their affectionate owners, serve purposes beyond making eggs, said Jennifer Murray of Huntington, who moved from backyard chicken raising to leasing a farm in Smithtown. "They can wear many hats: cultivator, weeder, fertilizer [from their manure], insect pest controller [they eat them, including ticks] and entertainer!"
Their eggs can be brown, beige, white, green, blue or pink, depending on the breed.
While not a particularly high-maintenance animal, they do have needs, including daily food and water, a sturdy coop, and protection from predators, such as raccoons.
"I get a lot of repeat customers from people who go out to dinner and forget to lock their coop," said Wayne Meyer, 37, whose Long Island Poultry business in Riverhead has doubled since it opened three years ago. The responsibilities haven't daunted would-be chicken raisers, but laws have in some jurisdictions.
Where illegal, neighbors' complaints (usually about noise, sanitation and fears of disease) have forced the dismantling of coops. Recently, Village of Great Neck trustees refused to change its no-livestock rule, saying they had no money for inspectors.
In his unincorporated East Atlantic Beach neighborhood, Chris Taylor, 31, had to dismantle his coop and give away his three hens because of a neighbor's objections. The Hempstead town rule against livestock without a special permit was in effect. Chicken raising is legal in adjoining Long Beach and in the Rockaways.
"I wanted to be able to consume the eggs and know where they were coming from," Taylor said. "It's horrible. If I had the money, I'd hire a lawyer."
Jed Brambley, manager of Eastport Feeds in Eastport, said that when he was growing up in the area, "everyone had chickens in their backyards, in the late '50s and '60s. Now people can't do it like they'd like to with all the town ordinances [so] a lot of people do it illegally. They have 20 chickens and as long as nobody complains, nobody will bother you."
Hope limit will be raised
She and her physics professor husband, Gene, built a sturdy wire mesh coop they call the Chick Arena that encloses a plastic children's playhouse containing the roost and nesting boxes. Flexible chicken wire fencing expands the birds' free range to a lawn and bushes where they give themselves dust baths and eat insects.
She is a font of chicken info, from feeding them to how to protect against salmonella. But clearly, this is love. Asked to describe her affection for her hens, she wrote a poetic ode:
"My sweetie pie hens are a daily delight in symbiotic affection personified," she wrote. "They love to see me coming, I love to see them eagerly run to me. Watching them strut through the grass, softly clucking at a lucky find of a tasty bug, they are the 'chicken TV' of lazy afternoons in the sun.
"So funny to watch them play catch with a corn nibblet or a sunflower seed. They skibble on over to circle my chair and tilt a red-combed head to better hold a dark eye in line with mine. One or another may hop up for a cuddle every now and then. Feathers are so soft and silkie; perfect way to wind down a busy day."
Quick guide to raising chickens
1. Find out if it's legal where you live by checking at the library or online for your town or village code's rules. There are usually bans on roosters and limits on flock size. Check for building department restrictions on coop location.
2. Study all the issues involved in chicken-raising, including how to build or buy a coop. Check out backyardchickens.com, mypetchicken.com and other websites.
3. Be sensitive to the neighbors. Gifts of eggs can help.
4. New York State law regulates the sale of chicks. Day-old chicks can only be sold in groups of six.
5. Find baby chicks, chicken food and supplies at local sources like Talmage Farm Agway in Riverhead or Agway in Hicksville, Eastport Feeds in Eastport, Prianti Farms in Dix Hills or Mackinajian Poultry Farm & Country Store in Huntington, or online.
-- CAROL POLSKY