A Brooklyn Chicken Coop
posted: May 5, 2009
Gregory holding The Church Lady, Miz Mildred, so named because her comb is the biggest and it flops over her head like a church-lady’s hat. Sometimes she’ll flop it over so it covers one eye. She’s very stylish....
This is part of Sidewalk Farmers, my series of profiles of people around New York City who grow their own food.

A few weeks back I went out to Brooklyn to talk to Gregory, who has recaptured an important part of his childhood by keeping a chicken coop in the community garden on his block.

"I was born here in New York City, but I grew up in Selma, Alabama. We had chickens, and one neighbor had rabbits, and another neighbor had a couple of goats, so we all bartered with one another.

"I loved the chickens. As a young child I saw them mostly as pets, until my grandmother explained that yes, you can treat them as pets, but they are a source of food, so you can’t get too attached. I tried to remember what my grandmother said, but I loved them, I loved them.

"I moved back to New York about 20 years ago to be an artist--I do wood sculpture--and I got married in '97 and when the kids got a little older, I started hanging around here in the community garden. It had become kind of overrun; the group of neighbors that started the garden, well, they became senior citizens and no longer had the energy. The block association wanted to keep the garden going, so myself and a couple of other neighbors volunteered and about five years ago we started renovating.

"What started me on wanting chickens is when I saw an article in Martha Stewart’s magazine about raising bantam chickens, and I saw the different colors of eggs, and it just brought back so many childhood memories that I was like, you know what? This can be done here! We can do it in our back yard! The kids would love it and I thought the community would really enjoy chickens here, too.

"I have a couple of senior citizens that help keep an eye on the garden. One of them, Miz Smith, lives right next to the garden, and she’s like the guardian angel. When I can’t come around, she'll let me know who was in the garden and what they were doing. If she doesn’t know them she will confront them. And a lot of times it’s kind of scary for the person, because they can’t see her, they  just hear her voice as she stands up in her window, "Who are you? What exactly are you doing out there?" Like a God of authority coming out of the sky. She’s very helpful; I love her.

"And then I have Miz Margaret, who in her younger days was a part of the garden; she helped get the garden started. She lives across the street from the garden and she also lets me know who's coming in. She can’t really see what they're doing but she can see them coming in and out and she will always let me know when someone was in the garden.

"Chickens are fascinating. They're very social social animals; you'd never keep just one--they need to be around other chickens. I love the way chickens interact with one another, the way they automatically build up their hierarchy. The term 'pecking order' is true about chickens, because they have a leader and each chicken has its place in the hierarchy. Normally the leader would be a rooster, but in the absence of a rooster, the most dominant female will take that role.

"They need open space, because they need to scratch the earth to dig for worms and other bugs, and they need activities that can be as simple as just pushing hay around on the floor. Or scratching very vigorously with their feet to throw the hay up in the air. They need to stay busy; if they don't, you can really have problems: they'll start pecking at each other and fighting and arguing, and jockeying for the best space in the coop, so you need to keep them busy. One thing that I do is to throw a handful of oats or sunflower seeds on the floor inside the coop, so during the day when I can’t be around that’s enough to kind of keep them busy.

"When we first got the chickens, Big Red was at the top of the pecking order, but Big Red is a little older, so now Hattie is in charge. Hattie's my favorite chicken; she’s like the mother hen, she’s there to make sure that there's no danger around, and when she sees a predator, like a stray cat, she'll start clucking very loudly and rapidly. That will alert the other chickens and they'll run for cover and after they're all safe, then she'll run for cover. So I like that, I guess because by nature, I’m a nurturer. I’m a youth worker by profession so I like to see that activity, that, wow, she’s really looking over her flock!

"The chicken that’s on the bottom of the pecking order, we call her Pecky. We adopted our chickens from another family that keeps chickens in Brooklyn, whose flock had become overpopulated for the size of his yard. Chickens love social order: everything has to be in place, and every chicken has to know what their role is in the flock. When they get overstressed, or overpopulated, they start picking at each other. Kind of like what humans do: when we’re on the train after work, we’re stressed out, and the trains are overcrowded, and we kind of nudge and elbow each other, because we’re looking for our own personal space. Chickens do the same thing, and Pecky was on the bottom of the pecking order and when we got her, she had most of her feathers pecked off by the other chickens.

"But she has all her feathers now and the other chickens don't beat up on her anymore, unless she oversteps her bounds. Once you understand the nature of chickens, you see there's a reason she’s on the bottom. Pecky can be very loud, Pecky can run around and disturb the flock, so she has to be kept in line. It’s sad, but at the same time, it’s a wonderful thing to observe. There's a lot you can learn from a flock of chickens."