The Birds on That Brooklyn Rooftop? Chickens

Written by my friend Annie Novak at Eagle Street Rooftop Farm
Aug 31 2010, for The Atlantic

As the heavy heat of summer presses down on New York City, coming up the stairs to the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm, I'm met with new company. Looking across the green roof toward the East River, one sees the flowers and herbs first, then the vegetables, and then, behind the towers of cucumbers that match the distant Manhattan skyline, a small flock of chickens.

The hens' coop sits at the far end of the farm, in the last row before the parapet and three-story drop to the street. As I climb the last few steps, the birds come barreling into the long chicken wire-covered run like billiard balls after the break, crowing and crying out. They're hungry, as all animals suddenly are when they see someone who regularly feeds them.

Urban farming has many unique quirks, but one of the most profound in New York City is our search for good soil. Last year, I watched the crops suffer as the summer's heavy rains washed nutrients out of the green-roof growing medium. The weakened plants were prone to pests, so this year, I was eager to amend the unhealthy soil with something easily sourced and renewable. What better than chicken manure? When mixed into the compost pile with food scraps from a local pickling company and grounds from a neighborhood coffee shop, the chicken droppings and nesting hay would make a rich, cheap, and sustainable addition to our rows every 12 to 22 weeks.

Rather than raising birds in my apartment (the available warm, dry space was instead full of plant seedlings), I adopted the hens at laying age from Liberty View Farm, an organic apple orchard. From the start, I was sold on city chickens. They're fairly self-sufficient, multifunctional, and charming, like a good Le Creuset. When I'm up at sunrise cutting kale before the heat can wilt the harvest, the birds are frisky behind me, happily jogging up and down their run with the amnesiac curiosity of goldfish navigating their bowl.

It's not in my training to name farm animals (except for a close circle of favorites—barn cats and your best woodchuck-hunting dog). Nickname, perhaps—"Fatty" seems to christen most animals nicely. But here in urban farmland, with visitors constantly popping in and out with advice, the hens were all granted proper names within their first week on the rooftop.

Francis, a white Arucuna hen, was named in honor of Francis Perkins Academy, the North Brooklyn high school that built the birds' beautiful coop. Gina, a sophisticated grand dame of a Polish Standard with an incredible partridge-colored top hat of feathers, took her name from the donor who established the farm (an elegant woman in her own right). Lila was so dubbed by a 13-year-old homesteader from Massachusetts, Orren Fox, whose advice I'd come to rely on via his informative chicken and beekeeping blog. He told me that his bellbottom-feathered Cochin, Lola, was my hen's doppelganger. It was Orren who first noticed Lila's easygoing temperament. During a free public lecture on the rooftop on the art of chicken keeping, he held and handled her to explain a chicken's anatomy. Though her eyes blinked like a little raptor, Lila stayed still and unflustered as 60 or so people stared at her claws and comb.

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