Inside Stories

I keep chickens in my Bed-Stuy backyard and it's not as much work as you might think

  • New Yorkers can keep hens but not roosters and you don't need a license
  • No more buying eggs at the store but hens are noisy in the morning
Austin Havens-Bowen
By Austin Havens-Bowen  |
October 18, 2022 - 9:30AM

Nancy Gannon's custom-built chicken coop measures five by five feet and is completely fenced, including the floor. The time a chicken escaped into a neighbor's yard was a rare event.

Nancy Gannon

Nancy Gannon, an education advisor at FHI 360 and former school principal, lives in a Bed-Stuy brownstone with her family and their dog—and three chickens in the backyard. Here's her experience and tips for keeping chickens in New York City.

I grew up on a farm in rural Maine that had chickens. When I moved to NYC, I always wanted chickens but that’s not possible in an apartment. After I moved to a place with a backyard, I put in a garden and chicken coop to create a tiny replica of my childhood. 

When I decided to get chickens, I mentioned it to a college friend of mine. Not long after, another college friend reached out and said she heard I wanted chickens. “Can I hatch your eggs?” she asked—which might be one of the weirdest questions someone can ask you. Turns out she’s a big-time pediatric dermatologist who loves incubating chickens but her husband doesn’t want to keep chickens—so it worked out for the both of us. 

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She incubated six eggs and hatched five chicks. We couldn’t figure out the sexes so she brought all five to my house and I raised them until they were big enough to live outside. We also got our dog at the same time so they kind of grew up together. They don’t hang out but if there’s ever some sort of commotion, she goes to check on them.

Unfortunately one of the chicks was accidentally killed by a neighbor’s kid. And not long after, three started crowing, meaning they were roosters (you can only have hens in NYC) so my friend picked them up and dropped off another hen from a farm. So my first chickens were Buffy (named after Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and a Rhode Island Red named Wanda (from the Marvel Cinematic Universe). 

One morning I woke up and Buffy was dead, even though she was acting fine the day before. It felt depressing to make Wanda spend the winter alone so I drove to Long Island and bought two adult chickens, Bellatrix, a Blue Rock, and a Buff Orpington named Ginny (very Harry Potter). 


How to set up a chicken coop in a NYC backyard

For the city, I have a big backyard. It’s about 20 feet wide and 30 feet deep and I also have a garden back there. The chicken coop itself is only about five by five feet plus an outdoor run, which is all fenced including the floor. That’s important so the chickens cannot burrow in and out of the coop. It’s also important that it’s completely sealed so other animals cannot get in or out.

I paid someone to make me a custom chicken coop, which cost a bit more than a store-bought coop—it’s really cute. You can buy cheaper coops at Tractor Supply but I’ve heard they’re poor quality. Mine is technically big enough for four chickens, but I think three is the right fit.

I have electricity in my chicken coop. It’s not necessary but it helps during the winter (more about that later).


What it’s like taking care of chickens in NYC

Having chickens takes barely any work day to day. I check on the chickens daily and there’s a five-gallon water container that lasts at least four days and a five-gallon food container that lasts about three weeks. 

I have linoleum on the floor so it’s easy to sweep up the poop. During the winter, I don’t clean out the coop because I use the deep litter method. Instead of cleaning the poop, you lay a thick layer of sawdust on top and it generates warmth and insulation for the chickens in the cold weather. As long as you cover it well, it doesn’t stink. I deep clean in the spring. In the summer, I clean it out once a month but it doesn’t take long. The actual ground layer does get built up but I dig into that for my garden. I’m not sure what I’d do with the poop if I didn’t use it for compost.

I feed them Purina Layena pellets, which costs $25 for a 50 pound bag and it lasts a couple of months. I also feed them worms, vegetables from the garden like an eggplant that a squirrel messed with, scraps from the farmer’s market, and slugs. I’ve heard when they stop laying eggs, it means their protein is low, so I give them hot dogs sometimes.

When it comes to eggs, they do take breaks, especially when they molt, which is when they lose their feathers. They tend to lay more eggs during long summer days compared to winter days. Still, I haven’t bought eggs in a long time, except when two of them molted at the same time. I often have extra eggs to give to friends and neighbors.

Preparing a chicken coop for winter

People ask me how chickens survive in the winter—but how do pigeons survive? Birds live outdoors. The electricity heats a metal ring in their water to prevent it from freezing in the winter which is important. And there’s a light bulb that turns on at 7 a.m. to give them some extra light. 

It’s actually very important that you do not heat a coop because it can make it humid, which is dangerous for chickens because their extremities can get damp and they get frostbite. The best way to make sure they’re warm is to have the coop insulated.

You can give them extra greens to make up for the lack of sunlight, but you don’t have to. And using the deep litter method is also a good way to keep them warm during the colder months. 

Broody chickens, escaping the coop, and other lessons 

Luckily I haven’t had to take my chickens to a vet. I’m actually a bit nervous if I have to figure that out. I once asked my dermatologist friend who hatched the chickens a question, and she reminded me she can help with my kid’s rash but chicken health isn’t her expertise. 

Sometimes an egg can get stuck in a chicken’s butt and kill it. I check for that—but I hope I never have to put my hand up a chicken’s butt. Even growing up on a farm, I never experienced it so I don’t think it’s common. But if your chickens aren’t laying eggs, it’s good to check that out.

Hens can also get broody, which is when they want to sit on their eggs and hatch them. My chicken Ginny does this sometimes. A shocking number of people ask why I don’t let her hatch the eggs—which makes me worry about their understanding of basic biology since she doesn’t have a rooster. When this happens, she doesn’t eat or drink so I take her out of the coop and let her hang out in a dog crate for a day. Sometimes it takes a few days for her to get over it. 

Another lesson learned: I accidentally left my coop open twice. Oops! One time, I was traveling for work and my chickens got out. My daughter spotted them from the window. One of the chickens jumped over the seven-foot fence into the neighbor's garden, which wasn’t ideal because they have a greenhouse business. My husband had to wake up the neighbors and catch the chicken with my kid yelling out of the window, telling him to grab them by the wings because he had no experience. Luckily the chickens didn’t do any damage and the neighbors were nice about it.

Also keep in mind that hens are a bit noisy in the morning, it’s just not roosters. (Ask my husband!) But our neighbors have never complained about it.

I don’t think they care about me like a pet might, but they appreciate it when I feed them worms. When they hear my voice, they come out but I think they’re just excited for the treats. It’s still nice to have them because they’re very sweet and they provide a sanctuary in my backyard to escape the craziness of Bed-Stuy.

Are you interested in having chickens in your NYC outdoor space? Keep reading for FAQs.

Is it legal to have chickens in NYC? 

It is legal to have hens in all five boroughs, according to New York City Health Code, Section 161.19. If you plan on selling the chickens, they are not allowed to be kept on the same premises as an apartment building according to Section 161.19, C. Roosters and other birds like geese, ducks, and turkeys are not allowed.

Do I need a permit to have chickens in NYC?

You are not required to obtain a permit or license to have chickens in the city, says a NYC Department of Health spokesperson.

How many chickens can I have in NYC? 

There is no limit on how many chickens you have but owners are not allowed to create nuisance conditions, a DOH spokesperson says. 

You also need to have adequate space for your chickens. There should be at least two to three square feet per chicken in the coop and at least 10 square feet per chicken in the run.


Austin Havens-Bowen

Austin Havens-Bowen


Austin Havens-Bowen is a writer and reporter. He previously covered local news for the Queens Ledger and The Hunts Point Express in the Bronx. He graduated from Hunter College with a BA in media studies. He rents a one-bedroom apartment in Astoria with his boyfriend and their two cats.

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