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In Huntington, Winning the Right to Keep Chickens

Source: The New York Times
Date: February 18, 2009
Byline: Robin Finn

HUNTINGTON STATION

REN, the friendliest of the seven hens in Tim Jurik's backyard coop, all semi-celebrities now that Huntington has officially revamped its town code to legalize their presence, was not immediately available for comment on Tuesday afternoon. But the Rhode Island Red, a fortunate foundling the Juriks adopted after seeing her wandering in the middle of Melville Road, had a great excuse.

She was too busy laying an egg. Talk about justifying your existence.

This was not just any egg, but a fresh organic orb delivered on a bed of straw in the privacy of the roosting shed Mr. Jurik built for his brood after they deemed the first structure he designed too cramped. The hens communicated their disdain for their original coop, which in truth resembles a rabbit hutch, by cutting back on egg production. Clever birds.

Once a day, up from once a week, describes Mr. Jurik's egg consumption since the chickens — roosters are neither permitted nor, regarding eggs, necessary — came to roost.

Ren's egg was destined to be scrambled (the preference of Mr. Jurik and his dairy-averse toddler son, James), fried (Mr. Jurik's wife, Jennifer, likes hers that way) or finessed into a down-home version of eggs Benedict (a favorite with brunch guests).

"We got into this for the eggs," said Mr. Jurik, unintentionally paraphrasing Woody Allen's joke about the reason human beings get themselves into romantic relationships, especially the complicated ones.

This fling with the chickens started simply enough. As Mr. Jurik, a software developer who owns cockatiels and has a software Web site called opencagesoftware.com, was already bird-prone, putting a few chickens on his third of an acre didn't seem like such a stretch. But it was illegal.

He assumed that when the town code banned backyard cattle, mink and chickens, it was referring to large-scale operations, not a handful of baby chicks. Besides, why were pigeons permissible, but not poultry?

"I really did try to research this, but the town code is not the easiest thing to read, or maybe I'm just stupid," said Mr. Jurik, who graduated from Columbia with a computer science degree and has a blog about his birds (longislandchickens.com).

He does love chickens. Well, not all of them. Two of his New Hampshire Reds are in imminent danger of being relocated (to some other poultry fancier's backyard, not the stew pot) because they don't get along with Clover, the White Plymouth Rock hen at the head of the pecking order. Yes, chickens are responsible for that cliché.

It wasn't until last October that Mr. Jurik became an intractable chicken advocate, after someone anonymously sent blurry photographs to Town Hall documenting poultry perambulations in Mr. Jurik's yard and the town fired off a letter informing him he was breaking the law. By then, he had tended the flock — and enjoyed their eggs — for about a year, and he grew almost militant when told he had to give them up or spend upward of $700 pursuing a variance.

Mr. Jurik felt a code revision — not just a one-time variance that might help him keep his brood but would do nothing to further the cause — made more ecosensitive, sustainability-conscious, populist sense. Somewhat to his surprise, Huntington's officials seemed to agree.

Pro-chicken petitions, pro-backyard-chicken Internet alliances (there is a documentary navigating the film festival circuit called "Mad City Chickens," Mad being a nickname for the chicken hotbed Madison, Wis.), and a pro-chicken public hearing ensued. Mr. Jurik was gratified when, at the Jan. 13 hearing, no one spoke against his proposal; in a Town Board first, Supervisor Frank Petrone actually clucked a couple of times to signify the close of the session.

"Sometimes you've got to add a little humor to the proceedings," Mr. Petrone, battling a case of non-cluck-related laryngitis, whispered last week. A fan of brown organic eggs, Mr. Petrone supported changing the code to accommodate backyard hens; the limit is eight. "People deserve the opportunity to raise chickens for organic eggs," he said. "This can contribute to quality of life, so why not try it?"

Councilwoman Glenda A. Jackson pointed out the economic logic: "With a carton of eggs up 50 percent in the last two years, it is no wonder our residents would rather cut the middleman and raise the chickens themselves."

On Feb. 13, after a brief discussion about the potential negative impacts of backyard chicken coops on quality of life (odor, noise, the threat of attracting vermin), the Town Board voted unanimously to amend its code.

Mark Cuthbertson, a board member for 11 years, said that although he himself was not tempted to try chicken-raising ("Three children are enough"), the benefits seemed apparent: "We're going to keep an eye on it, but at the end of the day, although some who were concerned cried 'fowl,' we think we probably hatched a good idea." He then apologized for the double pun.

Mr. Jurik felt the officials were swayed by his arguments that every other town on Long Island except Hempstead allows backyard coops, that urban giants like New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago permit chicken ownership, and, he being the parent of a son with dairy allergies, that organic eggs embellish a healthy diet. He also informed the officials that chickens have other uses, supplying organic fertilizer and a reliable, natural, nondestructive pesticide: "They eat bugs, grubs, ticks, you name it."

Anything that voluntarily eats a tick probably deserves a medal. Or at least a place to roost in peace.