Community Garden Chicken Not Lost, Just Feeling ‘Broody’

Lady Sybil. Photographs by Garden Leadership Team. 

By Lisa Kava

Lady Sybil, an Upper West Side hen who temporarily went missing, sent her community on a two-day wild chicken chase last week. She was ultimately found hiding at home, guarding a large pile of eggs that could not possibly all be hers.

Lady Sybil is one of four hens who live at the Columbia Secondary School Community Garden on Amsterdam and West 119th Street. While the Upper West Side and Manhattan Valley in particular are home to many community gardens, the CSS Community Garden is unique; not only does it contain flowers, plants, and vegetable plots, it has a chicken coop.

Chickens wander freely in the garden during the day and are put in the coop at night by member volunteers. All garden members must be trained in and participate in chicken care, Nicole Fraidenraich, a volunteer and member of the garden’s leadership team told WSR in a phone interview. Lady Sybil and Mrs. Patmore (named for Downton Abbey characters) arrived at the garden in 2015 from a small farm on Governors Island. Big Fluff and Penguino, the newer additions, joined them this past year. All four chickens were raised in school classrooms, before making their official home in the garden, Fraidenraich said.

The hens of West 119th Street.

Lady Sybil’s mysterious disappearance on the evening of August 17th was first reported by Patch. Garden members gathering the chickens at the end of the day could not find Lady Sybil anywhere. “Members were distraught. The concern for Lady Sybil’s safety grew quickly and we began to spread the word far and wide,” Fraidenraich said. Missing chicken posters were placed in the neighborhood, members posted in local Facebook groups, and Columbia University campus security was alerted. “Some people thought she may have found a crack in the fence, everyone was searching everywhere.”

The missing chicken poster.

Finally, on August 20th, Lady Sybil was found right there in the garden, sitting on a large pile of eggs, hidden in the tall grass. But interestingly enough, the eggs she was guarding did not all belong to her. “Lady Sybil lays blue eggs since she is a black iridescent hen,” Fraidenraich said. “The pink eggs were laid by Mrs. Patmore, the red hen.”

“The reason the eggs were piled up in the bushes is because of a normal chicken behavior called ‘broodiness,’” she explained. “Every few months the hens get ‘broody’ thinking their eggs are going to hatch and they’ll have chicks. So they sit and sit and almost never get up to eat or drink. Of course, they’re unfertilized eggs, because we do not have a rooster.”

According to Fraidenraich, the behavior can happen when eggs are not collected quickly enough. “In that case, the hen will hide the eggs so they cannot be found or collected. Lady Sybil was simply being a good (potential) mother and found an excellent hiding spot,” Fraidenraich said.

Lush enough to hide in.

The CSS Community Garden was founded in 2009 by Meredith Hill, who was, at the time, a sixth-grade teacher at the Columbia Secondary School, a public school serving grades 6-12, on Amsterdam and 123rd Street. While the garden is not legally affiliated with the school, it was originally created “to be an extension of it, a learning space for students,” Fraidenraich explained. The garden, which is a NYC GreenThumb garden, has 10 raised makeshift beds for growing vegetables, and three lower beds for native flowers and flora. Peppers, strawberries, herbs, string beans, tomato plants, onion, arugula and kale can all be found in the garden.

Garden members sign up for chicken-care shifts on a google calendar. All members must know how to hold, feed, and put away the chickens. Membership is open to all who are willing to get trained in, and commit to chicken care. “Chickens eat pests and help with weeding and composting. They fit into the garden’s mission, a big part of which is teaching youth,” Fraidenraich said.

Today Meredith Hill is the principal of SEED Harlem (School of Earth Exploration and Discovery), a 6th and 7th grade school on 130th Street and Convent Avenue. Students from both schools visit the garden after school, accompanied by teachers or parents. They engage in projects such as planting, weeding, composting and feeding the chickens, Fraidenraich said.

Now that Lady Sybil is safe and found, we asked Fraidenraich if this sort of thing has ever happened before. “Eggs are usually laid in the coop not in the tall grass,” she responded. “When this happens I usually just pick up the hen and bring her outside the coop. I encourage her to get out of her broodiness. This was an unusual situation.”


ABSURDITY, OUTDOORS | 5 comments | permalink
    1. Jay says:

      In other news, West 119th Street is now part of the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

    2. Bates says:

      This is like Shakespeare in the Chicken Coop. So glad it had a happy ending, but where’s Violet Crawley, the Dowager Chicken? Obviously, they need someone watching over the brood.

    3. phoebe says:

      Maybe “The old red hen, she ain’t what she used to be?”

    4. Jenna Holt says:

      Thank you for this wonderful story!!!

    5. Maxine Spector says:

      What a great story. Now I’d like to visit that garden and say hi to all the chickens.