At the North Fork Animal Welfare League, Katelyn Knapp of Wading River works primarily to shelter, nourish and connect cats and dogs with suitable homes.
From time to time, the league, which has locations in both Peconic and Aquebogue, receives a rescue call: an escaped dog, flyaway bird, runaway pig or goat. In most instances, the lost pets are reunited with thankful owners. Occasionally, the animals are taken to a sanctuary or rehomed.
A recent call for a group of chickens dumped along a bay beach in Mattituck inspired Knapp to take more action.
“It was heartbreaking to see,” Knapp said of the rescue, which took several days to capture seven birds from the area. “They were in really bad shape. They didn’t have tail feathers and you could tell they were eating nothing but sand.”
Knapp, who had been raising chickens and ducks on her family’s 22-acre property in Jamesport for several years, took in two of the chickens.
She’s since formed the new North Fork Chicken Rescue in an effort to provide care to neglected, abused or abandoned birds.
Over the years, Knapp has connected with many people on Long Island who raise chickens, primarily on social media. She said the issue is prevalent.
“There are so many people that need to rehome their chickens for one reason or another,” she said. That often leads to the birds being dumped, let into the wild or inhumanely killed.
Knapp believes there’s a misconception about chickens and other farm animals being let loose.
“A lot of people with ducks will go to a local pond, put them into the water and think they’ll be OK, but that’s not how it works,” she said. “[With chickens,] if you’re raising them from chicks, they’re domesticated. They can’t survive in the wild like you think they would. They need to be properly rehomed.”
Since launching the rescue last month, Knapp has helped about 20 chickens, including several silkie roosters. They’ve joined her flock on the Jamesport property, where she’s working to construct an additional coop, install fencing and make it predator-proof.
The majority of the rescues, she said, are roosters, which are often regulated by local ordinances.
While Southold and Riverhead have some restrictions for backyard chickens, there are no restrictions on roosters. In Brookhaven Town, for example, you are allowed up to six chickens, but no roosters. Huntington town code also prohibits residents from having roosters.
Knapp said that often when people get chicks from a hatchery or retailer like Tractor Supply, it’s not guaranteed they’ll all be hens.
“That puts people in a tough position,” she said.
Another reason that often leads to discarded chickens, Knapp said, is that after a few years, a hen’s egg production can plummet or stop completely.
Keeping backyard chickens has been growing in popularity for several years and skyrocketed during the pandemic.
Forced to stay home, many people turned to outdoor activities as a way to stay safe — and sane. Some planted vegetable gardens, others became poultry parents.
“During COVID-19, it went crazy,” said Wayne Meyer, who owns Long Island Poultry in Calverton. “We sold 10 times as many birds as we normally do.”
He said many people were interested in raising chickens for a steady supply of eggs, but said backyard chickens also eat bugs in the yard (including dreaded ticks) and create natural fertilizer.
“There were a handful of people that didn’t realize what they were getting into,” he said of people that sought out chickens for the first time.
Knapp said she recommends backyard chickens, but said prospective bird owners should be aware that it’s a sometimes messy, time-consuming commitment.
“There are things you should research,” she said, including proper medical care and town rules about what’s permitted.
“Since I’ve gotten the chickens, it’s become my life,” Knapp said, adding that she looks forward to waking up in the morning and tending to her flock, stopping by after work and collecting eggs and seeing their unique personalities develop.
“A few chickens turned into a bunch of chickens,” she said, laughing. “And now I have a chicken rescue.”