The Times-Tribune

Roosting in the Hill

The trend of raising city chickens comes to Scranton.


The Bistran family is at the forefront of a movement gaining momentum nationwide and in NEPA: They raise chickens in their backyard in Scranton’s Hill Section. Learn more about the benefits of keeping “urban chickens.”

Like anyone raising livestock in the country, Margie Bistran wakes up and thinks about her flock: three leghorns in a small coop in the backyard of her Hill Section home in Scranton.

She opens the coop door and the clucking chickens hop down the chicken ladder to the enclosed run, survey the perimeter, scratch and peck at seemingly random things on the ground. Opening the hinged door over the nest boxes, she collects three eggs, one from each hen, just about every day.

Called “urban chickens,” “backyard chickens” or “city chickens,” the movement has come to Scranton, and those interested in the joys of raising the birds for the fresh eggs — and sometimes meat — find a hospitable roost. Scranton specifical­ly permits raising chickens — pleasantly surprising those interested in the phenomenon pecking its way across the nation from Portland, Oregon, backyards to New York City high-rises.

The Luzerne County Council is considerin­g whether to change a law to allow chickens in residentia­l neighbor- hoods, which could impact about a third of the county.

Hatched idea

For Ms. Bistran, the egg came first. Three years ago, Ms. Bistran, an educator for Lackawanna County 4-H, thought incubating eggs would be an interestin­g project for the handful of kids in her Scranton-based Cloverbuds group. They made incubators from strawberry containers and, using candles, were able to monitor the growth of the chick inside. Unhatched chicks begin to chirp inside the egg the day before they peck their way out of the egg. The 4-H Cloverbuds were transfixed as the 30 chicks emerged and turned into puff balls.

“They get to see this life develop in the egg and come out,” she said. “They get an understand­ing of the sources of their food.”

A pregnant friend used the chick incubation to explain her pregnancy to her toddlers. Using chicken rearing to inform children about a range of issues from agricultur­e and food to genetics became even more apparent.


Ms. Bistran intended to show the chicks at Northeast Fair and then give them to a farmer. But when she and her flock of children and chicks made their fair debut, curious attendees asked pointed questions about diet, egg production and chicken-rearing, catching her flat-footed. She wanted to answer them and kept six chicks, rearing them in boxes until she got a coop up and running.

As the chickens roam around her large yard, they kick up last fall’s leaves. They like to eat the leaves from a lilac bush. The hens peck at fast-moving insects and stretch their heads up to silently monitor a cat in the neighborin­g yard.

Recreation is just one reason more people are raising chickens. The fun is combined with concerns people have about the source of their food, the ethics of intensive farming.

Legacy law

Scranton Zoning Officer Jack Sweeney remembers a few chicken coops in the Green Ridge section in the 1960s. When he took this job over a year ago, even he was surprised to see the city zoning ordinance permits chickens.

It’s not that the Electric City was ahead of the curve to embrace the urban chicken movement. Rather the city had never ditched the legacy provision for feathered friends, allowing for “pigeons, chickens, ducks, geese or similar fowl,” limited to two on lots of less than 20,000 square feet, about half an acre. On larger lots, the number of chickens allowed are theoretica­lly unlimited, Mr. Sweeney said.

For Mr. Sweeney’s parent’s generation, city chickens were even move preva- lent. Hardly a hipster creation, urban chickens have a long history — the norm in 19th Century America. Locally, chickens provided an essential way to put food on the table for underpaid miners and later for people struggling during the Great Depression. During both World Wars, the federal government encouraged backyard chickens in propaganda campaigns including slogans such as “Uncle Sam expects you to keep hens,” touting chicken farming as a profitable recreation in peacetime, and a patriotic duty in wartime.

As America suburbaniz­ed and prospered after World War II, communitie­s began to ban chicken raising. In Scranton, allowances for keeping chickens (and horses and bees) survived zoning revisions in 1983 and 1993.

The movement seems to have a toehold in urban areas of Northeast Pennsylvan­ia. Mr. Sweeney gets a handful of calls a year from aspiring chicken farmers. There are also complaints. Mr. Sweeney’s team broke up an operation in Green Ridge of 30 to 50 chickens. Although they were reared with discretion, a handful of roosters made the flock a nuisance. The owner agreed to relocate the flock to the country. Another recent complaint was chicken trespassin­g — a stray bird strutting through a neighbor’s yard in West Mountain.

Hens are no louder than a dog and typically make noise on two occasions: when one lays an egg, usually between 8 and 10 a.m., the hens have a bit of a celebratio­n. They also make noise when they are threatened by a predator. Roosters, noisy early risers that they are, usually run afoul of the noise ordinances.

Country in the city

Jennifer and George Linsenbigl­er dreamed of a country lifestyle for their two children: a large garden, chickens, maybe some other livestock. While getting that country home remains a dream deferred, they have been able to fulfill their goals of producing their own food with a large garden, chickens and even rabbits, in their Scranton home near the Taylor line.

“We want to know where our food comes from and we can enjoy the health benefits of natural eggs from healthy, happy chickens,” she said. “It’s been a thrill to watch our kids learn about chicken and accept the responsibi­lity for their care.”

They started four years ago with the cold hearty Rhode Island Reds purchased as chicks at the Tractor Supply store. They have since switched to the fluffy Orpington breed, the Golden retriever of chickens, docile and friendly, ideal for a family.

Her hens’ biggest threat has been hawks. They divebombed the covered chicken run, prompting Mrs. Lisenbigle­r to replace bird mesh with a metal wire.

“I come home and I see hawks on the garage trying to figure out a way to get to them,” she said.

Mrs. Linsenbigl­er said her neighbors are understand­ing, fascinated even, and use her yard as a sort of petting zoo. She keeps copies of the Scranton ordinance pertaining to chickens in case anyone asks. “I don’t want to ask them to trust me,” she said. “I want to show them.”

She recently adopted two chickens from a friend in Blakely where keeping chickens is illegal, a ban that prompted a teenager last year to protest on Lackawanna County Courthouse Square with one of his Plymouth Rock hens behind caution tape and a sign reading “Legalize chickens, restore property rights.”

Traci Torres founded MyPetChick­ with her husband Derek Sasaki in their Connecticu­t home in 2005 after having a hard time getting informatio­n and materials for their backyard chicken operation. The sideline became full-time and now does several million dollars of business annually, thanks to what Ms. Torres calls “chicken fever.” Quickly hooked, people want more chickens, then more exotic breeds that lay blue or green eggs. Then they want a more customized coop, and so on.

The backyard chicken movement had come under fire from some who point to the number of chickens being abandoned at animal shelters, but Ms. Torres notes that cats and dogs are abandoned frequently and that she and others in the industry offer exhaustive, free, advice and informatio­n. MyPetChick­en’s customer service staffers are all experience­d chicken people as willing to give advice as take orders. For example, when a website visitor orders chicks, they must click through several dialog boxes reminded them that chicks will require special care when they arrive in the mail.

In the long run, the total cost of maintainin­g a small flock will cost as much to maintain as a single dog once you figure dog food and vets visit, Ms. Torres said.

 ?? JASON FARMER / STAFF PHOTOGRAPH­ER ?? ABOVE: Margie Bistran of Scranton feeds one of her three city chickens. BELOW: Evie Linsenbigl­er holds Large Marge.
JASON FARMER / STAFF PHOTOGRAPH­ER ABOVE: Margie Bistran of Scranton feeds one of her three city chickens. BELOW: Evie Linsenbigl­er holds Large Marge.
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 ?? JASON FARMER / STAFF PHOTOGRAPH­ER ?? Margie Bistran of Scranton is the proud owner city chickens.
JASON FARMER / STAFF PHOTOGRAPH­ER Margie Bistran of Scranton is the proud owner city chickens.

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