Pride and Poulty
One Memphis family’s experience raising a flock of hens in their urban backyard
Story by Tonya Thompson | Photos by Casey Hilder
Melissa Bridgman’s home might be in the middle of Memphis, but that doesn’t stop her from having farm-fresh eggs in the morning, thanks to a flock of five backyard chickens. “We got chickens the first time in 2001 when we lived out in Fayette County,” she says. “When we moved to Memphis in 2004, we gave our chickens to neighbors because we didn’t know if we could have them in the city.”
After learning that city code would allow them to keep a maximum of six chickens in their backyard, they bought the batch they currently keep. Bridgman, a potter who owns and operates Bridgman Pottery, has her favorites among the flock of hens — Pearl, in particular, likes to be held. “It’s a personality thing,” she says, “I’ve had her since Spring of 2010, so she still lays eggs. She’s slowing down, though…she is definitely slowing down.”
According to Bridgman, hens will typically start laying eggs when they are eight or nine months old, stopping in the fall and winter. “It’s just like a woman’s body,” she says. “You have a certain amount of eggs and if you want to reproduce, the eggs need to be fertilized, but otherwise, you still get rid of your eggs on a regular basis.”
The older a hen gets, the fewer eggs she will lay. At that point, Bridgman says, hers will just be pets in the family. While some urban chicken owners might eat the hens when their egg production slows, the meat is less desirable. “It would be really tough, stringy meat,” says Bridgman, “If you think about your average grocery store bird, they are three months old or four months old. They are not three years old. That’s where the phrase ‘tough old bird’ comes from.”
As for roosters, Bridgman says she keeps only hens because roosters are more trouble than they’re worth and aren’t necessary for hens’ egg production. “They’re mean, they’re aggressive. Some people say that a rooster keeps your flock happier. If you let your birds free range, which I really don’t because there are a lot of hawks in this neighborhood, a rooster will protect your flock somewhat. But if you have a rooster, you really need to make nice friends with your neighbors.”
Aside from cleaning the coop and ensuring the health of the hens when few veterinarians in the area will treat chickens, Bridgman says the process of keeping them is relatively painless. “I’ll feed them probably three times a week with the chicken feed and then they get table scraps every day,” she says. And surprisingly, chickens are less picky than dogs when it comes to chowing on table scraps. She won’t feed them chicken and they won’t eat citrus. She also won’t give them onions because that will give their eggs a distinct onion flavor.
For newbie backyard chicken owners, Bridgman suggests buying three hens, at a minimum. “They’re pack animals,” she says. “They do better with more than one at a time, they get lonely.” She also suggests a book that’s part of the Homemade Living series entitled Keeping Chickens with Ashley English: All You Need to Know to Care for a Happy, Healthy Flock.
Another helpful resource is social media, particularly Facebook. “There is a midtown chicken people group and not everybody on it is in midtown,” she suggests. “There’s a lot of discussion there. Like what to do if you get an egg stuck, and what to do with varying illnesses that your chickens might get.”
Added to the potential culinary treats produced in the Bridgman’s backyard is a swarm of honeybees that live within a few feet of the chickens. “Keeping bees requires more gear, keeping chickens is less work,” she notes. “I’ve been [keeping bees] on and off for three or four years. Early last Spring, both colonies that I had died, so I took the year off. This hive, I just got two or three weeks ago. Someone let me know that a swarm was in their backyard, and I got it.”
Within their urban setting, the Bridgmans still have to protect their flock from various predators, including a chocolate lab they recently adopted who is especially fascinated with the flock. “We have had issues with possums and raccoons,” she says. “And a big chocolate lab who really wants to get in there!”