Life with Chickens

An interview with Melissa Whitby


Photography by Chip Chockley

Melissa Whitby lives in Midtown with five chickens, three dogs and a cat. As a new board member of Memphis Tilth and on her third flock in 10 years, we thought we’d have a chat with “The Chicken Lady” in anticipation of this weekend’s Tour de Coop and May Day festivities.

 
 

Edible Memphis: What made you decide to keep chickens?

Melissa Whitby: Barbara Kingsolver is the reason I have chickens in my backyard. Several years ago I read her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which led to me researching where my food came from. I started buying meat from the farmers market, paying attention to whether chickens were “free-range” or “cage-free” or “pastured,” and researching heirloom vegetables. Keeping Chickens by Ashley English made chicken-keeping seem romantic.

I loved the idea of waking every morning to chicken noises and fresh eggs.

 
 

EM: How did you get started?

MW: I did my research. There are tons of chicken-keeping blogs, books and websites. As luck would have it, a friend had a free chicken coop up for grabs in Millington. My dad and I broke it down and put it back together, making it stronger. I purchased chicks from a farm supply store in Collierville and started a blog, "The Midtown Chicks." Though I no longer have the blog, I've stuck with the chicken-keeping.

 
 

EM: How much work goes into keeping chickens?

MW: Caring for them is pretty easy. Once a week, I fill up their feeder and water containers and clean out the coop. When it gets hot, I will need to fill the water more often. I look in on the girls and collect eggs daily. They love veggie scraps and stale bread, so I try to save those for them throughout the week.

 
 

EM: What kind of investment are we talking about?

MW: Baby chicks will need to live under a heat lamp until all of their feathers come in, so plan on housing them inside for a few months. You’ll want to make yourself a brooder, a heated space for raising young chickens; basically all you need is a large container, heat lamp, food and water. Once the girls are ready to move into their permanent home, you’ll want to have their coop all ready to go. You can purchase a coop kit online, buy a premade coop at a farm supply store or, if you are feeling adventurous, build your own.

Once you have your setup, it’s about $50 a month for food and $20 every couple of months for straw/shredded materials for the coop.

 
 

EM: What do they eat?

MW: Chicks eat “chick starter,” then transition to pullet feed, and then to layer feed, which contains calcium. All supplies are available at Hollywood Feed. When the chicks are small, the water dish needs to be very shallow. (Fun fact: Baby chicks just fall down and sleep no matter where they are, so be sure it’s not in a water dish.)

Once they have moved outside and are eating big-girl food, they will love vegetable scraps, bread, scratch, mealworms and fruit and berries. Be sure to read up on which treats they can and cannot eat.

EM: Can we just go to a pet store and buy chickens?

MW: Check out groups like Midtown Chicken People on Facebook if you want full-grown, already-laying birds. However, baby chicks are very cute and very fun. Hollywood Feed has them for sale after the Easter holiday. Farm supply stores also carry them. Chicks purchased from stores typically are sexed, meaning the males have been culled out. That is not always 100 percent accurate, so you may hear a rooster crow around the time the ladies start laying.

EM: Did you name your chickens?

MW: My first flock had fun names like Saffron and Blackberry. Over time, and after losing a few to illness and raccoons, I now just collectively refer to them as The Midtown Chicks.

I have had this new flock for two years and (knock on wood) we haven’t had any issues other than a surprise rooster. I named him Duke Silver and eventually re-homed him because roosters are not legal in the city limits.

Chickens are hilarious. Each lady bird has her own personality. You could name your flock after the Golden Girls, athletes, movie stars or your favorite breakfast foods.

 
 

EM: First flock? New flock? How long do chickens live, assuming raccoons and illness don’t strike?

MW: Typically chickens live about eight years. Toward the end of their lives they will stop laying eggs, so plan ahead for your chickens’ retirement plans. I do not and will not ever eat my birds because they are pets to me.

The ladies and I will enjoy their retirement with plenty of meal worms and watermelon rinds—their two favorite treats.

EM: Is the pecking order a real thing?

MW: The pecking order is a very real thing. The ladies establish the pecking order, which is fine and good unless you are trying to introduce two new, very young birds. This can go disastrously wrong.

In an attempt to merge two newbies, I once had to resort to peepers—essentially blinders fitted to the beak—to prevent one bird from spying the little ones across the yard and going in for the attack. Once in her peepers (which I added googly eyes to just for fun), Fluffy Butt, as I affectionately called her, quickly stopped picking on the little ones and settled in to her new lifestyle. That is, until she flew the coop. Poor thing wandered around the neighborhood for two weeks before she resurfaced one street over. As you can imagine, the neighbor was quite confused by the peepers.

Photograph by Melissa Whitby

Photograph by Melissa Whitby

Eventually, Fluffy Butt was safely returned to the flock as an Internet sensation.

EM: What are some pros of having chickens?

MW: Eggs. Duh. Your friends will love to see you coming with a fresh dozen when you visit. Telling people you have chickens is a big hit at parties. You’ll never want for used egg cartons. You will get at least one chicken-themed gift for every birthday or holiday.

 
 

Stacey Greenberg is the editor-in-chief of Edible Memphis. @nancy_jew

Chip Chockley, an attorney by day, has been a professional photographer since 2008. Things that make him happy include tacos, mai tais and his wife and kids. @chipchockley

Stacey Greenberg is the editor of Edible Memphis.