Friday, April 19, 2013

Chick Mama

Yes, I'm a chick mama. Notice I did not say chic mama. I doubt many would consider me chic, and I'm not a mother to any human offspring. But I am a chick mama to thirteen babies, with still more to come, hopefully. I've spent yesterday and today anxiously watching my little ones struggle to make their entrance into the world. Even though hatching is a bit stressful to watch, it truly is a wonder to behold.

On March 27, Robin and I placed 36 eggs from our hens into a borrowed Styrofoam incubator.

After carefully reading the instructions and the section on incubator hatching in Raising Chickens for Dummies, we marked the eggs with a pencil: an x on one side...

 and an o on the other.

Doing so was important, for the eggs had to be turned at least twice a day, and having the x and o on each one made it easy to know which ones had already been turned. Robin has some experience with hatching chicks, both with an incubator and with a real live hen, but it had been many years since he had done so. I, on the other hand, have only last summer's experience with 80-some chicks that arrived by mail.

On a warm June morning, close to a year ago now, we picked up our order of baby chicks at the local post office. The box containing over 80 three-day old chicks was considerably smaller than a suitcase and made the final leg of its journey from the Iowa hatchery in the back of a very large truck.

 Once our "package" had been duly received by the post office,

we took it home and settled the babies into two large cattle feed tubs in our basement.

The next four weeks were busy with feeding and watering dozens of little mouths and cleaning up after those same dozens of little fuzzy behinds. Add to that the derecho storm and the 7-day heat wave that followed with no electricity, and this chick mama was pretty frazzled indeed. But, thanks to some divine protection from my inexperience, we lost only one baby chick. Weeks later, when the flock was big enough to survive in the chicken yard with the grownups, we divided them with my brother-in-law. And weeks after that, sadly, many of the roosters found their way into our freezer, since a hen can only take so much. And just recently, a wily 'ole fox managed to make off with almost a dozen of our little chicks-that-grew-into-hens before we were able to (hopefully) fence him out.

Not to be outdone, Robin set about replacing those lost hens by borrowing his sister's incubator and hatching babies at home. I was a bit skeptical, having never attempted such a thing, but if it didn't work, we wouldn't be out much: just some eggs and a little electricity. And so, I dutifully turned all 36 eggs every morning and every night, checking the incubator's thermometer to make sure the temperature stayed at 99.5 degrees.

I also had to keep a little water in the bottom, as the eggs needed humidity as well as heat to develop properly. On the 18th day, I stopped turning the eggs, as the directions said to do, reason being that around that time, the chick gets itself into the proper position for hatching. If the eggs are turned after that, the little fella has to re-orient himself, which uses up some of the energy he needs to break out of his shell. After almost three weeks of carefully tending what seemed to be inanimate objects, I was genuinely surprised when I heard the first "cheep" come from the incubator yesterday morning.

When I looked through the viewing windows in the top, sure enough, one of the eggs had a tiny hole!

 And it was peeping! There was a little chick inside, working hard to get out, and letting the world know he was on the way. Like most births, it took a while - a couple of hours, at least - but finally the larger end of the shell broke open and a very wet and very homely chick lay panting from the effort.

For the next several hours, it alternately flopped about and rested, its downy feathers drying all the while. By the time Robin got home from work, two fuzzy chicks were standing up, mostly, and climbing among the other eggs.

Several more eggs had begun to hatch as well, so we spent the evening going back and forth, checking on their progress.

By bedtime, the oldest chicks were almost completely dry. We fixed a box in the basement - again - with a heat lamp, food and water. As the babies dried, we moved them downstairs, where they could flop and cheep without disturbing the eggs still to hatch. When I finally went to bed at midnight, we had four babies in the basement and three wet ones still in the incubator. This morning, there were seven in the incubator! Two more have hatched today, bringing us up to thirteen. Thankfully, they all seem to be healthy and strong. I don't know if all the eggs will hatch, but I'm delighted that a least a third of them did. Not bad for a chick mama who didn't have a clue what she was doing!

There's a children's book published many years ago called The King's Wish, by Benjamin Elkin. It's part of the Beginner Books series that grew out of the success of Dr. Seuss and his kid-friendly approach to learning to read. In the book, a mean old king threatens to harm a good king and his kingdom. The mean king agrees to back down only if the good king can show him a brand new thing that the world had never seen before. The good king searches high and low and can find nothing that will satisfy the mean king's demand. When one of his subjects, a young boy, asks why he is so sad, the good king tells of his dilemma. The boy easily solves the problem by taking three eggs to the mean king, who says they are not acceptable, as practically everyone has seen eggs before. But the boys tells the mean king he must wait and watch. Pretty soon, tiny cheeps are heard coming from the eggs, and before long, there are not one, but three brand new things- baby chicks - the world has never seen. The mean king cannot argue with the boy's wisdom and all is well in the end.

It's a lovely story with some valuable lessons for all ages: hard times come, worry doesn't help anything, and waiting and watching with a little faith can change everything. Who knew there was so much to learn from sweet, simple eggs???


  1. Good job Chick Mama and Papa!
    Donna Frazier Hardman and I conducted a high school science project incubating eggs....
    I like eggs!

    1. And how well did yours do? Did they all hatch? We've ended up with 15 out of 36. I'm sure seasoned chicken farmers would say that's not very good, but I'm delighted with our first try!

  2. this is wonderful - you certainly do celebrate life beautifully!

    1. Thanks, Rhet! You didn't know you'd be an internet star, did you? Gotta love the post office!


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