Kids and chickens

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Photo courtesy Stacey Gross

Y’all.

I need to talk to you about hatching chickens and parenting kids. Because the two are a lot more similar than you might think.

In the past couple of years, my daughters and I have gone pretty feral. We moved to the country. Planted a little garden. Ate a lot of peaches. Bought us a home. Just like John Prine asked us to do. And then we got some chickens.

(Photo courtesy of the author. Harper Geer holds Hei-Hei.)

I love my chickens. I’ve wanted chickens for over a decade. There’s just something incredibly satisfying about sitting on a back deck in a rocker watching a flock of chickens graze the yard as the sun goes down. The chickens aren’t the only thing I love about my life as a country girl. I love that I can walk out on my deck and see stars for miles because there are less than zero big fluorescent lights polluting the night sky. I love that my neighbors are close enough to borrow a cup of sugar from but far enough away that I can forget to put on pants when I need to run out to close the coop door at night.

Please don’t drive past to fact check that.

I love so many things about being a forest dweller, but the thing that makes my wasted little heart go pitter patter is the fact that I don’t have an alarm clock. I have an alarm cock.

Well.

I did.

Until a couple of weeks ago.

We sent Spur Boy to Freezer Camp when he tried to put a hole in my hen during an indecent assault gone bad.

Does indecent assault ever go…well?

We’re off track.

Look, having yearned for a flock of my own long before I slipped off the shackles of city ordinances and disgruntled neighbor faces, I bought my first box of chicks in the spring of 2019. My daughters, eight-year-old twins by name only, but with personalities like night and day, were just as excited as I was. Mainly because I told them they could sell the butt nuggets our precious birds would one day lay on the daily, and keep the money, if they helped me with the chores that come along with chicken tending.

Haha, get it? Because chicken tenders?

I know. I’ll see myself out.

Just as soon as I explain that are a lot of chores. One for every fly in my yard during the hottest of summer months. So millions, it feels like. We clean our coop and refresh the nesting spaces with wood chips. We feed and water the fowl daily. As I told my daughters when we brought that first brood home, “when you get a livestock animal, you take on a responsibility to them.” We have to make sure that their coop door gets shut up tight each night. We have to protect them, as much as we can, from the predators that abound on this here mountain. And there are one metric boatload of predators. From foxes to hawks(es), we signed an unwritten contract to do our best to keep the birds safe.

I was really excited to give my girls some husbandry experience. And, when spring rolled around this year, we were excited to set up an incubator and collect eggs from the very birds we’d shepherded through winter and into, it would appear, the first few months of the apocalypse to hatching. So rewarding was that process, in fact, that we wound up hatching three more clutches after that, including a set of turkeys and a whole lot of Brahmas, which are my forever chicken breed from this point forward, because they’re just so big, and weird, and friendly.

Having never incubated eggs before I did some research leading into last March and, when I was furloughed from work for pandemic reasons, it was the perfect time to start the little citizen science project that would be our new family endeavor, and a gloriously unstructured effort to provide them some meager education in place of their very qualified and sainted teachers.

It was like a 30-day snow day. It was intense.

I developed, over the course of spring, a ridiculously reliable system of dry hatching chickens that yielded some pretty impressive hatch rates for first time poultry doulas like us.

And then, without warning, the weather got hot and the humidity – even here, at the top of our little mountain – came crashing down on us like a thousand angry fists. Our fourth clutch of birds was the most traumatic. They wound up being sticky.

Heat and humidity are the two main variables that must combine to create conditions in which a fertile egg can become a real chicken, and for that real chicken to successfully hatch. When the humidity is too high, the membrane inside the egg becomes sticky, and the hatching process can be pretty harrowing, as the chick gets, essentially, glued into its vessel and suffocates if not assisted.

And you can’t help a chick hatch for at least 24 hours after it pecks that first exploratory hole in its egg. That 24 hours, from pip to pop, as it were, are critical for allowing the almost-poultry to absorb the last of the nutrients and blood vessels that have sustained it for the past 21 days, during what basically amounts to freaking magic – the metamorphosis of an egg from breakfast to tiny, heartbreaking ball of floof and noise.

It was heartbreaking, last month, as many of our precious Brahmas wound up trapped and snuffed out inside their eggs because my dry-hatching system wasn’t dry enough for the dog days of summer and I, in my arrogance, had forgotten to consult the weather before setting them.

My daughters and I have had many heavy philosophical conversations over the past month or so, and I’ve watched them grow so much through the heartbreak of being unable to save the life of a chicken they’d unwisely loved before it was even really a chicken at all. We still wound up with lots of birds, but there were some casualties that should not have happened and it was hard, for them, to confront such harsh existential realities. This summer, my kids have gone from innocent and naive to the cutest little eight-year-old form of hardened baby gangsters.

And I have been humbled, as a mother, in stepping back from the creeping anxiety that underlies every moment of motherhood for me to examine my own authority over fate with my sticky chicks. Or terrible lack thereof.

Like these tiny lives we’ve done our best to husband with respect and care, I’ve been reminded over the course of this summer that, at the end of the day, there’s precious little I can actually do to ensure that my kids become healthy, functional adults.

Sometimes, no matter how good your intentions, you mess up, and your kid winds up stuck, and there’s very little you can do about it. And, like my daughters, I hope to grow through the heartaches of seeing these girls through to adulthood.

So often these days, moms strive for a flourishing child, sacrificing themselves throughout that childhood to the point that, once child becomes adult, either flourishing or struggling (or, more likely, something in between), they barely know who they are anymore outside the role of Whomever’s Mother.

I’m thankful for my home. I’m so blessed to park my car in the woods at night, instead of downtown, and I’m reminded every morning as my chickens rush from the coop and out to the chicknic tables of feed in our yard, that you cannot always help a chick to hatch. But I you can crouch beside the incubator as it tries, cheering it on and hoping with all your heart to see it crash out of the shell, and dry off, and start cheeping and scratching and battling its siblings for a spot somewhere near the top of the pecking order.

Another unfortunate fact of life over which I have less than zero control.

Sibling warfare, it would appear, is yet another clear and timeless parallel between the worlds of poultry and human childhood.

Le sigh.