The call comes at 6:30 in the morning. Only the first rays of light shift the deep blues to a brighter haze. A bit of hoarfrost coats the branches, while the robins begin their daily rustle amidst last year’s leaves. I bolt out of bed and rush for the phone, “Yes?” The cheeping in the background lets me know the cause of this call before the lady even speaks. “I’ll be there right away.”
Throw on something, grab my glasses, and thump downstairs to make certain all is ready. This time last year, with the early spring, the hens were already on pasture and the brooder boxes were set up in the chicken coop. This year, the hens haven’t left the coop due to the late snows, the garage is stubbornly cold…so the boxes are in our house. Long rows of refrigerator boxes on their sides that had been saved for us by the local hardware store stand ready for their precious charges. The red heat lamps are on, warming the shredded newspaper bedding.
I fill the feeders and waterers, grab some towels, and head for the car. It’s chilly outside, and all I can think about is those little chicks, cold and scared from their long journey through the postal system. Mom cranks up the temperature to almost 80 degrees as we near town, hoping to lessen the stress of the additional half hour it will take to get home.
Clutching the towels, I chase after an employee punching in their access code, but I still have to wait outside, expectantly. It’s hard to keep still, watching my foggy breath and peering in through the little strip of window in the heavy metal door. I can hear all 200 of them--cheep cheep—as they round the corner inside. Two four-compartment boxes bound together (a stack almost bigger than the petite postal worker) emerge through the forbidden door, with a “Here you go!” I toss the towels on top to keep the chicks from shocking in the cold and waddle beneath their bulk back down the ramp to the car. It’s chick season!
Our first batch of chicks in the mail, the summer of 1999, was just a little box of 27 hearty souls sent from Murray McMurray Hatchery in Iowa. Just a little one-compartment cardboard box with round holes stamped in the sides and lid. The curious beaks poked through, reaching for my sleeve and fingers, a fuzzy wing popping out here or a little taloned toe there.
These poultry arrivals were introduced to their broodering ring in our first chicken coop (a former shower house from a resort), where we had heat lamps and folding chairs set up to spend the night watching over the precious clutch of fuzzballs. It was mid-June, but oh was it cold out there that first night! We shook and shivered and piled on winter clothing and blankets, while the little chicks dozed and scuttled without so much as a care. Their little micro-world was nice and warm, despite our misery.
Invariably, chick season also happens to be power-outage season! A freak ice storm comes through or the line needs repairs and everything shuts down. In our first years, we’d frantically pile the chicks into a box and cram ourselves into the cab of the farm truck, cranking up the heat while idling. The chicks were as happy as could be, but we were miserable beyond imagining—pressing our faces against the cold panes of glass to try to relieve ourselves from the suffocating heat! It was time to buy a little generator, at least for getting us through those dicey moments. When you reach 200 chicks at a time, they don’t fit into the truck cab very well!
As our laying flock grew, we were ready to experiment with hatching. First, Star (a black-and-white Aruacana hen) went setty, puffing and huffing when anyone came near her nest. We gave her a dog kennel and a nice clutch of eggs to hatch, but after two weeks she simply gave up—tired of just sitting, sitting, sitting, with nothing else to do. The next year, she grew broody once more, so we tried the routine again, showering her with chicken delicacies (bread, oatmeal, clover) and plenty of privacy. But a few days before hatching, one of the eggs cracked, and the sulfurous rotting stench was enough to put us and Star into a frantic panic. That was it, she had had enough! We’d have to find another way to hatch our own eggs.
Learning to operate an incubator is part science and part art. There’s turning, temperature, humidity, candling, and other factors to learn. These days, with one incubator in degrees Celsius with a wet bulb to monitor humidity and the other with a digital thermometer in Fahrenheit with a hygrometer reading moisture percentage, I keep cheat sheets and charts perpetually posted on a bulletin board above the incubation station in our walk-out basement. It’s a juggling match of keeping all the conditions just right for the fertile eggs to transform into soggy little balls of peep that chip their way free.
Last spring, our interns oogled over the half-fogged-up Plexiglas window into the incubator, cheering the hatchlings on. “Come on! You can do it!” The chick finally pushes out of the wide end of the shell then flops exhausted at the exertion of it all. Such a small creature but so determined to survive. His damp fluff clings to his tissue-thin skin—a far cry from the pictures of clean, white-shelled eggs with a fluffy, dry chick standing in the middle. Birthing is a much messier process!
Having the incubators in the house is convenient on many levels, including the need to check on hatching chicks every two hours (including through the night). The loud, frantic chirp of a terrified chick that has flipped on his back alerts the need for help, and the scuttle of feet lets me know that a new hatchling is ready to graduate from the incubator to the brooder.
This spring, the first chick hatched from our incubator pipped nearly ten hours before any of his friends. Rambunctious and ready to go with dark fuzz and furry feet, he wriggled expectantly as I nestled the little fellow in amongst the warm bedding of the brooder stove box. He blinked his dark, beady eyes and began to cry, “Ree-kee-kee!” as though it were the end of the world to be alone in such a place. I finally found a stuffed toy to place next to “Reekee” so there was finally some hope for a bit of sleep. While he wasn’t eager to sit next to the furry object, it did calm the crying. The next morning, a blond chick was ready to join the brooder, blissfully unaware of its predecessor’s existence. Reekee scurried right over, flapping his little wings as if to say, “I LOVE YOU!” The blond chick went buggy-eyed and gave Reekee a hearty peck on the face…so much for a happy little pair. Sorry Reekee, guess that’s life.
Between the incubation projects and the chicks arriving in the mail, our house has been converted into a cheeping extravaganza. As the little birds peck and scratch, their eager antics make me smile each spring. They may still be tiny, but their tenacity shows their exuberance to explore their world and grow strong through the sunny summer months. Small but mighty; they seem to sense this of themselves. Just wait until I grow enough wing feathers to fly out of this box!
Yup, it sure is baby chick season around here. See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com