Wednesday, July 17, 2013

When It Comes to Chicks, The Bra's the Limit

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, July 10, 2013 by Sara Mattinson.

In May, fox kits emerge from their den on the riverbank while in the rain of June, a doe gives birth in the field behind the house. Birds lay eggs and sit patiently. By the summer solstice, the ospreys nesting nearby begin a steady delivery of fish and we await “head day” at the end of June: the day the first baby head is visible above the top of the deep nest. The calves in the pasture up the road are twice as big as they were in May. A farm on the South Shore belonging to the friend of a friend starts posting photos on its blog of newborn piglets. A friend brings home a kitten. 
If there is one thing everyone can agree on, it’s babies. They are small, they are cute, they are huggable. Sure, babies grow up and become terrible things like teenagers and roosters and contestants on Big Brother but for a few months, they are totally lovable, irresistible perfection. 
This year, even my husband and I have succumbed to baby fever. Our flock of laying hens is too small; not only are we not getting enough eggs, but we lost our two green egg laying hens. Needing eggs now, we made inquiries about pullets or young hens only to find none available. Breeders sell day-old chicks because it’s too much work and money to keep hundreds of chicks until they are ready to lay. It became apparent that if we wanted to restock our flock, we were going to have think small and be cheep. 
So now there are five chicks scuttling around a pen inside our chicken coop. Five black-eyed, fuzzy-feathered, cheep-cheep-cheeping chicks who will grow up to be lace Wyandottes, a large, docile, dependable layer with beady orange eyes.

“Oh, here you are,” my husband said the other night after the sun went down and he found me kneeling against the hay bale barricade in the coop. 
“I’m just hanging with my peeps,” I said. 
The other reason for the drop in our egg production is several relentlessly broody hens. Forced to buy eggs at the farmers’ market, we discovered our egg broker is also a baby broker for hens who lay green eggs. Wes assured us his green eggs are fertile so we could stick a few of the green ones under a broody hen and hatch them out.
Naturally, this resulted in a competition: My husband bought an incubator and stuck nine green eggs inside; I took three out to the coop and stuck them under a hen hunkered down in a nest box. Now two broody hens, NoNo and Gwen, take turns sitting on the eggs (it’s a very modern coop: these chicks will have two moms). 
It takes a mere 21 days to hatch an egg and as of today, we are 15 days in and both of my hens are stalwarts on the eggs. They have to be. 
I know a woman who rescued three eggs that a hen abandoned a week short of their due date and stuck them inside the abundant gifts God gave her to finish incubating them. The Incu-bra-tor hatched those three eggs into perfectly proper chicks. If Gwen and NoNo get over being broody before next Tuesday, I don’t have the facilities to finish the job. 
This is what I love about living in rural Nova Scotia: the ingenuity and the practicality of the people. In the city, you would just head out to the nearest superstore and buy an incubator in which to stick those at-risk eggs (or maybe not; aren’t city folk, poor things, still denied the pleasure of keeping chickens?) but in the country, you don’t have time to run to town. It’s a moment that calls for quick and creative thinking and a few days of having one’s personal space invaded. 
Where else but in the country do we get the chance to experience life so intimately? We come to a greater appreciation of birth and death watching animals struggle to come into this world and survive. If we’re lucky, we might even get to help. Knowing that farmers are willing to slide an arm up inside a cow to help deliver a calf, tucking a few eggs inside a bra really doesn’t sound so difficult.
And if I need a surrogate, I know who to call.

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