The story of the Ugly Duckling has taken on a more personal meaning as of late. I’m not exactly sure when the exact transaction was made, but last Monday, Mowgli (my brother and 4-H agent) showed up at our house with a less than functioning incubator and a dozen eggs with chicks in them. We were in the midst of my husband’s project of the week, our shed, but stopped to go watch and learn as everything was set up.
On the particular incubator we were using, the knob to adjust the thermostat had broken off. After multiple minutes of fiddling with it that I wasn’t involved in, my husband and brother had rigged it up so that a distance of 3 inches above the base it kept the eggs the proper temperature. However, as it didn’t seal in the humidity, there was a concern that the eggs would not hatch.
The eggs were due to hatch on Wednesday. By the time I got home at noon we had two chicks and ten duds. I was very disappointed but removed the new chicks from the incubator and put them in a box under a heat light. Without going into a lot of details I can’t recall clearly anyway, by Thursday evening all but two of the chicks had hatched. Of the remaining two, one had started and the other had a hole pecked into the shell, but it didn’t go all the way through.
There is almost nothing more frustrating than watching a chick hatch. At first all you see is the emergence of a noisy beak. Then that little beak and the legs, wings, and neck work and struggle to make a hairline fracture. After a time the hairline fracture evolves into a break. Then the gooey little blood covered skin and bones creature still has to push the shell away in order to get out. As I said there is almost nothing more frustrating than watching a chick go through the process of hatching. The exception, of course, is watching a chick who doesn’t hatch, or watching a chick who takes so long to hatch that the inner lining of the shell dries out and solidifies making it virtually impossible for the baby fowl to break free.
Thus was the case with chick 11 and 12. In a desperate attempt to help without weakening them and crippling them for life, I dipped my finger into water and drip by drip gave them little drinks as hour after hour they worked on getting out. For chick number 12 it was enough. 11 wasn’t so lucky.
He was born with little legs that wouldn’t support him, curled toes, and wings he couldn’t seem to extend beyond the confines of his body. After he finally made his way out of the shell, I put him in the box with the other chicks. They immediately began to peck at him and chase him and his only method of dodging them was to flap his non-existent wings and attempt to use his splayed legs to scoot himself out of the way. A couple of times they flipped him over and he made a terrible racket as he tried to fend off their sharp beaks and right himself. It was terrible to watch and so in an attempt to shelter him I separated him into his own box where he would be safe.
Cast off size from the others, he continued to peep trying to find others of his kind so he wouldn’t be so lonely. I thought after a time to gain his strength, he might come out of it.
Unlike the other chicks, all the yolk and egg sac and whatever else they are covered with when they are born didn’t fluff up and turn downy, but instead hardened giving him a firm plastic-like layer all over his body. For a day and a half I put food near him and dropped beads of water into his little chirping mouth, but to no avail. I use the term he, but in actuality there is no way for a novice to distinguish gender at such a young age.
On Friday morning I sent my four-year-old down to check on the chicks. He came back up and we had a conversation that went something like this.
“Mom! Guess what the sad news is?”
“What?” I asked.
“The little chick with the red thing on his bum is dead.”
I had figured that was coming and wanted him to decide how we should handle it. “Do you want to bury it or should we just throw it away?” I asked.
“Well we can’t” he said.
“Because he’s gone,” he said pointing upward.
As we’ve had a lot of deaths in our family recently, we’ve had a great many talks about how when we die our spirit ascends to the spirit world and our bodies remain in the ground, so I reinforced that by saying, “Well, yes, his spirit is gone, but we can bury his body if you want.”
“No,” he said, “he took his body with him!”
Disbelievingly, I followed him downstairs where, sure enough, his box was empty. It was a strange, unnerving moment until I remembered we had left my brother in the house with the chicks and gone out. I realized he must have taken the chick with him since he knows me well enough to understand I couldn’t handle what was going to happen eventually to the poor little bird.
Chick number 12 was about ¼ the way out by this time. My husband and I had plans that evening and I was anxious to see it out before we left. I gave it several drinks and rolled it over in different positions trying to have gravity help it out. Finally, and not a moment too soon, it was out.
I put it in the box with the other chicks, but being nearly 48 hours older they were much sturdier on their legs and began to peck at it. I made several attempts to isolate it while still in the box so it wouldn’t be lonely, but in the end, left it and hoped that the survival of the fittest thing applied to the little chick in that it would become more fit as it worked to survive.
We’ll return to that story in a moment. My husband and I passed our 7th anniversary in February, but as we were busy with other things at the time we postponed our celebration until this weekend in March. I arranged for my mother-in-law to watch the kids so that he and I could go to Park City overnight.
My brother was going to check on the chicks while we were away for the weekend and I was supposed to drop our house key off at his house on our way out of town, but I was running late, so I left it with my mother-in-law. She told me she would check on the chicks. I called later that evening and she said they’d stopped at Cal Ranch before coming to our house and that the chicks were just fine, even the new guy. I was markedly relieved.
After returning from Park City, we picked up the kids and ended up staying at my husband’s mom’s until ten. The kids fell asleep on the way home, so I carried them in and put them in bed before going down to check on the chicks.
When I first looked into their box, I saw a downy yellow chick that was also covered in black feathers. It was a little odd, but whereas I hadn’t seen the last to hatch after he’d dried, I figured he must have been a different kind or something.
Seconds later I noticed a reddish brown chicken. My brother had said they would all be white chickens, but perhaps as they developed they changed colors, which would explain why two of our chicks had changed to brown and black respectively and were no longer yellow. Then I spotted something that confounded me for a second. One of the chicks was much larger than the other. He was black and yellow like the one, but taller and with a rounded bill rather than a beak. My mind, trying to make sense of it, said somehow a duck egg had gotten mixed in with the chicken eggs and the last to hatch had actually been a duck and I hadn’t noticed.
Without warning, my thought pattern jumped from the right hemisphere to the left and I realized logically, the little beak I had dripped water into was indeed a beak and not a bill. I counted the infant fowls and found 11 yellow chicks, 1 brown, 1 black, and one duck. Only then did it dawn on me that my precious mother-in-law had decided that my husband and I were suddenly into the agricultural business and needed to expand by purchasing two other breeds and a duck.
They are pretty cute little animals. I like the duck best. He thinks he’s a chicken. We put him in a pail of water and he paddled around, but kept trying to get out and join his land dwelling posse. He eats the same food and sleeps with them grouped around him, and refuses to put himself in water because obviously chickens can’t swim. He’s cute, but I’m still left with the question, what are we going to do with a duck.