Friday, April 26, 2013

Fawn's Chicks Arrive!

"Don't count your chickens before 
they hatch."

Thursday last week, Segi came running to tell us that she heard one of Fawn's eggs peeping. "They're coming! They're coming!," she and her sister shouted as they ran about the yard in excitement. Oh, how hard it was to wait all through that lonnnnnnnnng night for the next morning to come. What would the chicks look like, they wondered. Would all of them survive? Any of them? We knew by now--had learned the hard way--that there are many factors that can prevent chickens from surviving the ordeals of incubation and hatching.

When the next morning did finally roll around, the girls lit out to the barn even before chore time and, sure enough, there it was: the first little chick! Golden brown with dark stripes on its back, it looked to be part Ameraucana--indicating that Stripees has more umph than we had given him credit for. (Sorry, big guy!) Segi named this one "Forget-Me-Not." The next day, another little one broke its way through its tough calcium shield and into the big wide world. A lighter gold, she evidently shares her mother's breed of Buff Orpington. Simi named her "Daffadowndilly" (inspired by the A.A. Milne poem).

To help Mother Fawn protect her little ones, we decided to move the three of them and the eggs that hadn't yet hatched out of the nesting box in the coop and into a cage in an extra stall inside the barn. This would allow them to get to know one another in relative peace and quiet. (Adult chickens are notorious for attacking and even killing other hens' little ones.) They weathered the transition from coop to stall remarkably well. I'd assumed Fawn would put up a huge fuss when we grabbed her out of her nest, but maybe she'd gotten pretty sick of sitting in that same spot for the past month--or perhaps she was simply too exhausted to care where she was. (You know what I mean, don't you, all you mothers out there?)

A few days later, Fawn's third little one--another with Ameraucana patterning--hatched out. After some hemming and hawing, the girls settled on the name "Lilac," in honor of the lilac bush that grew at the edge of our old yard in central Ohio. As you may have gathered by now, Segi and Simi have decided to follow a flower theme in naming this year's chicks. I keep suggesting monikers like "Bogwort," "Fleabane," and "Dutchman's Breeches," just to mix things up a bit, but so far they've been ignoring me. "Just wait until some of these delicate little cuties grow into VERY indignant daddy roosters," I told them. They were unimpressed, reminding me of my own lessens on the pitfalls of accepting social constructions of gender (and the fallacies of gender-fying entire species of plants and animals) and assuring me that they will thoroughly instruct any rooster we may end up with on the irrelevance of whatever social stigmas his apellation might bear. (Sigh.)

Unfortunately, little Lilac (who Simi--our resident chicken anatomist--has now determined to be a male) didn't fair very well during his first couple of days in this world. We're not sure if he was weak right from the start or if his "failure to thrive" was due to abuse and neglect. But within 24 hours of his birth, we noticed that the two older chicks were picking on him, booting him out from under Fawn and pecking at him. At the end of the second day, the girls found him lying almost lifeless in a far corner of the cage, feet in the air and barely breathing. The other chicks and their mother were now completely ignoring him, having evidently decided their job was done.

By the time I got out to the barn and picked Lilac up, he was cold to the touch. I was certain he would not live another half-hour. But--to comfort my distraught girls as much as anything--I quickly untucked my shirt and placed him against my tummy. I held him there as I instructed the girls to get the heat lamp from the barn's attic and to gather up some wood chips, a water dish, and some chick feed. In the few minutes we spent busying about the barn collecting all these things, I started to feel a bit of squirming under my shirt. And then a bit more. By the time we were locking up the barn doors and heading toward the house, Lilac was making peeping sounds. Could a little bit of body heat and TLC really be so transformative???

As soon as we got to the house, we went straight to the Discovery Room and got down a large plastic storage bin from one of the closets there. We spread wood chips in the bottom of it, hooked up the heat lamp in one corner, and place Lilac inside. We still weren't sure he would make it. After a moment of peeping and looking about, he collapsed and went to sleep. We put in food and water and over the past three days have gone back there over and over again to put his little beak into each of them, encouraging him to take a bit of nourishment. The girls have also been reading to him, singing to him, playing songs to him on their recorders, and cuddling him. A couple of times, I've thought he just doesn't have it in him to pull through, but then I'll come back a while later and find him looking much better. Today we all think he's going to make it.

Why do we care so much? After all, as I pointed out in my last post, we don't even need any more chickens on our farm. What's the big deal if this little one dies? Come hold him in your hands; hear his tiny voice peep; watch him take a thirsty gulp of water. Feel him, hear him, see him struggle to live--just like all the rest of us--and you'll know.

Abusive siblings and a negligent mother are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the dangers faced by newly hatched chicks--and even chicks still incubating in their shells. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, we have learned the hard way during the past couple of years just how right your grandma was to caution you against "counting your chickens before they hatch." In fact, just a day after Forget-Me-Not pecked her way into the world, Simi came to tell us that there was a black snake curled up on a clutch of eggs next to the hay manger. When I went to look, I found it in the process of trying to fit one of the eggs into its small but ambitious mouth. Wow--quite an impressive stretch!

As luck would have it, my mom and dad just happened to have arrived that afternoon from East Tennessee for a  weekend visit. Within seconds, my dad--or, as he is now known in this household, "Pop-Pop the Brave"--grabbed up the snake by its tail and calmly carried its furiously writhing body out of the barn and into the barnyard. It didn't take long for the two of us to agree that we would not kill a black snake unless absolutely necessary, so he carried it down to the bottom of the pasture and tossed it onto the bank of the creek. We're pretty sure it will be back. But hopefully not too awfully soon.

So what about all those other eggs out of that dozen that Fawn has been sitting on for the past month? By yesterday, nearly a week after the first one hatched and well over the 21-day timeline for poultry incubation, it seemed pretty clear that it was only the three that were going to produce chicks. Why? Did Fawn get up too often after the first two were born? Were the others "bad eggs" all along? We really don't have any idea. In any case, I'd decided that I would take all the "duds" away this morning during chore time. As I was piling them one-by-one in the muck bucket, though, I thought I heard one of the eggs singing to me. I listened more closely. Sure enough, one of them was peeping--faintly but vigorously, insistently. It seems as though another little fighter is on its way into our farm family, after all! The girls have already picked out a name: "Snapdragon."

And the other eggs in Fawn's clutch? Again--who knows? I suppose we'll leave them there a few more days and see what happens. In the meantime, we'll certainly be more tentative in making predictions and plans for the clutch that Naughty Sweet-Sweet is now sitting on. There are simply too many ways for unhatched chicken equations to get scrambled up. Just like we could have learned from grandma if only we'd listened more attentively.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Early Spring Surprises

A little madness in the Spring
Is wholesome even for the King.
--Emily Dickinson

Fawn sits . . . and sits . . .
and sits . . .
The week of Spring Equinox and Easter brought with it some lovely surprises to our farm--a couple of which seemed especially appropriate during this season of celebrating new life and new hope. First, one of our Buff Orpington hens "went broody"--that is, she decided she would sit on and care for a clutch of eggs. Of course, my daughters are excited to think they might soon be cuddling baby chicks again. There's a catch, though (as there often seems to be around here). Stripees, the only rooster that remains from the batch we got last spring, seems to be . . . well . . . how can I put this? Less that virile. It's not that he doesn't try to do his job, poor dear; he does--at least a few times a day. It's just that either his small size or his demure temperament (or both) means that after he's danced his flirtatious little jig around the hen he's out to snag and finally ascends those feathery feminine flanks to do his deed, he is more often than not promptly shaken off, and generally with little more than a vigorous shudder on the part of his erstwhile mate.

And so it is that the meek composure that has been key to Stripees' survival in our barnyard (he's the only one of the roosters from last spring's order of chicks that we decided to keep whose aggression didn't eventually land him in a cooking pot), is now leading us to question whether he is capable of passing on his genes to the next generation. If he isn't, then none of Fawn's precious eggs will hatch no matter how long she sits.
Knock, knock--anyone in
To try to figure out whether this was the case, we "candled" a few of her eggs, but while I thought some of them seemed to hold some promise, I wasn't confident enough in my diagnostic expertise to be sure. So we were fortunate to once again be able to turn to a good-hearted neighbor, T. McLeod, at Bradford Farm Stores, who gave us a handful of his own fertilized eggs to set under Fawn just in case her own clutch wasn't going anywhere. So she's now covering a full dozen . . . and waiting . . . and waiting    . . . and waiting. She'll be there for the next three weeks, hardly moving from the spot except for just the briefest of potty breaks and quick bites to eat. And then--if the Spring Fairies are smiling on us--we will have babies on the farm again! Not that we really need more chickens. It's mad, really--wanting more baby chicks. But it's Spring! So come, little ones, and bring us new life.

The most exciting--and perhaps most mad--thing that happened on our little farm last week, though, was the arrival of Segi and Simi's very own Easter Bunny. I had been working on this surprise for quite a while--plotting his arrival with a friend of mine whose family has owned him since he was
Cuddling with Koko
in his stall
a wee bun but now needs to get him off their hands. (Of course, I'm sure it is true that, as my husband helpfully pointed out, we don't need him any more than they do, but it's Spring! And in any case, he needs us.) I hadn't told the girls anything about him until a couple of days before Easter, when I announced that their Easter Surprise would be arriving a little early this year. That afternoon, my friend and her family rolled into our driveway with Kokopelli, his hutch perched on top of her SUV and all his supplies piled inside. The girls were ecstatic! As their father has insisted, we have him only on a trial basis, while the family is away on a two-week vacation. But of course, all of us girls have rapidly fallen in love with his snuggly-soft, twitchy-nosed little self, so we are all doing our best to make sure the trial goes smoothly.

In the meantime, we have used Koko's arrival as a particularly delightful learning opportunity. We have
Feeding Koko hay
in his hutch
acquired a great deal of knowledge in a very short time about the anatomy and behavior patterns of rabbits. Some of facts we have discovered have been particularly surprising. For example, did you know that many bunnies strongly dislike being held by humans? It makes perfect sense, of course. After all, they are relatively defenseless prey animals whose first instinct is to hide whenever a larger mammal is nearby. But I suppose most of us have been brainwashed by storybooks and children's television programming long enough that we just assume bunnies love nothing better than nestling in anthropomorphic arms. (What a funny ego our species our species has!) The girls and I have also accumulated a lot of tips on rabbit care. And we are learning a great deal about Koko's own particular personality traits, too. (I hope to share more of those in a later post.)

Koko has been learning some, too! Here he is at school with us:

Not bad for a first try, huh?
Great story! Can I have another?

Whew! All this studying is exhausting!
Next week, we are going to make part of our school curriculum studying the meanings and origins of Kokopelli's name and the Native American cultures from which it emerged. We think he'll be especially interested in this topic!

Until then, we will continue spending lots of time during these first few weeks of Spring doting on the newest member of our little farm family and looking after our latest mother-to-be. Welcome, Kokopelli, and good luck mother Fawn!