When I went to the Farmers' Co-Op to pick up twenty, newly hatched chicks to replenish our aging flock, I was unprepared for the ensuing scene. I had placed my order weeks ahead, and not considered that dozens of others had also done the same. As I got out of the car in the parking lot, the high pitched cacophony of hundreds of birds was distracting and overwhelming.
Cardboard fences, six inches high, had been snaked into corrals in the hardware section. There were several small pens, and one huge one, each one filled with tiny little baby birds. The differences between them were indiscernible. All were fuzzy; each division of the corral contained a specific shade of yellow; and every one of the hundreds of chicks was cheeping loudly. A single water dispenser was the centre of bedlam in the largest pen.
I showed my paperwork and the worker started scooping. I was horrified at the callous way he grabbed them like so much product; they could have been as insignificant as seed-corn or baking beans. Twenty were scooped into a carton less than a foot square, and three inches high. In the car I removed the top and inserted a dish of water. I began to worry that the drive home was unsafe for such fragile entities. A wet chick is a dead chick, but so is a dehydrated chick. My babies had come from a pen without a water supply, so I felt the onus to provide one.
Twenty balls of fluff lifted their stumpy wings as they shuffled in the box, snuggling at each other for warmth. Driving home, I worried that the incessant peeping was a signal of distress, yet when the road ran smooth and they quieted, my heart lurched, fearing that they had inexplicably nodded off into premature death.
Despite years of caring for adult chickens, we were nervous about this hatchling venture. We had watched hens raise young they had hatched, and we had been awestruck at the ways in which they taught and protected their progeny. We were certain we could not be as efficient as a hen. Furthermore, this was an exceptionally large clutch, and we were loathe to consider any of them expendable. We therefore had no 'acceptable loss' projections; we wanted to raise twenty hens from our twenty chicks, even though the prospect seemed onerous.
The first home the hatchlings were given was a yard-square wooden box on our living room floor. It had been lined with plastic, padded with newspaper, and sprinkled with soft hay and wood shavings. Half of it was under a reflective metal tent containing a warming lightbulb. When we first lifted them gently out of the travel-box into the pen, they huddled together in a mass, looking confused and disrupted. They were dry, and all twenty were peeping; my fears about the drive home had been unfounded. We turned on the light and worried as they huddled under it. We obsessed about the height of the lamp, eager to keep the babies not too hot nor too cold, but "just right." The feed we had bought had the optimistic name of "Chick Starter." It looked like pale, crushed gravel, or some grotesquely nutritious breakfast cereal.
It was not long before they discovered and happily pecked at it, taking only small amounts before waddling off to sleep in the heat of the shining bulb. They jostled each other, even though there was room around the feeder. They crowded each other enough so that within moments the brightest one simply stepped over the rim and pecked at the feed between her toes. The water dish was a major attraction, and somehow, despite the jostling and staggering of their forays, not one got wet.
As the hours and first days passed it was magical to watch as the trays of gritty food were somehow transformed into the finest, tiniest feathers. Within 24 hours, on the rounded stubby wingtips, there began a noticable elongation. The filaments were as fine and delicate as a spider's web, and the central shaft no heavier than a hair from my head.
The transformation was rapid, and yet invisible, like watching grass grow. By the third day, the wingtips had developed into pointed perfect feathers; as the week progressed, they extended further, and after a fortnight, they met behind their backs. Defecation required an opening of wings; a vulture-like hunching which was delightful in such diminutive creatures. When the result was a teeny, excremental plop, we declared it both anti-climatic and a hilarious commentary on the state of the world.
Their bodies were growing. We were obliged to extend the height of the box—a bizarre exercise in cardboard engineering. Daily we took them out into a wire run on the lawn. There they were examined by the existing flock, and ignored as uninteresting. In the protection of their enclosure, they pecked at the earth, and scratched at it exactly like the adults. Within sixteen days, we were obliged to move them out of the box. They were eating "Chick Grower" now, and the enclosure was becoming overcrowded. The feeders that had dwarfed them, now required refills every few hours. In the coop, we segregated an area, relocated the warming lamp, and prepared to abandon them to a night away from our protection. We still had twenty.
Other farmers advised us that we should be clipping wings; removing certain feathers to keep the birds grounded. We chose against endorsing that practice. Within a few short weeks their bodies had outpaced the growth of their wings, which now met at mid-back; they marched around looking like Prince Philip on a walk-about.
In the sixth week we removed the segregating walls and allowed them to meet the adult flock. Resounding nonchalance echoed across the property. The twenty had established their own pecking order during their confinement, and once Jasper, the self-appointed leader of the newcomers, had been rebuked by five-year old Spike, there were no further confrontations.
The Babies took to freedom as though born to it. They explored their range, expanding it and travelling to places the adults had never dared venture. We found babies in the mulberry bush—a full four feet above ground. We saw babies fly into the branches of the Mock Orange and the Wild Rose, while their adult companions remained earthbound.
When we called them to a feed of potato peels or other kitchen waste, they raced, wings outstretched, flapping across the meadow. Now they roost three feet above ground, and have never used anything but flight to get there. They cannot 'take wing' the way that songbirds do, but they are willing to make the attempt. We think we did right by them, for all our fumbling worries. They are brave and bold and willing to take on any challenge. They are all grown up and laying eggs of their own now, but for years they will remain Our Babies with unclipped wings.
Jo Leath is a writer, activist and counsellor, living at Down To Earth Farm on the south side of North Mountain, which encloses the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia, Canada. Her household includes her life partner of eight years, one Border Collie, and 26 laying hens. She hopes to be able to earn her living without leaving the property.
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