“There’s a dead one right there.” The Bearded One jokes as he points to a sprawled-out, week-old Cornish Broiler chick, its head beak-down in the pine litter. Another chick plows into the dead chick, who wakes instantly and staggers to the waterer.
“Nope, I say. “Still 32.” In these past six days we’ve seen countless resurrections. We’ve also been warned that we’d lose some. So far all are still happily alive.
Our nurse twenty-something daughter giggles as she cuddles a fluffy yellow chick in her palms, letting the long legs hang down. “This is so relaxing,” she says. The three of us have just finished dinner and are now out in the hut huddled around the brooder.
“Just another 10 second nap,” says the Bearded One. The chicks have probably tripled in size since they arrived last Thursday morning.
They were two days old, and the biggest were the size of tennis balls. Identical fluffy yellow balls. One had been pecked a bit, but was totally viable. They’d been shipped, and they felt it. They drank and ate and napped as fast as their little essences could cycle through their life’s activities. Alive! So much to do.
Over the weekend, we filled their feed tray several times a day and changed the small quart waterers to a single big one. A couple of chicks had wet poop stuck to their butts, which they were pecking at, so I wiped them with a warm paper towel and rubbed on a little Neosporin where it was pink and sore. Which Momma Goose told me to do.
“Your sister asked me a good question,” I say. “If all the chicks were born on June 12, was there a different mother for each egg?”
The nurse coos at the fluff ball in her hands as I jabber egg facts: a hen can have just one egg a day; fertilized eggs incubate for 21 days, but the start date need not be the laying date if the egg is kept cool but not refrigerated for up to 10 days. It takes a few days to fill your incubator, or for a hen to collect a clutch before she starts sitting. “Probably since these chicks came from a hatchery, they have different mothers,” I conclude.
“Hansel and Gretel have got to see this,” she says, referring to our neighbor kids.
“I already invited them over,” I say. “Batman is still recovering from his tonsillectomy, but they’ll come over as soon as possible.”
“Do they know they’re meat birds?” she asks.
“Yes, I told them we would top them in a couple of months when they were fully grown adult chickens. I told them that these are not pets. They seemed to understand completely, although I think their mom is right to protect them from the actual killing. Hansel just turned 8. He’s very tall for his age, so it’s easy to think he’s older than he actually is.”
The Bearded One is in and out of the hut, now, setting up the raccoon trap again, loading it with vanilla wafers and almonds.
Word is out in the forest that fryers are on the premises. We already caught one raccoon prowling around the hut. We released it 3 miles away in the forest.
Our friendly crow — dropper of the chicken wishbone in the goats’ water — has been pacing the backyard like a chicken and flying in low over the farmlet several times a day to deliver sinews and cartilage and worms into the water troughs. I’ve watched it. We also found the smallest egg ever in one of the nests.
I think it’s a crow’s egg, but the Bearded One says no way. He’s probably right, but I still wonder.
As our daughter leaves the next morning, she marvels at how all the animals are used to her now. Ruby the dog; the 42 combined fryers and layers; and the three goats, who she says look positively groomed since shedding nearly all their fleece naturally.
That is — by rubbing it off on the horse fencing.
“All except Garfield,” she says. The cat peers at her from the deck.
“He’s holding his breath until you leave,” says the Bearded One. We laugh and wave good-bye.
Two hours later, Hansel, Gretel and Batman, along with their mom, knock on the door. Batman’s voice is scratchy, but he says he’s feeling better and wants to see the chicks.
The Bearded One hands a chick to Gretel and she freezes, holding it so carefully. He teaches Hansel to pretend that he’s after one chick, then to switch at the last second and snatch an unsuspecting one nearby.
“Ha!” says Hansel, but then the chick poops in his hand. He handles it maturely and sets the chick back down carefully. His siblings are wide-eyed.
“What does chirp mean?” asks Gretel, smiling at me. “Like, what are they saying?”
“Life is good,” I say. Then I run inside and get the tiny egg for Batman. It fits perfectly in the palm of his 4-year-old hand. “Is this the kind of egg you can eat?” he asks his mom, his voice soft and scratchy.
“Oh, yes. You can have that one for lunch if you want.”
“YUM. YUM.” Batman exalts. “Let’s go home.”