On Saturday evening, the kids went into the barn to do evening chores. On the ground directly beneath her favorite perch was one of our hens, dead. She had eaten her dinner, climbed into the spot that she’s occupied for the last 3 years, and gone to wherever chickens go at the end of their lives. She was one of a pair of identical Brahma hens that were never more than three feet apart for their entire existence. Her sister was nowhere in sight; we resolved to look for her in the morning.
We’re expecting company from Colorado this week, and there was a lot to be done in the barn the next day. The departed hen was given a grand Viking funeral complete with a pyre. I was stacking firewood in the corner of the barn when I heard a curious noise- the soft chuckle of a broody hen, answered by peeps. I looked up and, directly in front of me, was a tiny yellow chick.
It regarded me for a second, then ran back into a corner under the hayloft. I wondered if I was seeing things. But sure enough, behind an old storm window propped against the barn wall, was an egg-filled nest. Sitting on it was our missing Brahma hen, whose sister had died the night before.
The chick scurried back under the protective wing of its mother, out of sight in an instant. The hen fluffed her feathers and croaked a warning at me as I approached. The little chick peeked out again, more curious than alarmed at the strange human advancing on its nest. I yelled for the kids to come see, that we had a newly hatched chick. The barn burst into an uproar of gleeful excitement. As if on cue, the chick peeped out again to prove its existence to the gathered crowd.
The commotion drew the farm’s humans but it also got the attention of the barn cats, who came in for a closer look. We quickly agreed that the mama hen and her nest would have to move. This wasn’t the easiest decision; she might abandon the rest of the eggs if we started handling them, but the cats would pick off the chicks if we didn’t. We made a fresh nest (albeit substandard and human-crafted) in a heated water bucket with a cracked base that was laying on its side. The enclosed chicken area we had build to try to keep the chickens from roosting on the pen walls was the perfect nursery.
Mama hen and her chick were scooped up and moved in first. She pecked the hell out of my forearms but calmed as soon as she spotted the food dish and waterer in her new spot. When moving the eggs I had a chance to examine them closer. One was just starting to hatch; ‘pipped,’ soft peeping audible through a tiny hole. Another had the faintest knocking sound and a few hair-thin cracks. In the bottom of the nest we found a dead chick who had hatched too quickly, without completely drawing the yolk and blood supply in through its abdomen. Another egg had cracked against the base of the storm window and spilled a partially developed embryo into the straw.
Our second daughter Sadie took charge of the burial of the two lost chicks. I carried the lot of eggs, 13 in all, into the ‘nursery’ and carefully placed them in the bucket. Grabbing mama hen (and sustaining another round of pecks) I sat her on the still-warm eggs. The chick followed and quickly ducked back under her wing. She eyed me, obviously not impressed with my nest-building skills, but settled herself on her eggs once again.
When I checked on them a few hours later, the pipped egg had hatched. Another yellow chick, the two lucky eggs probably laid by our Rhode Island Red girls. When it got dark enough we candled the eggs. This is a much-loved activity for our family; the warm darkness of our barn, the frogs and crickets singing, the occasional snore or rumen belch from our sleepy goats. The kids gather in close as we inspect each egg under the light and discuss its development, or lack thereof. In the more developed eggs you can often see movement. In the ones preparing for hatch, the point of the chick’s beak pierces the air cell in the wide end.
This morning, a freshly-emerged chick was warming under mama hen’s belly. Exhausted from its endeavors and not appreciative of the cool air, I tucked it back under. By this afternoon it was fluffy and lively. A fourth just hatched as I’ve written this, also black with white wing tips. I’d set the kids to work cleaning up their bedrooms before stealing away to the barn for a few quiet minutes. 4 year old Alarik snuck away and followed me, appearing at the door to Mama hen’s sanctuary with the knowledge of his misbehavior written all over his face. Before I could speak he was kneeling on the straw peeking at the new arrival under its mother’s wing.
“You need to go inside,” I told him, exasperated.
“But I have to give the new baby a kiss!” He replied, his bright blue eyes insistent. I gathered up the wet little bundle and held it out for him to plant the gentlest of kisses on its little head.
“Remember, these won’t all make it.” I cautioned. “Some will live to grow up and some won’t. I don’t want you to be too sad if some die.”
He thought for a moment, looking at the baby bird and then back up at me.
“I want them to know I love them, Mom. Even if they die.” His face resolute, wise beyond his years. I felt too guilty to send him back inside. How do you explain the price of life to a four-year old child whose wonder of the world is just unfolding? He knows the reality; he’s seen it repeated over an over on our farm. Things are born, some live and some die. Yet all are worthy of recognition, of honor. All are noteworthy even if their lives are brief. The possibility of that fragile little creature peeping in my hand not necessarily growing to nourish us with eggs or meat is no reason for my little boy not to bless it with his love.
We went inside together, leaving that chick to its mama’s care and the cradled hands of fate. We can’t always choose what path life takes. Our inseparable hens are now parted; one is no longer living, and one is giving life. Both have helped provide for our family, and that perfect circle has completed itself once more.