I was running a little late when I arrived at the Lorraine D. Foster Day School in Hamden for an after-school meeting about the Gaia Project on Tuesday last week. It didn't matter, however, because the principal and teachers were huddled over an incubator in the hallway, transfixed by an egg that was hatching inside. They were using a stethoscope to check on its progress.
After several hours of peeping and pecking away with its egg tooth, the chick had made a hole in its shell almost big enough for it to emerge. Its struggle to get out was mesmerizing as we watched through the incubator's window.
There's something very magical about a new life pecking to get out of an egg. The chick peeps and strains, sometimes for hours, before making it out as a wet/bloody bird, just about the size of the egg it has struggled to escape.
What a week for hatching eggs! Since most of them were from our farm, we have a lot of interest in these special events. On Wednesday, John, a teacher at New Haven's Vocational Agriculture High School, told me that their first chick hatched that day. His students were also very transfixed by the event. Apparently, the state inspectors who were visiting that day were fascinated, too.
On Friday, when Suzanne and I went to Bridgeport's Hallen School for an afternoon of gardening, all the kids were excited by the chick that was hatching in Mrs. McNamara's fifth grade classroom. Peep, peep, peep. How can you ignore it? Apparently, a supervisor came in and tried to, but finally agreed to come back another day.
Then on Sunday, Violet called to see when I wanted to pick up the chick that she hatched in her classroom at Foote School in New Haven. Taking the chicks back is part of the deal, since we provided the eggs.
In order for an egg to hatch, it must be fertilized. That is, the hen that laid it had to have spent time around a rooster. The eggs in commerce today come from hens who have never even seen a rooster. They live half a million females together, in cages in big, windowless buildings. They were all hatched in mechanical incubators.
The fertilized eggs also need to be fresh and to have been kept from the cold. Once spring arrives, the eggs from our small flock of barred-rock chickens, eight hens and a rooster, are in demand for hatching. We provide the eggs and take back the chicks when necessary. Occasionally, students persuade their parents and they take a chick home to raise in their backyard. There's something so sensible and nourishing about a small flock of chickens. Even a tiny city lot can hold a few hens for a regular source of fresh eggs.
The barred-rock breed, with its attractive black and white stripped pattern is quite beautiful. The hens are very reliable layers, producing up to an egg a day from the age of five months. They will lay eggs for years, although in somewhat declining numbers. The males grow big enough to make good eating at five months. That's the fate of most of the roosters.
Hens, eggs and chicks seem to be one of the most fascinating aspects of our educational barnyard at the West Rock Nature Center. Chickens are so ordinary, yet direct experience with them is rare in our society today. It used to be that chickens were everywhere. Now, they're locked inside of huge buildings rather than running around outside in the barnyard. Young children know that chicks come out of eggs, but there's quite a bit of confusion about eggs for eating and eggs for hatching. When they see the hen in the nest box they assume that she is sitting on her eggs, when in reality she is only laying one.
Broodiness, the term used for a hen's tendency to sit on a nest of eggs to hatch them, has been bred out of modern chickens. This natural desire to lay a clutch of eggs in some out-of-the-way place over the course of several weeks and then spend three weeks sitting on them, gets in the way of commercial egg production.
How satisfying something so simple and authentic as watching an egg hatch can be. It generates intense involvement and lots of questions in both children and adults.
Experiences, like the hatching of a chick, which were formerly nearly universal, are now rare. The widespread interest in hatching eggs attests to the hunger for some of those real experiences.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth.
This page and its contents are copyright © 1997 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.