My oldest younger sister got an incubator for Christmas one year when she was 12 or 13 years old. It was what she had asked for which might seem strange to some but living on the farm it was quite useful. She had just gotten involved in 4-H programs at her school and it seemed an instant project generator to have an incubator.
4-H programs were quite prevalent in those days, especially at the rural schools levels. 4-H stands for head, heart, hands, and health. The organization is an outreach program that sponsors all manner of volunteer competition for rural kids. The local county fairs always had numerous contests covering everything from vegetables grown to livestock raised. It is still an active program. The last time I went to the local county fair I noticed there was a large metal building for the cooking and crop growing competitions along with the still existent barns for the livestock.
My sisters were all quite active in 4-H for many years, both in growing and showing livestock and some sampling of vegetable growing as well. My mother, as a school teacher was also one of the volunteer sponsors for the local 4-H so it was pretty much a part of my younger siblings lives the whole time they were growing up.
The incubator was probably their first adventure in that world and it was quite an adventure. The incubator was a round metallic structure about 12 inches tall and 30 inches in diameter. It contained a thermostat and heating element to keep the eggs within at a constant temperature during the incubation period before they hatched. For chickens, this period is a relatively short 21 days more or less. It is a little longer for ducks usually another week or so.
The process is fairly simple, you take some fertilized new eggs and put in the incubator which controls the temperature to around 90 Degrees F. Our incubator also used water in the bottom of the pan to control humidity. It is not too hard to control the water level and humidity with a little practice and we had quite a high success rate. The eggs need to be turned regularly, we usually did this twice a day. The last piece of the puzzle is to try and avoid contaminating the shells with any foreign debris. We were very careful to handle them with gloves as we gathered them and turned them in the incubator.
We started out with eggs from our chickens but soon branched out to more exotic types of chickens. My sister’s loved the little Japanese silkies that have a kind of silky topknot on their head. We also had several of these types that have feathers sprout just above their feet so that they look like they are wearing feathery shoes. My oldest sister would put notices up at the Farmer’s Coop and feed stores in the area asking for eggs of all manner of chickens and ducks.
The end result of this was a yard full of exotic chickens by the time she got out of high school. The one rule my dad made was that we could not help any of them out of their shells. The chicks would usually peck a hole in the shell to breathe but it might take a whole day for them to get the strength to completely escape. It is a critical period for them and if they aren’t strong enough they sometimes never make it completely out. Naturally when the hatch date got close we anxiously peered through the little glass viewing lens in the top of the incubator, anxious to see how many would hatch.
I must admit that we weren’t always completely true to my dad’s rule. He never said anything but I know he was aware of it when we occasionally had a crippled chicken or duck hatch out. We once had a Peking duck with one foot that was balled up so that it limped continuously. It was the only duck that hatched out of the batch and I suspect he had some help in doing so. He lived for quite a while but never seemed to realize he was a duck as he hung around with the chicks he hatched with for his whole life.
During one incubation period of all ducks the heater element on the incubator failed. We were less than a week from their hatch date but they were not going to make it without the heater. My mom, ever the pragmatist, told us to take the duck eggs and put under a hen that was setting in the back of the hay shed beside the house. We took seven of the duck eggs and put under the hen who was sitting on two eggs at the time. She didn’t seem to mind the addition and seemed quite happy to have such a large brood of eggs to sit on.
The ducks began to hatch out right on time a week later. The hen didn’t seem to notice that the setting period was pretty short. She was quite proud of her little hatchlings, completely unaware that they were an entirely different species. The baby ducks didn’t seem to mind either as they happily got under her every night when it came time to go to roost. The daytime however, was a little less of a smooth transition for the hen.
Hens typically begin taking their chicks out to forage when they are very small, just a few days old. The mother hen will constantly cluck and “sing” to the chicks in a high pitched kind of crooning noise as they follow her around the yard. She will scratch and dig up seeds and small insects for them to eat, constantly communicating with them with her clucking and crooning. The clucking gets more staccato and rapid when she finds an especially tasty morsel for them and the chicks will react accordingly in a very short while, speeding up with the pace of her clucking or wandering slowly around with the smooth crooning. For a few days at least, the hen is forced to herd the chicks; keeping them in formation and gently pushing them in the right direction. Soon they are trained to follow her voice signals and she leads them proudly around the yard.
The ducks were not equipped with either the understanding of this language or simply an interest in being led around. I have since noticed the ducklings are usually simply herded around by their mothers but this little set of ducks seemed to largely ignore both her coaxing and her attempts to herd them in any direction. The upshot of this was that the poor hen was constantly running around behind them, clucking and crooning while they simply went wherever they wanted. Occasionally, she would manage to get ahead of them and show them a bug to eat but for the most part they simply ignored her until it came time to go to roost at night.
I imagine it was somewhat embarrassing for the hen to have children who so openly ignored her. I doubt it was something the other hens approved of the way she had to follow the ducks around instead of leading them. This seemed to put her on edge as she was quite frantic by the end of the day each day. She was only able to be comfortable when they got under her at night. The rest of the day she seemed distraught most of the time, no doubt a little ashamed that her brood was so unruly and disrespectful.
The ducks also grew at a high rate of speed so it wasn’t long at all before even this comfort was taken away from her. The sight of her trying to set on six ducks almost her own size at night was a little comical but I am sure it wasn’t for her. It was just one more failure in a long line of disappointing failures for her as a mother. They managed to somehow sleep under her for quite a while as it was the one time when they seemed to really need her but usually there was quite a bit of uncovered duck in their little sleeping area.
One day several weeks later I was feeding the hogs when that last straw for this poor hen seemed to collapse what was left of her sanity. She was noticeably thinner and distraught by then, the constant disarray of her little flock steadily wearing her down. Our hogs had access to a creek that ran year round as a water source. Whenever we had to put one of the hogs up for farrowing (having baby pigs) I had to carry water from the creek to the farrowing house in five gallon buckets. It is quite a job to haul a couple of five gallon buckets of water the 75 yards from the creek to the farrowing house. As it happens, it was the dead of summer at the time and the sow needed a LOT of water in preparation for dropping her litter so I was making several trips a day to the creek.
On this particular day I was filling the buckets when I looked up to see the ducks waddling down through the hog pen. I think they were probably following me but then again, they could have just heard the creek running from some distance. At any rate, as I was filling the buckets and taking a short rest they made their way straight to the most rapid running part of the creek, the mother hen close behind. She was still clucking and crooning but as usual the ducks were simply ignoring her and going where they wanted.
As they got to the creek they immediately just jumped right in the water and began paddling around. They were ducks after all and they took to the water like; well…. like ducks take to water. As the last of them hit the water the hens clucking and crooning turned into panicked squawking. She ran up and down the creek bank squawking and flapping her wings in sheer terror. I am sure she thought her babies were going to their certain death. It had to be something of a mass suicide in her eyes and she was none too happy about it.
The ducks meanwhile were contentedly paddling around and occasionally diving their heads down in search of tadpoles and minnows, completely oblivious to their foster mother’s frantic attempts to get them to come out of the creek. I felt so sorry for her that I chased them out of the creek but they immediately went upstream and jumped back in. This set her off again like a fire alarm going off at full tilt. I felt sorry for her but there was really nothing I could do to stop the inevitable. They were ducks after all.
The mother hen was never quite the same after that. She followed them around for weeks but seemed kind of dazed and uncommitted. If the ducks ignoring her in the yard was shameful, them swimming in the creek every day after that was a horror along the lines of your kid joining the Hare Krishnas and selling flowers at the local airport. She continued to go through the motions of mothering the ducks until they just got too large to get under her at night but they still wanted to sleep near her. She never offered to set on eggs again. I guess that one experience at motherhood probably blunted that instinct forever.
I have thought about that poor hen at times in the process of raising children. I have often seen them doing things that I thought were intellectual suicide and then had a faint voice in the back of my mind remind me: they might be ducks. We aren’t meant to be carbon copies of each other and there is a wide range of what people need to be well adjusted.
1 post • Page 1 of 1
A Forum for Books, Non-Fiction, Fiction, Short Stories, Sudden Fiction, Excerpts, Poetry, etc.