The four baby chicks who will join my flock Thursday are having a momentous day, though they are still folded inside their eggs at a Missouri hatchery. Within the incubator, they are responding to light; they are opening and closing their eyes, clapping their tiny beaks, vocalizing. They are moving into hatching position.
Tomorrow, after the arduous work of hatching is complete, they will be packed into ventilated, specially labeled cardboard boxes and shipped to a homestead supply store a few miles from my house. And the next day — if the postal gods are swift and gentle, and all goes according to plan — they will come home with me.
It’s an artificial and admittedly stressful start for babies who, under natural conditions, would come into the world already acquainted with the sound of their mothers’ voices, and even those of their siblings: Chicks communicate not only with their hens but with each other in the days just before hatching.
Their mothers, too, miss out, though broodiness — the inclination to set on eggs for the 21 days required to hatch them — is a characteristic that has been bred out of many modern hens. A hen won’t lay eggs while she’s setting a nest, and, speaking economically — as humans are wont to do —hens are useful only to the extent that they produce eggs.
Yet I see vestiges of the maternal instinct even in my young, hatchery-born hens. Here, my brahma Em engages in nest-building behavior after spending 20 minutes communing with the egg she just laid:
A short while later, my other brahma, Cal, deposits her egg in the same nest, pauses to absorb the experience , and then arranges the eggs with her beak before going about her day:
This morning, my buff Orpington Tess got to work; unlike the quiet brahmas, she announced her egg’s arrival with the characteristic cackle:
My Americana Ellie was next in line; she arranged Tess’s egg beneath her, and then produced her own.
They like to do this: the two big brahmas sharing a roomy nest on the coop floor, the other four hens sharing a nest box, though there are several from which to choose. Despite the pressure we humans have applied to divorce them from their eggs and the maternal impulse, they respond not only to the laying of their own eggs, but to the sight of each other’s; together, they create a clutch.
The four chicks I’ll welcome into my flock soon are deeply encoded, too, with instincts beyond the reach of human manipulation. In the first few days of their lives, they are primed to imprint, to bond. Yet their mothers are absent.
That’s where I come in. Stay tuned.