How long has it been since I've set eggs in an incubator and turned them patiently for three weeks? Many years.
We did it in the early days a few times but mostly bought day-old chicks by mail — a different kind of patience, a different kind of waiting. When you order chicks by mail, you get a range of dates they might arrive. Expect an early call.
Our postmistress usually calls before 7 to tell me that a suspicious package has arrived in my name — full of cheeping! I drive the mile and a half to town, and she cheerfully hands me a box. She tells me she likes this kind of package, but last week someone ordered bees! She was afraid of the buzzing and didn't want to get too close, even though it was tightly wrapped.
How can they send chicks through the mail? They have to put enough chicks into the box to keep them warm through body heat to make the trip. Some places will send "warmer chicks" if you order only a few. They are cushioned in straw.
Before they hatch, chicks absorb all the rest of the yolk through the umbilicus (Yes, chickens have umbilical cords), and that gives them all the food and water they need for the next 24 hours. After hatching, they need time to dry off and learn to walk. No time for eating until those important tasks are finished. They make the trip overnight, and I get to open the box of peeping chicks.
I used to order the bargain mix, which really just means the leftovers from the hatchery. Opening the box for me was even more exciting, since I got to see what kinds of chicks I had. They're not all yellow. Look at a hatchery catalog sometime to see the colorful assortment of chicks. We always had fun transferring them from the box to the brooder, counting them carefully. The hatchery often throws in one or two extra in case some don't survive the trip.
When I put them in the brooder, the first task is to show them each, one by one, where the food and water are. I dip their beaks in the water and set them down so they know where to find it again when they are thirsty.
Well, that was how we used to do it, but this spring, I got a hankering to hatch out some Serama chicks. Seramas are sometimes called "the teacup chicken" because they are so tiny. A full-grown rooster is about the size of a 6-week-old kitten rolled up in a ball.
Before I could talk myself out of it, I ordered a dozen Serama eggs. I set up an incubator and marked the eggs with an X on one side so I could tell that I was giving each egg a full turn. I realized later I should have put an O on the other side.
My memory of hatching is pretty foggy. You need to turn them three times a day (or five or any odd number). If you let them lie on the same side for 21 days (or even for most of that time), the chicks will develop unevenly — one side of their body bigger than the other.
I did faithfully turn them, but I forgot the part about leaving them still for the last three days. In fact, I didn't remember that until yesterday, when I went to turn them and heard peeping! At first, I thought it was my imagination or that a bird had flown into the vent fan again and made a nest.
I had read that you could hear chicks peeping from inside the eggs, but I had never heard it myself. Oh, my! Time to get a brooder ready. Three eggs had tiny chips. When I exclaimed, the peeping grew louder. They were responding to my voice.
I kept checking, but the cracks didn't seem to get any bigger. I checked the humidity. If it's too high, the chicks can drown in their shells. The humidity was in the right range. I had to go to town, and when I returned, I found two sets of eggshell halves and two tiny, wet chicks peeping and trying to stand.
The chick uses its egg tooth to cut the shell in a perfect circle, all the way around, so the top of the egg comes off like a little hat. The chicks went into the brooder (a box with a light bulb), but I didn't hear any more peeping. The next morning, one more wet chick was in the incubator, and he joined his nest mates.
Will more eggs hatch? The adventure begins.
Wait in beauty; hatch in peace; blessed be.
Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. Serama chickens are perfect for the backyard chicken coop. The Champaign City Council study session on the new proposed chicken ordinance has been rescheduled for 7 p.m. July 9 in the council chambers, 102 N. Neil St. You can read more about Birdland at http://www.letterfrombirdland.blogspot.com. Hays can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.