categories: Cocktail Hour

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My friend Drew called the other day to say that something, probably a fox, had gotten to his chickens and he had only one left alive. I love that moment when you know a request is coming but you don’t know what it’s going to be. Did he want a couple of chickens? Nothing lonelier than a chicken without its flock. He said, “I wonder if you would take her.” Her name was Buffy after her color. Drew brought her over the next day. Elysia announced that the hen was a Buff Orpington, same breed as the late Maggie, our winter casualty. We put Drew’s hen in the dog yard, which is now the back yard of the chicken coop. And nothing particular happened. There was some pecking-order business–our various breeds trotting over to chase Buffy or nip at her, the rooster ducking and sweeping flirtatiously. But no mob scene, nothing dangerous. We thought Buffy would probably spend a few nights outside or on the floor of the chicken coop, might get beat up pretty bad, but that it would all work out in the end, a replacement bird for Maggie.

Meanwhile, Elysia and I were in high-level negotiations over an incubator. I figure our maximum chicken population is about 16. Before Buffy’s arrival, we had twelve hens and a rooster, Mighty Waddles. (Once, Mighty was thought to be a hen. Elysia named him Carmen because as a chick he sang so much. He suffered a foot injury and hobbled, plus he was tiny, and so E changed his name to Little Waddles. One day, we noticed the spurs. Next day he was crowing. Then he grew, outpaced all the other birds, quite a profile, proud and, well, cocky. And so the new name: Mighty.) Twelve hens (6 of them one year old, 6 of them 2) has meant about nine eggs a day. Elysia sells a few dozen a week, we give away a dozen or two, and the rest go to potluck parties as deviled eggs. They are superior in every way. We can’t officially call them organic, so we just call them Roorganic. There are always too many of them.

I said we could try to hatch three eggs.

Elysia said 12, in case some didn’t work out.

“Our chicks have always seemed to work out,” I said.

“But those were from Farmer’s Union!”

“And everyone said to expect 20% mortality.” We’ve only lost two chickens in our two years of operation, both adults.

“But look what happened to Drew!”

“Drew doesn’t have a dog or a dog yard.”

“Oh, Dad. We could hatch some for him! He’ll need at least six!”

A good idea has a way of overcoming parental resolve. In fact, almost any argument at all has a way, if applied with proper facial expressions and groans by an incredibly beautiful and expressive ten-year-old ballerina. I offered a mighty “We’ll see,” and we adjourned to the play room to look online among Barbies for ideas about making an incubator.

It looked time intensive, is how it looked, also expensive, all these plywood boxes with heat bulbs and dimmer switches and fans and automatic egg turners and brooding shelves and humidifying pools. I felt a little flush of discouragement.

“They have them at Farmer’s Union,” Elysia said.

My children have rich parents, as my father used to say.

When I went to close the coop that first Buffy night, there she was on the prime rung with some of the tougher ladies on both sides of her, already nicely assimilated. Possibly the rest of the flock thought she was Maggie.

In the morning Elysia renamed her Darla, and we went to the Farmer’s Union to check out the incubators. They have a hobby size one for $58, kind of more than I’d meant to spend. Then we realized that the fan was separate, also $58, and the egg turner, too, about the same money, that the basic unit was just a box with a light bulb. Ambition began to flourish in my breast.

At home we got back on the internet and found several designs for simpler machines. One was built in a styrofoam cooler. When I went to Vermont last summer, I forgot a cooler and had bought just such a cheap piece of crap at a liquor store, two bucks. Home from Vermont, full of minor remorse, I nearly smashed it up for the garbage but thought maybe one day we’d need it for something or other before the landfill got it. Sure enough, there it was in the shed, unharmed. In the shop (yes, I have a woodshop, just an old garage packed with tools and junk) I found a porcelain light fixture, wires already attached from some other temporary usage. In the bathroom I found a 25-watt bulb and a 7-watter, one of those little appliance bulbs. I have a fan for my studio wood stove, but it’s really too powerful for a brooder. A fan we’d worry about later, or maybe not at all. Also in my studio I have an old thermometer. Up in the attic of the barn I found a stack of old picture frames, stole a 4X6 piece of glass from one. Elysia traced its dimensions on the cooler, and cut out a window slightly smaller. Then she washed the glass with Windex. Next, while I attached the porcelain light fixture to the cooler lid (drywall screws through the styrofoam into a scrap of wood) and taped a male plug to the wires, Elysia wrote a poem on the refrigerator. When that was done (a fine poem indeed), and only when it was done, she duct-taped the glass to the cooler. We cut down the side of a Clementine box and placed the whole inside the cooler–perfect vented platform for the eggs. Elysia would be our automatic egg turner, three times a day, and Dad a fourth late at night. She put two old kitchen towels in there for a nest, placed the thermometer, and we were ready.

We recovered eight eggs from the henhouse, and with Dad hoping not all had been fertilized, we drew an X on one side of each, an O on the other, felt markers. Online again, we found a registration sheet, which helps you keep track of egg-turning and temperatures and humidity and all the things that must go right. We printed that out, taped it to the cooler which is on a table in the corner in the living room, a spot that neither gets too cool nor too warm. We turned on the light–25 watts–and watched as the temperature climbed inside to the mid-90s. The target is 102.5, so we put a towel over the lid. Soon, we reached 100, and thought that would have to do. I’ll get a 15-watt bulb for warmer days, and we can use the 7-watt for hot days, if they come. Or maybe get a dimmer.

Because Dad’s too cheap to buy a thermostat.

21 days to go! We’ll report back.

[update: Elysia put three more eggs in this morning. I hope Drew wants a new flock!]

  1. Bill writes:

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