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A chicken spreads herself thin
It's worth it
The trips out to the chicken coop have gotten pretty dramatic lately. Fluff Nugget, our big, poofy, kid-friendly puppy-chicken, is broody. She's sitting right now on seven eggs and is READY for babies. Fluff Nugget is one of those animals which looks giant and regal most of the time, but you just know that if she got wet, she would look like the chicken version of one of those creepy hairless cats.
A broody chicken will sit on a nest of eggs all day and night, rarely getting up to eat and drink. She will literally pluck out her own breast feathers so her skin touches the shells to regulate the temperature and humidity of her eggs. She will self-sacrifice her body in exchange for motherhood - I feel you, girl.
The incubation period for chicken eggs is about 21 days. A broody chicken will barely move, besides an occasional trip to eat a little food and guzzle water, only to return and continue her vigil. Somehow, she instinctively knows how to properly heat, turn, and tend to her little orbs to create the perfect hatching environment.
Right now, as she lays on her eggs, Fluff Nugget's managed to take her poofy frame and flatten it to the size of a large dinner plate to cover each egg. She's almost defying the laws of physics in how she manages to spread herself so thin - literally. But isn't that such a metaphor for parenthood?
Yesterday I went out to see if her eggs were hatched and finally started worrying that they wouldn't do so at all. Was she not consistent enough? Did our rooster not do the job of getting them fertilized?
If it were any other hen, I wouldn't care if they succeeded in hatching and would just wait for her to give up; but Fluff Nugget is my sons' chicken. She's the only inhabitant of the coop who lets the boys hold her and seems to have a glitch in that she likes human kids. The rest of the flock runs like they're barely escaping Godzilla when they see the boys running toward the door, but she just stands there, waiting for inevitable little boy love.
By the way, I am not a proponent of chicken hugs in general, as the risk of disease is real. We are diligent hand washers before and after chicken handling.
But I really WANT Fluff Nugget to get the motherhood experience. She will be a great Mom. So, I snuck an egg out from under her to bring it inside to "candle" it.
Candling an egg involves holding a very high-powered flashlight on the shell to see what's going on inside. It helps us to watch the development of the chick and allows us to discard those rotten eggs that won't make it. It only takes exploding a rotten egg once to make you never want to do it again.
I decided it was time to candle Fluff Nugget's eggs so I knew what was going on under her. If the eggs weren't progressing, I would take them and try to dissuade her from broodiness to save her the heartbreak. Yes, I realize this is anthropomorphization, but she is our only kid-kind chicken.
While gathering everyone else's eggs, I walked over to Fluff Nugget, trying to be stealthy. As a 6-foot giant, I am terrible at doing anything stealthily. She immediately knew I was up to something and puffed up and tried to hiss at me in an intimidating way. Fluff nugget is a lot of things, but intimidating isn't one of them. Her "mean" was absolutely adorable.
I reached under her while she tried (and failed) to be her most puffy and scary self and grabbed one of her brown eggs. I cradled it in my hoodie; the weight felt like a chick was undoubtedly in there, but I wanted to make sure.
Once hiding in the dark bathroom with my "candling" flashlight, I pulled the egg out and held up the light. It wasn't just ready to hatch; it was ready to hatch any minute. I had violated the cardinal rule of hatching eggs: never disturb an egg due any second.
When chicks are ready to emerge, they will first break through their internal membrane, starting to breathe that little air pocket at the fat end of the egg. If you've ever peeled hard-boiled eggs, you know what membrane I'm talking about, it's like a translucent wrapping between the egg and the shell.
The last few days of a hatching egg's incubation are the most critical. A hen will instinctively not move at all until the chicks make their great escape. When we have eggs in the incubator, we call those final days "lockdown," where we won't open the top for any reason. Keeping the humidity high is critical. If it drops before the chick gets out, that internal membrane can dry out, essentially shrinkwrapping the baby and trapping it inside.
The chick inside the egg I had just snuck out from under Fluff Nugget had already pierced the membrane - it was ready to go, and I had taken it out of "lockdown." Crap. Crap. Crap. No wonder Fluff Nugget was so mad at my little heist.
I pulled out my spray water bottle, gave the shell a quick spritz with warm water, and hurried it back out to Fluff Nugget. Tucking her hopeful future baby under her wing, she seemed to resettle.
It reminded me things are happening all around constantly that seem so small but, when observed up close, are enormous. The difference of a few percentage points of humidity can be life and death. And parenthood is nothing if not a high-wire act of marginal adjustments, self-sacrifice, and incalculable gratification. Fluff Nugget continues to spread herself so thin because somewhere inside her, she knows that motherhood is worth it.
Now, we wait.