Monday, May 23, 2005

The chicken or the egg?

A recent post over at Rurality got me to reminiscing about my summers at camp and our chickens there. (It also got me craving chicken and noodles, but that's another story.) We had a "farm" at camp, with a hodge podge of donated animals. Some lived at camp year round and some were donated for the season. There were always cats and kittens hanging about. Each year one of the neighbors loaned us his smallest calf (and collected it at the end of the summer bigger than any of its kin from being hand fed). One year we had goats, another we had a pot-bellied pig. The year before I first came, there had been llamas. There were horses and a donkey and fish in the pond. And there were chickens -- a rooster and his hen harem. The first summer I was there, my bunkmate decided it would be fun for the kids to raise some baby chicks. We had an impromptu pow-wow that night amongst the inpost staff to see what we knew about raising chickens. The answer was not much.

Dealing with the adult chickens was fairly easy -- you let them out in the morning, put them in at night, fed them, and picked up the eggs. The bare backs of the hens let us know the rooster was doing his part. But we weren't real sure how we were supposed to get from there to babies. We had some vague notions about the hens sitting on the eggs and candling, but were pretty lacking in specifics.

So we decided to stop collecting the eggs to see if maybe that would encourage the hens would nest. It had been a few days, with no obvious nesting activity taking place, when the cook noticed that we had not been delivering any eggs in the morning. When she found out what we were up to, she suggested we call AnnaMarie.

AnnaMarie was in her seventies and spunky as a teen. She lived in a farm house on the corner. Whenever any of us left camp, we were required to honk as we passed AnnaMarie's house -- one honk for each person in the car. When we came back, we'd honk again. If you forgot to honk and she caught you, she'd give you an earful next time she saw you.

So we called AnnaMarie up, and told her that we wanted to try our hand at raising some baby chicks, but weren't sure just how to go about it. There was a long pause, then she said, "Well, you'll need a rooster . . . "

(The real answer we finally got from her, if you're curious, is that you need a "setting hen". Apparently some hens are just more maternal than others. Of course, they have to get a moment's peace from the rooster before they're willing to sit still on eggs. Nothing you can do to convince a hen to set; you just take advantage of them when they do. We never did manage to get any baby chicks. Guess it's a good thing I live in town nowadays; I would've made a lousy farmer.)