It is day 23, hatching day, and my 14-year-old son stares at the silent incubator berating himself for doing something terribly wrong.
“All of them are dead,” he states flatly.
He’s hatched chicks at least five times now, and every time his excited anticipation causes him a dismal panic. The Bobwhite quail have been a two-year long suffering for him. He’s not the most optimistic child, but I have to agree that this time I understand his feelings of defeat after what he’s been through as he begins his career as a poultry farmer. Life on the farm can be heartbreaking. Last year we hatched our first Bobwhites, raised all 89 for 12 weeks in the brooder in the garage where they flapped bird shit dust on my Ducati and row of bicycles. We built Johnny houses with recall funnels, drove them out to the country, and over two weekends a raccoon released 40 of them, and the next weekend found its way into the pen and murdered the rest. We both cried. Him for his birds and hard work, me for my son’s broken heart. It’s more than I can bear.
He was ready to call it quits, but I assured him that we would try again. He was finally ready, so here we are on hatching day. I try to explain, without laughing, that being born does not actually happen on the due date. My five-week pre-mature baby begins to argue with me over this, spewing statistics. I cease explanations because I see he is upset and, like me, wants to blame himself before any logical explanation can be accepted. I also silently note that, like his dad, he will paint the most dire situation with a small amount of information.
“As a woman who is supposed to have a period once every 28 days, I am telling you, that is NOT how it happens,” I say and then back off to let him do his emotional thing. He is not happy about this gross and personal information but he is not in the mood to tell me.
He does a fantastic job distracting himself all evening and goes to bed with a final dismal glance through the locked window, barring him from candling the eggs once again with a flashlight to see if the chicks are moving and peeping beneath the shell.
Our 6:30 alarms have us racing to the styrofoam box to find eight baby quail squirming and peeping. The seasoned child looks disappointed. “Why are there only 8?! What did I do wrong?!” I assure him that it’s just the beginning. By the time he leaves for school there are12. His dad comes and we glance at each other over Wyatt’s head with close-lipped, knowing grins. I nearly let him stay home from school to assist with the birthing but realize that his anxiety will kill us both. I am not allowed to open the lid while he is gone. I am not allowed to give them water. He tells me they are fine for 24 hours. I park a chair in front of the incubator and cancel all obligations. I must take on his anxiety until he is home from school.
I watch as the eggs begin wiggling, tiny beaks poke through like a genetically fine-tuned sewing needle, opening the exact same line around the exact same part of every egg. Pipping has begun. Once the seam is zippered 7/8 of the way around, the chick rests, occasionally peeping. Then its head begins to push through as its body is now anxious to be free. The chicks who are already awkwardly running around the incubator, kicking eggs like a tiny soccer match of toddlers, excitedly peck at the cracked egg to help the newborn out. It is such a trying process that it takes all my will not to open the lid to assist. Sometimes they do get stuck because they’re too weak to make it out before the membrane begins to shrink-wrap, causing it to suffocate. This is when help really is needed, so there is a careful line to draw. Opening the lid will also compromise the other chicks from continuing to form for the final hours. Once the baby has freed itself from the confines of its womb, it lies facedown, exhausted and panting with blood on its bottom and feathers matted down. It is this moment that my optimism fears it is dead, but no. After a short rest, and the other chicks pouncing on it on their way across the soccer field, it begins to flop and push itself onto wobbly legs.
There are so many chicks now that I am afraid they will trample the weak new ones. This has happened before. I take a calculated risk and open the lid to remove the excitable ones into the brooder with a heat lamp and tiny bowls of water filled with small river rocks to prevent the stupid chicks from drowning themselves. Success.
Throughout the day I am so nervous that I want to drive to school and convince the teachers that he is sick and needs to come home. I control myself but am sure to be waiting for him well before he gets out of class and race him home to the busy brooder.
He laughs at the sight of them and as usual, we cannot believe how cute they are. We take them out to play on the bed, watching them race around and then hide together to be still under his cupped hand. They are so soft that we cannot feel them in our calloused hands. We are sure to keep the door locked because in the past our cat has snatched them up and served himself chickie nuggets.
For two days the chicks are still hatching. For two days Wyatt can’t believe he is not having as successful as a hatch as he had in the past. For two days I scour Google to share other people’s frustration and point out that he has had better luck than most. On day three the birds are still hatching. He is a natural at farming. He is caring, attentive, and tends to their medical needs as I hold the birds. He continues to research what they need, and we get advice from seasoned friends.
His first hatch was with Coturnix quail, a Japanese variety that cannot be released into the wild. We sold eggs to friends and restaurants, and I spent hours boiling and pickling, placing them in ornamental jars.
The day they began hatching was much like it is this fifth time. The glory on his face was different that first time though. He sat on his bedroom floor straddling the brooder of fuzzy, peeping babies and my 11-year-old exclaimed, “I am a GODDESS!” And I think of my favorite writer, Mark Twain, “Don’t let school interfere with your education.”