In the morning, when the big dog and I blast out of the house, a tumble of baby chipmunks rolls off, all tails and stripes, tackling each other as they head for the woods.
Down the road near the beaver pond, some gawky goslings hang out with one Canada goose and one farmyard white goose. The parents? Or just a mother and her friend?
On my way to work, I take note of the baby sheep and baby Herefords in the fields. Our own bull calves, a surprise gift of Brown Swiss babies, nibble each other’s ears after the boy and I feed them their morning bottles.
Spring is baby season, and the world’s newest creatures are out learning the lay of the land. Mother birds are bringing worms and bugs to their nestlings; our little calves are just learning to eat grass.
My son marvels that some baby animals have to be taught to eat. He’s hand feeding pieces of grass and hay to the calves. He’s taught baby chicks to peck by spreading feed and tapping it with his forefinger until the babies follow with their beaks. That’s what happens when new chicks come to us via the post office, motherless and in a box.
Often in the spring and summer, some of our outdoor hens grace us with babies, and those hens don’t need any help teaching their children to peck. Usually one rooster will adopt the brood, spending a month or so with the mother and kids. He’ll scratch the ground for bugs, then crow to call the little ones and their mother. While they eat, he’ll circle the family, one wing dropped, to keep other roosters away.
So far this spring we have just one solitary chick, a yellow ball of down that runs, cheeping, after its mother. The mother, a little red hen, optimistically laid a dozen eggs behind an extension ladder that leans, horizontally, along the side of the house. But that mid-May frost must have done in her eggs, and just the one chick hatched out. My son buried the rest of the eggs — more than 3 weeks old — in the compost pile.
The baby chick is convinced she has found her father, a rooster living in solitary confinement for his own protection. He’s an elderly banty who was being harassed by some younger, larger gents. One day after being chased, he seemed grateful for the shelter of the cage. He is living there until we can give away some of the other roosters.
A couple of hens hang out on the ox’s hay dock, where the rooster cage sits. The baby chick is small enough to go in and out of the cage at will, and spends some time every day in there as her mother waits outside. The rooster will kick through his feed for the baby, letting her peck through it first.
We’ve seen all kinds of roosters over the years — fatherly types, smart ones that call out a hawk warning to the flock, brave ones that go head to head with foxes to save their hens. But more seem to be the knuckleheaded macho types, who fight each other, crow all night and jump the hens, pulling out head feathers in the process.
My friend’s son, a budding farmer in Connecticut, recently gave away all his roosters because he was shocked and distressed by their behavior toward the hens. I know what he means. And of course you don’t need a rooster to get eggs. You do need one to get chicks, though — but maybe you don’t need seven.
When you buy chicks, you can request all females and be relatively sure that only one in about 20 will end up a rooster. When your hens are hatching them out themselves, it’s more likely you’ll get a 50-50 mix. And no one needs a flock that’s only half hen.
So we give away roosters too, or sell them, or sometimes eat them. And if the fox comes stealing, we hope he takes a rooster and not a layer.
And while we’re referring to our single chick as a “she,” it’s really too early to tell. Soon enough she’ll start getting feathers, and we’ll keep a close eye on her head to see if she develops the demure comb of a hen or the more flamboyant comb and wattle of a rooster.
By then, we might have five or 10 new chicks to raise, or to watch as their mother raises them. If they grow up to be hens, we’ll move them into the coop with the rest of the layers. If not — anybody want a rooster?
Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.
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