PRINCETON, MASS. — My young son was in tears, and my husband and I didn't look forward to the sad task of burying some of our favorite "friends." A weasel had snuck into the henhouse and killed 11 chickens, several of which were our children's pets.
As I mulled over the situation, it occurred to me that I had five dozen fertile eggs from the coop in the refrigerator - why not try to hatch them?
I purchased an incubator from our local Agway store and placed 56 eggs inside, 10 of which were from our remaining chickens as I didn't want to disappoint my son if the refrigerated eggs didn't hatch. I'd been told by several chicken fanciers, farmers, and even a hatchery that I'd get a meager hatch, if any, because the eggs had been kept at such low temperatures.
But a friend in town, reassured me that my efforts were not in vain: "I knew a man who took some of the eggs that came to the food bank, incubated them, and he said half of them hatched. They'd been refrigerated probably and unrefrigerated and sat in a truck," she said.
And while standing in line for a town meeting, David Caporello, a biology teacher at a nearby high school, told me he'd hatched fertile eggs purchased at a health-food store.
We followed the incubator instructions, and 10 days later candled the eggs. Candling means shining a light though the eggs to observe development. We determined that five eggs were infertile - there wasn't any growth inside. On the 14th day we candled the eggs again and removed another seven. We now had 44.
I began to fret. Was the temperature too high? Too low? How was the humidity? After all, we couldn't replace the eggs if my first attempt at incubating failed because the hens that laid them weren't around anymore. I called Tom Smith, a professor of poultry science at Mississippi State University in Starkville.
He assured me that chicken eggs are very easy to hatch if you follow guidelines, and offered additional advice not found in the instructions included with the incubator (see sidebar).
Chicken eggs hatch in 21 days. As we neared the due date, friends I'd consulted told me the chicks would probably hatch a day early. But nothing happened on Day 20, and I began to doubt. Nothing happened on Day 21 either, and I began to worry.
That night, as I headed to bed, I heard a tap, tap, tap and observed an egg rocking back and forth. I fell asleep and was awakened at midnight by the sound of egg shells hitting the bottom of the incubator.
I peered through the incubator window and watched a small beak saw its way around one of Silly's eggs. Silly was my son Nathan's favorite pet, and she was the only chicken in the coop that laid a blue egg. He had mourned her death for days.
The chick emerged at 12:15 a.m., and shortly thereafter ran around on the tops of the eggs until it found another one that was just opening. In a fit of impatience, Silly's chick pulled off a piece of the hatching egg.
That night I got very little sleep - the show was just too irresistible. By morning we had about 10 chicks, and my son named the first to hatch Silly Dilly. "This is the best day of my life!" he told me with great exuberance.
The hatch continued for three days and nights, and I had to help the last two chicks out of their shells. The grand total? Thirty-three. And with the exception of six bantam Ameraucanas and one bantam Japanese that hatched from the coop eggs, all the refrigerator chicks were black-and-white! Our rooster had been black while the hens were a range of colors.
We can only guess which chicks are related to Silly - four of her eggs hatched.
Perhaps when they grow up, their feathers will change and her offspring will become more apparent. But that's really not important. What's important is that the experience has been a wonderful lesson in renewal for our family - for out of death came life, and out of grief came joy.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society