The Young Chickens
( Originally Published 1918 )
THE hatching of the eggs does not take place all at once; sometimes it is twenty-four hours before all the eggs are broken. A danger thus arises. Divided between her desire to continue setting and her wish to give her attention to the newly born, the mother may make some sudden movement and unintentionally trample on the tender creatures, or even leave the nest too soon, which would cause the loss of the backward eggs. What, then, is to be done? The first-born are taken as carefully as possible and placed in a basket stuffed with wool or cotton and put in a warm place near the fire. When the whole family is hatched it is restored to the mother.
"The first days are hard ones for the young chickens; they are so delicate, poor little things, so chilly under their light yellow down. Where will they be kept at first? Shall it be with the grown-up poultry, a turbulent crowd, quarrelsome, rough, and without any consideration for the weak? What would become of them, the little innocents, not yet well balanced on their legs, in the midst of the greedy hens which, in scratching for worms, might give them some brutal kick? How dangerous for them to be with the quarrelsome cocks that disdain to look out for the frightened little giddy-heads straying about under their very spurs ! No, no, that is not the place for them.
"What they require is a place set apart, isolated from the rough grown-up poultry, heated to a mild temperature, and carpeted with fine straw. If this place is wanting, recourse is had to a coop, a sort of large cage, under which the mother is placed with some food. Sometimes the bars of this refuge are far enough apart to permit the young chickens to come in and go out at will, so as to enjoy their play; sometimes they are too close together for this, and then the coop is lifted a little at one side when it is desired to give liberty to the captives. But the mother always stays in the cage, whence she watches over the young chickens, calling them to her at the least appearance of danger. If the weather is fine, the coop is placed out of doors in an exposed spot, with a sheltering canopy of canvas, foliage, or straw, when the sun is too hot."
"There the young chickens are safe," said Emile, "out of danger of any accident amongst the boisterous population of the poultry-yard. If some danger arises, the hen gives her warning call, and those that are outside immediately scamper through the narrow passage and take refuge with their mother. Now about their food."
"Food is not forgotten : under the coop is a plate containing water, and another with pap. For very young chickens it is not yet time for strong food, hard grain which requires a vigorous stomach to digest; they must have something at once nutritious and easy to digest. Their pap is composed of finely crumbled bread, a few salad leaves well chopped up, hard-boiled eggs, and a pinch of fine millet to accustom them by degrees to a diet of grain. The whole is carefully mixed.
"On coming out of the shell, the young chickens, like other birds from a relatively large egg, are quick at taking food for themselves; nevertheless it is necessary, from their utter inexperience, for the mother to show them how to strike the beak into the pap. Let us witness this lesson of the first mouthful. The farmer's wife has just put the food under the coop. `What is this' the innocent little chickens ask, their stomachs beginning to cry hunger now that they have been nearly twenty-four hours out of the shell. 'What is this?' All flurried with joy, the mother calls them to the plate in accents resembling articulate speech. They approach, tottering an their little legs. The hen then gives a few pecks in the mess, but only pretends to eat, so as not to diminish the dainty food reserved for the little ones. One of the chickens, perhaps a little quicker of apprehension than the rest, seems to have understood; it seizes a crumb of bread in its beak but immediately lets it fall again. The mother begins again, urges, encourages with her voice and look, and this time swallows in plain sight of them all. The young chicken returns to its crumb and after two or three attempts succeeds in swallowing it, half closing its eyes with satisfaction. 'Ha! how good it is!'it seems to say; `let us try again.' And another crumb goes down; then a little piece of yolk of egg follows. Henceforth it can manage for itself. The example spreads ; one here, another there, tries its beak; the hen repeating her patient lesson for the less clever of the brood. Soon they have all understood and are vying with one another in their assaults on the pap. Then comes a lesson in drinking. How to plunge the beak fearlessly into the water, how to raise the head heavenward so as to let the mouthful of liquid go down the throat, is what the hen will show her pupils by repeated examples. In imitating her, some giddy one will perhaps put its foot into the water or even fall into the plate, a fearful possibility for the inexperienced drinker. But the hen will dry the unfortunate one under her wings and show it another time how to manage better. To be brief, in a single short session the whole brood has been taught the two chief needs of this world, eating and drinking."
"They are scholars quick to learn," said Jules. "It is true the prompting of the stomach, hunger, must have helped them."
"Hardly a week has passed before the young chickens are out of the coop and running around, though not to any great distance, for if one appears to want to go off the mother admonishes it and re-calls it to more prudent ways. If she suspects the slightest danger she recalls them all to her retreat by a persuasive clucking. Immediately the little chickens scamper back, squeeze between the bars or crawl under the lifted end of the coop, and regain the refuge where no intruders can penetrate. When the time comes for these first sallies outside the coop, the hen can be set free and allowed to lead her family where she pleases.
"One of the most interesting sights of the farm is that of the hen at the head of her young chickens. With a slow step, measured by the feebleness of her brood, she goes hither and thither on the chance of finding something of value to her, always with vigilant eye and attentive ear. She clucks with a voice made hoarse by her maternal exertions; she scratches to dig up little seeds which the young ones come and take from under her beak. Here is a good place chanced upon in the sunshine for a rest from walking and for getting warm. The hen crouches down, ruffles up her plumage and slightly raises her wings, arching them in a sort of vault. All run and squat under the warm cover. Two or three put their heads out of the window, their pretty heads, all alert, framed in their mother's somber plumage. One, in its boldness, settles down on her back, and from this elevated position pecks the hen's neck; the others, the great majority, hide in her down and sleep or peep softly. The siesta finished, they resume their promenade, the mother scratching and clucking, the little ones trotting around her.
But what is this, It is the shadow of a bird of prey, which for a moment has darkened the sunshine of the courtyard. The menacing apparition did not last more than the twinkling of an eye; nevertheless the hen saw it. Danger threatens, the rapacious bird is not far away. At the note of alarm the young chickens hasten to take refuge under the mother, who makes a rampart for them of her wings. And now the ravisher may come. This mother, so feeble, so timid, that a mere nothing would put her to flight on all other occasions, becomes imposingly audacious where her brood is concerned. Let the goshawk appear, and the hen, full of tenderness and intrepidity, will throw herself in front of the terrible talons. By the beating of her wings, her redoubled cries, her furious pecks with her beak, she will hold her own against the bird of prey, until at last it beats a retreat, repulsed by this indomitable resistance.
"The attachment of the hen to her young is shown in another very remarkable circumstance. As she is an excellent brooder, they sometimes give her ducks' eggs to hatch. The hen brings up her adopted family as she would her own; she exercises the same care over the little ducks as she would over chickens of her own. All goes well as long as the ducklings, covered with a velvety yellow down, conform to the ways of their nurse and run under her wing at the first summons. But a time comes when their aquatic instinct awakens. They smell the pond, the neighboring pond, where the frog croaks and the tadpole frisks. They go waddling along, one after another, the old hen following them in ignorance of their project. They reach the pond and dash into the water. Then it is that the hen, believing the very lives of her little ones in peril, gives vent to the most desperate outcry. In her mortal terror the poor mother races in distraction along the bank, her voice hoarse with emotion, her plumage bristling with fear. She calls, menaces, supplicates. An angry red mounts to her comb, the fire of despair illumines her eye. She even goes—miracle of mother love—she even goes so far as to risk one foot in the water, that perfidious element, the sight of which makes her almost faint with fear. But to all her supplications the little ducklings turn a deaf ear, happy in their pursuit of the silver-bellied tadpole among the cresses."
"Oh, the little rascals," exclaimed Emile, "not to listen to their nurse's warnings ! However, as they are ducks they can't get along without water."
"They go there very often alone at first, in spite of the hen's remonstrances; then, reassured by the first attempts, she willingly leads them to the bath and from the bank watches their joyful gambols."