Virtual pets are popular. The Tamagotchis and Furbys of the 90's have been superseded by cyberpet mobile phone apps. Little Eco loves Egg Babies. She buys a virtual egg that needs to be fed, washed, entertained and put to sleep. Eventually, it either dies from neglect or hatches. Despite suggestions that the Egg Baby app is teaching her life lessons in responsibility, I’m not convinced. So when she asked for an incubator for her birthday, I enthusiastically agreed. I embraced the idea of helping her raise real-life chickens.
We bought a dozen fertilised eggs. We chose Australorp, a hardy dual purpose breed, suitable for both laying eggs and meat.
The eggs were placed in an incubator at 37.5 degrees celsius and carefully turned five to six times a day. Little Eco marked one side of each egg with a smiley face and the other with a sad face so she could keep track when turning.
We excitedly studied chicken embryo development and tracked their progress. On day three, we candled the eggs for the first time and were amazed to see visible networks of blood vessels within most of the eggs.
Candling involves looking into the egg with a bright light to identify viable eggs. By day 10, we could tell that 11 of our 12 eggs contained developing embryos.
We stopped turning the eggs on day 18. The eggs were in “lockdown” from here on. The incubator needs to stay closed until all the eggs have finished hatching to maintain humidity and temperature.
By the time we reached hatch day (day 21), we were growing impatient and started to fret that perhaps we hadn’t looked after the eggs properly. Did we turn them enough? Was humidity OK? By the end of day 21, nothing had happened and we were convinced that we had failed.
Towards the end of day 22, after anxiously waiting and watching, we were thrilled to spot the first pip – a small crack in the shell that tells us a chicken is almost ready to hatch.
We watched the first chicken hatch that night. It made a teeny hole and then relaxed while it got used to breathing air. Eventually, it started to zip. It pecked through the egg in a circle, unzipping the egg until the crack was big enough for it to push the egg open. It emerged wet and ugly. Within an hour, it was dry, cute and fluffy.
We had seven chickens hatch in total. I quickly learnt my first lesson in what not to do when raising chickens. Don’t name your chickens before you sex them. Little Eco enthusiastically named each chicken, distinguishing chicks by painting their toe nails in different colours and patterns. Then we sexed them using feather sexing, a technique that works with certain breeds when the chicks are only a few days old.
We have three girls and four boys. We’re only keeping one rooster, so now my Little Eco is struggling to choose between Rose, Cutie, Fluffy and Bubba. Names make such a difference. We’ll be renaming three of the boys stock, soup and sandwich.
Our sweet little chickens have taught Little Eco real-life lessons in patience, responsibility and reality. There’s been anticipation, concern, tears and joy. She watched a new life that she helped to create enter the world. Her pride and awe at that moment is something I will always remember. Nothing beats the real thing.
Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 9th June 2014.