How the Hen House Turns: Peeper, Hatching in a Dry Climate

How the Hen House Turns
Column by Carolyn A. (Cary) Neeper, Ph. D.
Peeper, Hatching in a Dry Climate

Ms. Ritz, the miniature Mallard, has been sitting on her eggs since June 21, so it’s time to talk about our first egg-hatching adventure.
For four weeks in 1975, Peeky, a mixed-breed hen, sat in the Hen House on 12 eggs, resting on straw in a 12 by 12 by 1 inch frame.

Over her objections, we made sure she got up each day to eat and poop, and we used the time to turn and spray her eggs. Shell membranes can go dry and tough in a climate with single-digit humidity.

On the 22nd morning, a faint peeping sounded from beneath Peeky’s black and white feathers. I checked every half hour. The peeping continued but no chick appeared. At hour five I called Don at work.

“It’s taking too long,” he said. “The membrane must be too tough. Try to ease the chick out. Watch for a bloody connection to the shell and leave that to fall off by itself.”

Peeky objected with a warning peck to my probing hand, but when I lifted a small piece of shell from the cracked egg, her beak went back on safety. She watched intensely as I peeled the chick into the world.

None of the other 11 eggs hatched. I candled them and found none that were fertile.

We called him Peeper, the only child, a peeping ball of black fluff, once he dried out. Peeky kept him close, but let him climb on the care-giver, daughter Shawne, when he wasn’t buried in Peeky’s feathers, asleep. Because of such early handling, he was always a good pet, easy for Shawne to carry around and dress up for the town’s pet parade. He won a prize, riding proudly in her red wagon.

A loud chicken alarm, like a banshee screaming bloody murder, and answering loud squawks sent us tearing down to the chicken pen to find Peeky leaping high in the air. Four noisy crows sat on the six-foot fence taunting the frantic mother, but took off when we appeared. Tiny chick Peeper was safely hiding out under the eaves. The family dog, Poncho, a “Santa Fe shepherd,” soon grew wise to the game and helped keep the crows out of the yard.

We had grasshoppers then (See the tale about First Turkey). We even mowed the grass, at least up to the Ponderosas. Former owners had mowed all the way down to the back fence and lined the grass with purple irises, which bloomed gloriously 40 years later with no attention whatsoever, just an unusually watery spring.

Whenever we were home, we let the birds out of the pen to peck around the yard, with Poncho to watch for crows or the occasional coyote up from the canyon for a free meal.

When Peeper caught a grasshopper too large to swallow, Peeky would whap him on the head until he dropped it. Then she would break it into chick-sized pieces and offer them to his eager beak with a “bawk bawk bawk.” He grew into a gorgeous game cock with flowing tail feathers of many colors and a green iridescent shawl.

For all his 11 years, Peeper would break up grasshoppers and food bits for the hens of our small changing flock, calling them with the side-stepping mating dance of roosters and a quiet “bawk bawk bawk.”

Peeper’s 11th winter was very cold. We had gone away for Christmas, and on our return he was still missing. The neighbor girl doing bird care had been frantic for days, but we all had some comfort in knowing Peeper had lived a long, good life. The next spring we found him while cleaning out the hen house–fallen from his perch, freeze-dried, preserved in all his colorful glory.

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