Don’t count your chickens

By Elizabeth Donaldson
Special to the Times

Spring was an exciting time on our farm. Who could not be happy when the long, cold dark winter was over? I always associate memories of May on our farm with new life and that included baby chicks. Most small farms at that time had a flock of chickens as a source of eggs and fresh meat. A big event was getting the baby chicks that came from the hatchery in Manitoba. My mother would order chicks and then have a place ready for them. The main thing was being able to keep them warm without electricity. A neighbour was using a kerosene operated incubator when something went wrong and their big house burned down in the middle of the night.

When the chicks arrived at the Devlin Station Mom would hitch Chief up to the buggy and she, Marion and I would set off. Travelling on the Devlin road was an adventure, as there was more traffic and sometimes Mom would have to hold Chief’s head if we met a car. Our square box of the noisy peeping little chicks was loaded into the back of the buggy and as it was was not always warm in May, we brought them into the kitchen. The first thing was to give them all a drink. The water was warm and I recall Mom putting a drop of something in it. I may be wrong but I think it was iodine or some red liquid. Mom would hold each chick and dip its beak in and then tip its head back. Our job was to count them and keep them separate and then they were put back in their box with some type of food. We had to make sure that our cat was outside during the time they were behind the warm stove.

We often had Rhode Island Red chicks and there were always a few extra. Occasionally one or two would die but soon they were sprouting little wing feathers and combs and you could tell which ones were roosters. It does not do to have too many roosters in a flock. If my mother heard that company from ‘town’ was expected she was very adept at catching a young rooster or two and having it into the black cast iron frying pan in no time.

Sometimes a ‘setting hen’ that had hidden away in the barn would produce a batch of chicks and proudly lead them down the gangway. Cute little baby chicks mature into hens that can amuse or annoy with their different traits. You can go into the hen house and they are all clucking contentedly, reaching out a claw to scratch up a tasty morsel, chatting with each other like a group of ladies at afternoon tea. Other times the minute the door opens they all fly up into the air squawking, feathers and dust flying, as if you were a wily predator instead of their caregiver. Certain hens would give your hand a vicious peck when you reached in to gather the eggs. They can be bullies and will pick another hen until it is bleeding.

We all eyed the big rooster with respect but one time in the barn yard the rooster jumped onto the back of our little sister Marion knocking her over and pecking viciously at her head. At our screams Alec, the hired man, came running. He grabbed the rooster and with one swift movement wrung that bird’s neck.

As the little chicks matured they would begin to replace the older hens and it was exciting to find the first little pullet’s egg. Some of the older hens would be used for fresh meat in the summer or Mom would can some for winter use.

There was always some planting of crops and most farmers tried to have potatoes planted by May 24. Besides May 24 being Queen Victoria’s birthday, it was the date of our first swim in the LaVallee River. Along with calves, baby pigs or a colt the little chicks were very much a part of May.