Monday, January 18, 2010
Today Emily and Hazel's afterschool program came over to visit the chickens. None of the chickens was busy laying this time, so the kids got to hold them, chase them, watch them - many of them for the second time, since when the chickens were younger I'd taken them over to Boyd to play one day in fall. The chickens had grown a lot, and I've learned a lot about them in the meanwhile. I still know so little about them, perhaps about how much as I knew about horses back when I just took riding lessons but still hadn't talked my parents into buying one for me. I'm definitely still a novice.
This is our third time raising chickens, and the first time we've ever gotten to the laying stage. When we first got eggs, before Christmas, I was so excited at the eggs themselves - the size, the little shape variations, the speckles on some. Now we have four layers, and what interests me these days is the laying process.
She circles restlessly, forcefully and repeatedly scratching at the ground as she turns, stopping occasionally. Sometimes when I watch her beak is open, as if she is out of breath, but usually her face reveals nothing, saving perhaps some inner concentration. If I am quiet, she doesn't stop work to notice me, though if I make a sudden movement she'll stop her circling and walk over a bit to look at me, curiously, before going back to her restless scratching and circling. Her tail is up, and sometime the feathers fluff and seemingly strain with the effort. If I watch the tail feathers, it is as if I can see the hen breathing there at her backside, the feathers softly moving in and out, sometimes faster paced, and sometimes slower, like a yoga breath. As labor progresses I get an occasional glimpse of egg peeking out under her tail feathers. She will pick up bits of straw in front of her and put it next to her side, but such small quantities that it seems to make no difference in the nest; she is just restlessly moving it around. After somewhere around an hour (I've not yet literally clock watched, but it is more than 30 minutes, more than 45, less than 2 hours), eventually she will stay still and focus her efforts.
If Taylor is the one laying, she'll stand and squat, body at 45 degree angle with head up, but Selena, Gabby, and Swallow seem to lay from a horizontal squat, body basically parallel with the ground. When the egg pops out, she'll stand for a moment or two, seemingly uninterested in the output, but resting. Then she'll hop down to join her sisters - drinking, eating, scratching the dirt. The sense I get is not so much of relief as just "OK, now I've taken care of that, what have I missed down there?"
Emily and her friend watched Selena lay an egg this weekend, standing by the coop in the melting snow, quietly, for at least a half hour. I've often bemoaned that for urban children, the most animal reproductive life they see is squirrels frenzied by spring rut, or male ducks tussling over a mate. In other words, they see the chase - what might be thought of as the fun part of reproduction. Rarely do they see the results of that chase. Most animals, sensibly, give birth in dark, quiet places, and only occasionally - not with the clockwork regularity of a chicken's daily labor over her egg. Even breastfeeding is something which my own children see rarely, though I cultivate friendships with moms who are likely to feed their children this way, and urge my friends not to hide the activity from me or the girls.
In the last seven years, I've had less and less contact with birth, myself. I loved the girls' births in a way that few women have the luck to love their children's births: two six hour labors, with good support, no pharmaceuticals, healthy outcomes, and an almost complete lack of fear (mine, my spouse's, or the attendants) present in the birthing room. But no matter how good my body is at birthing, for a human, I have nothing on these chickens. They have no fear - they almost seem excited about it, the way they tussle over the favored nesting corner. They are clearly doing something instinctive, which demands full focus, and they don't seem to worry about it, or fear it. The sound of their scratching suggests that the sensation is intense, but intensity is the only word for it. With these chickens, labor is aptly named - it is the work they do.
I have read that cats are the best animals to have present in a birthing room, because mother cats bear their young so easily, purring. I've never seen a cat birthing, and I suspect few people have - cats are so secretive. Not many people these days have seen chickens laying eggs, either, but it is a lot easier to watch - it happens daily, and they let you watch them doing it. I'd argue that more children should get to see an egg laid. Our education about births is coming from the wrong places; even our doctors often learn about birth first during their ER rotation in hospitals, and their birth education is focused on managing complications. Midwives have better training in normal birth, but how can we know they exist, if most of our friends used the nearest OB at the biggest maternity unit in town?
Birth education, for Emily, has been all verbal so far, and who knows if she listens to me, or when? But this Saturday, I know Emily learned something wonderful about labor and birth, because she watched one of our own chickens in labor, giving birth to an egg which Emily will eat in cookies or banana bread or spoon bread or french toast. And if Emily, 20 years from now, spends her labor walking circles in a nest of her own choosing and delivers her baby while standing on her own strong legs, I'll be pleased to think that she learned not from me, but from a chicken.