The Incubator Death Trap

OR “Why I will never hatch chicks in a classroom again”

The science curriculum includes a large life sciences component so it is a fun idea to bring some kind of animal into the classroom to give children first hand experiences. In the past, I have had butterflies, tadpoles and hamsters in my classrooms and even chicks once, about 20 years ago. This year, my teaching partner suggested hatching some chicken eggs in an incubator. Being a chicken fanatic, I was keen on the idea although I recognized that my recent chicken farmer experience would not necessarily transfer to knowledge on incubation.  Until now, I have left all the responsibilities of incubation up to Tweedle Mum.

We borrowed the big foam incubator and egg-turning device from the school district resource centre and a student’s parent brought in 22 eggs from a local farm. We read the page of instructions and did exactly what it said.

Loaned incubator from the school district resource center - circa 1970.

Loaned incubator ‘death trap’ from the school district resource center – circa 1970.

For twenty-one days, we tried to monitor the temperature (100° C) and the humidity (65%) but this was not easily done. Firstly the incubator temp control is clunky and very imprecise.

This pin spins freely and it is difficult to tell if you have actually changed the temperature.

This pin spins freely and it is difficult to tell if you have actually changed the temperature.

Also, our classroom has many large waist-to-ceiling windows which have a greenhouse effect on every sunny day in the spring. By the time the students are dismissed, the room temperature is easily approaching 28° C. This high temp has some effect on the incubator temperature, which would sometimes exceed its incubation limit by a degree or two despite our attempts to turn down its thermostat. So in anticipation of the long holiday weekend, which was forecast to be hot and sunny, I turned the incubator thermostat down a bit and closed all the classroom blinds. When I arrived back three days later after a cool and rainy weekend, the incubator temp was around 97° C. I was pretty sure then that we had just killed 22 baby chicks.

The students waited and watched as the twenty-first day of incubation came and went. No chicks hatched. On the morning of the twenty-second day there was finally one egg with a pip. By the end of that school day, that chick had emerged and a few others had pips and cracks. The 23rd day had more action with six chicks hatched and a bunch more in various stages of pipping but things were not going perfectly.

One little guy had emerged but his bottom was still connected to his shell with a gummy egg-white string. As he tried to stand up and move around the incubator, the egg-shell restricted him and he dragged it everywhere. Other chicks stepped on him and he seemed very weak. By the end of the school day, his innards had been pulled out of his bottom. You could see his intestines, gizzard and other parts lying on the incubator floor while he still gasped for breath for a short while before he died.

Another chick successfully hatched but was unable to get dry even after a few hours. Her thin down covering stayed wet and sticky and, when I touched her, she was cool. That is when I noticed that the incubator temperature was only 97° C again. I tried cranking up the thermostat again, knowing that her life depended on the accuracy of that dial.

The weekend had arrived so we moved the successful hatches into a classroom brooding box with a heat lamp, chick feed and water and I took the rest of the eggs and the cold chick home in the incubator. The incubator was installed in our computer room and it was temporarily renamed the Sick Bay.

The first order of business was to get the cold chick warm. I placed her on a hot water bottle and wrapped that in a heating pad. When I checked on her a little while later, she was dead.

My remaining hopes were with the 4 eggs with cracks. I could hear them peeping to each other and I could see their cute little beaks with an egg tooth poking out of each cracked shell. One of those was so close to breaking out, pushing the shell apart around a middle seam over and over, and I had trouble tearing myself away to prepare dinner.

All the literature about emerging chicks insists that you shouldn’t offer any assistance at all, no matter how tempting it is. A mother hen simply sits and keeps those chicks warm throughout the process but does not help a chick break out. So there was nothing to do but let nature take its course. Survival of the fittest and all that.

When I came back to see her progress, I could see that she had stopped chirping and moving. The trauma of a low temperature and being moved from school to home had taken its toll and killed her. FM and I peeled back a bit of the egg-shell to find that the two membranes beneath were thick and difficult to break through even for us. It broke my heart to see that a fully developed chick had died because of the environmental conditions that I was controlling. There were 3 more eggs with pips and occasional peeps but as the evening rolled on, two more gave up the fight and we found that they had died as well. I removed the eleven eggs with no pip marks, knowing that they were surely dead after 24 days of incubation.

How many of these dud eggs have fully developed chicks in them? My bet is that they died sometime after 18 days due to the cold temperature inthe incubator.

How many of these dud eggs have fully developed chicks in them? My bet is that they died sometime after 18 days due to the cold temperature in the incubator.

With only one more pipped egg left, FM and I were no longer going to stand by and watch another fully developed chick die. He cracked the last chick’s shell and found that the shell had affixed itself to the dry, crusty coating of the chick’s down. The membranes were so thick – probably do to incorrect incubator humidity – and it was improbable that this chick would have emerged on its own. Even after we removed the shell covering his head, the bottom half of his shell still remained attached to his bottom  – the same problem that another chick had had in the classroom. Without hesitating, I got some scissors and cut the sticky egg-white thread to separate him from his shell.

With bits of cracked shell still attached to him, we named him “Shelled In” (Shelden), let him rest in the incubator and went to bed.

For two days, we were treated to the peeps and chirps of little Shelled In. We kept him in the incubator but held him, showed him how to peck food and drink water and tried to mimic his chirp to keep him company.

Fluffed up Shelled In

Fluffed up “Shelled In”

"Shelled In" was a successful hatch only because we intervened. Poor humidity and temperature control would have killed him.

“Shelled In” was a successful hatch only because we intervened. Poor humidity and temperature control would have killed him.

On Monday morning, I brought Shelled In into the classroom and placed him in the brooding box with the 6 successful hatches. He was the loudest of them all, still traumatized from the car ride and he seemed to stare at the other chicks in disbelief. When I left, he was leaning against a blonde chick and snoozing contentedly.

When I look back on this ordeal of losing 16 / 22 chicks and compare it to the joy of watching Tweedle Mum hatch 5 / 6 chicks, it is apparent that nature does it best. I am quite sure that the incubator became a death trap because of our poor monitoring of temperature and humidity. It breaks my heart to see so much death over the course of two days and to think that any of those chicks could have been full of personality and affection, like Chip. But it is also pretty sad to think that a delicious Angel Food Cake could have been made with those 11 unpipped eggs.

Our eleven unhatched eggs would have been better used this way.

Forecast Interpretation 101

Today was a leisurely Saturday. This morning, without an alarm set, we eventually made our way downstairs to enjoy delicious home-roasted coffee and indulge in a few chapters of our books (typical weekend fare at the Queendom). Before the morning slid by, FM pulled up a local weather forecast and announced that a big wind storm was headed our way. With predicted wind gusts of over 100 km/hour, we decided that we had better head out soon for a run and enjoy the dry, overcast weather while it lasted. We figured that we could get a few hours of trail running in before heading home to brace for the imminent power outage and fallen tree event.

As we ran, the weather began to change and we were both soaked to the skin by the end. As we drove home, we noticed occasional snowflakes accompanying the rain on the windshield.

Funny. Snow was not part of the forecast.

Soon after arriving home, stoking the fire and donning dry clothes, the snow flurries truly began. With the temperature hovering just at the 0° C mark, rain and snow seemed to intermingle for the whole afternoon. But there was barely a breath of wind.

Twelve hours later, there were about 5 cm of snow accumulations on the ground and still no wind. 36 hours later, we had another 5 cm layer of snow but still no wind. The torrential windstorm that had forecasters running for shelter never materialized. Instead we have been treated to occasional snow flurries punctuated by crystal clear skies.

This type of forecasting seems to be typical here in The Valley. For two years we have searched but not yet found an accurate place to check on the upcoming weather. We have found four different sources of weather forecasts which often predict different weather, but none is ever accurate. One site even claims “A poor time for outdoor activities” every single day! Really!

The good part is that most forecasts err on the dismal side. They show a week of rain coming our way but, in reality, the rain never comes or comes in short spurts.

When we lived in the Lower Mainland, the forecast always predicted rain and it was always right. Rain clouds would roll in and would actively rain for weeks at a time. But here, on the island, in the valley, the weather is completely unpredictable. No one is able to predict the amounts of snow, the gusts of wind or the number of  beautiful sunrises each week.

The lesson is, if you want to know what the weather is, look out your window. If you are heading out on an adventure, prepare for everything, because that is what you will get. Don’t wait for some website to claim that it is a good day for outdoor activities because you will never leave the couch.

So with candles, snow shovels and raincoat at the ready, I am off to stoke the hot tub fire in anticipation of the storm! Or maybe we’ll get a glimpse of that fabulous full moon!

** next day update ** While we soaked in the hot tub last night, the stars came out and the moonlight brightened the snow-covered grass but still no wind storm. Some forecasts still predict its arrival but, I for one, am not holding my breath.

Another Lesson from Nature

I went on wintery walk this morning to collect the mail and tour our little street. The neighbourhood consists of about 20 homes, set on 5-acres a piece. Some homes are set right on the street but others have long winding driveways disappearing into the forest with no sign of any building. The homes you can see seem to ooze character, with steeply slanting roofs and thin trails of smoke coming out of the chimneys. Many have quaint window boxes or raised beds covered in the snow blanket, with only the tips of kale sticking out the top.

I was struck (once again) by how raw our property seems to be. Although our house is set far back from the road, it is completely exposed from overlogging. How long will it take for the forest to reclaim our plot? Will we live long enough to see that picture?

A property only an owner could love

A property only an owner could love

As I wandered and wondered these things, I spotted a small nest in the low bare branches by the road. I got as close as possible without getting poked in the eye and took a couple of pictures. To my surprise, there was a tiny speckled egg inside. Being late December and barely one degree above freezing, this little egg must have been leftover from last spring. I will have to do a bit of research to see which bird laid and then abandoned this little treasure.

It was hardly noticeable

It was hardly noticeable

Is it a cluster of leaves or a nest?

Is it a cluster of leaves or a nest?

Is that what I think it is?

Is that what I think it is? (my fingers give reference to its size)

I'm pretty sure that it is a dark-eyed junco nest and egg.

I’m pretty sure that it is a dark-eyed junco nest and egg.

As I trudged on home, highly aware of the chittery juncos and warblers in the treetops, I decided that the birds don’t seem to mind the aesthetics of the Queendom so it must not be worth dwelling on.  Another lesson from nature.

You Have to Start Somewhere!

With the arrival of summer, so came the arrival of our families. Everyone was keen on visiting our new home and checking out our rural lifestyle. I am proud to show off our place, with its wrap-around deck and new-car feel.

Home Sweet Home – but no garden in sight

But stepping back and looking at the photos that were taken, I can’t help but notice the abruptness of the modern house plonked in the center of wild land.  There is no gentle transition from wild to domestic. When settled on the porch, sipping a mug of something, I find that I am not really pulled to step off the deck into the surrounding nature.  We need to create a warmer feel that helps blend our home into its setting.

A garden is needed.  A small garden at the front of the house which will soften the edge of the gravel driveway and give the impression that the house has naturally sprouted and grown here.

A bit of a junk yard has developed at the side of the house as we continue to figure out where everything should go.

Can I count these weeds as a garden?

A lovely view of the weeds, concrete supports and our spider web collection!

With the beginning of the school year upon me yet no class to call my own, I decided that my September project would be the front entrance garden. I figured that a little hard physical labour would have me begging for the sub finder phone to ring.

I started the project by digging up the weeds and scraping up the gravel. I filled about six wheelbarrows of gravel just trying to find soil beneath it.

Next, I pulled out the tiller. Once again, FM had insisted earlier in the year that we would need a tiller and, once again, he was right. I fired up this tough little machine and next thing I know, I was being dragged around the driveway area like a rag doll! I spent the better part of two days churning up the earth and liberating rocks the size of watermelons. I managed to free up the soil to a depth of about 40-45 cm.

I headed out to the local hardware and garden stores where I selected a bunch of shade-loving, deer-resistant plants.  This is the north side of the house and receives only 5 hours of full sun at the height of summer. I want this area to be evergreen yet get a bit of colour variation through small flowers and variegated leaves.  I insisted on getting a few dwarf conifers (or specimen trees) that will anchor the garden yet never grow too high to obstruct the view from the porch. I also purchased that ugly black garden border in order to keep the soil from running all over the driveway during heavy rains.

The toughest part of this project was inserting the ugly black garden border. I guess I was in a hurry to get to the plants and it took freakin’ forever to nestle the plastic deeply enough. After that, I simply mixed in a few bags of topsoil and arranged the plants in an orderly way.  After planting, I covered the beds with a black mulch that really makes the plant colours pop.

A sitka spruce ‘papoose’; 2 azaleas, 2 heathers, 2 Euonymus – one columnar and one trailing

A weeping Norway spruce, 2 more azaleas, 2 more heathers and 2 more Euonymus

A Gold Coin dwarf Scots Pine – perhaps my favourite!

I used all those watermelon-sized rocks to cover and hide the concrete deck pillars. I am particularly pleased with the effect.  The log round works as a natural step up to the porch.

Would you believe that this project took me about two weeks from start to end?  I didn’t work on it the whole time, mind you. I will have to take one more photo of the front again for comparison   Although it is a small area (3 ft deep x 25 ft long), it is a step in the right direction.  And it makes a world of difference when you arrive at the front door.  Come on by and have a look!

Alder Creepshow

If you let nature alone for a while, it will erase all evidence of mankind. Books and movies have endlessly explored this fact but there is nothing quite like seeing it happen before your own eyes. We have only been tenants of the Queendom for a handful of months but we have begun to notice the ever-creeping, never-sleeping growth of nature.  It is enough to keep you awake at night for fear of being taken over by some strange moss or strangled by a vine (note the reference to ‘the lonesome death of jordy verrill’)

Here is the case in point.  The first photo was taken in April on the day we moved in. The second I took today from approximately the same spot.

April – grassy shoreline and clear view of the house.

October – treed shoreline and slightly obscured view of the house.

You may see a sunny spring day in the first or the range of colours that autumn brings in the second.  You may see that a tree has replaced pensive-looking FM as he surveys the Queendom – but I see ALDERS.  In six months, the alders have grown as if priming up for the London Olympics, as high as seven feet tall in places.  They surround the pond and have taken up residence in a few other  places. In the second photo, you can’t even see the kitchen door or the back porch!

They are called a pioneer species since they are the first tree to take hold after soil disruption. They are ‘nitrogen fixers’ meaning that they are able to create nitrogen and improve the soil for successive plants. Our pond was dug out less than two years ago so it is a prime example of disturbed soil that needs more nutrients. I knew all this in theory but it is truly something else to see them grow right before your eyes.

April – no alders

October – plenty o’ alders, all leafed out along the island’s edge

These two are taken from our bedroom balcony (yes – we  have a balcony off our bedroom! Shakespeare is fairly common place around here) The noteworthy thing about these photos is the LACK of alders on the near side of the pond. Guess why…

You’re right.  We have hand dug them all out. It is no easy task either. Firstly the soil is heavy on the clay content, making it like hardened cement all summer long. Also, alders tend to snap off right where the stem meets the roots, but the root will continue to grow new stems if the main one is broken off.

So with my favourite tool – the asymmetrical tree-planting staff – I have been diligently digging up the whole root system of each and every alder. So far I have made it around about 1/8th of the pond edge and that doesn’t include the worst offender – the island.