Last year we got thirteen chicks. The children held them in the coop, balancing them on their fingers, elbows and heads. They brought the chicks food and water, then watched as the adolescent birds grew bold enough to explore the yard. One died prematurely. The rest grew strong and became reddish brown, gold and tan.
One day, Silke's old dog instinctively grabbed one and ran off with it. It was returned alive, but later on it died and we buried it out back. The children helped to dig the hole, then threw rose petals over the corpse while we sang.
As the hens matured, they became so comfortable with the children that they were readily picked up. Shady was not banished. The children watched as his muscles shook anxiously while held tightly on the leash. "It's okay, Shady," we all said. "We know it's your instinct, but you have to learn to live with the birds." He did, and it only took a few days (proving that old dogs can learn new tricks).
Chicken shop became one of the kids' favorite games. It was common to see three or four children walking across the yard, each with a chicken in hand. The kids learned their laying spots, helping to find and collect their eggs. Sometimes, we even read to them.
But they were annoying too. Sometimes the chickens snuck out the gate, so we had to learn to watch that. And at snack time they pecked at our food, our jackets and pants, and even flew onto the table. The children were forced to stand up for themselves and use a big voice. Important lessons.
Then, last winter, a coyote or owl (we still don't know for sure) got six of our hens over the course of a week. Maybe it was a bobcat. Now, we're down to five.
The lessons we've learned by watching these chickens grow up, lay eggs, die, and irritate us are incomparable. It hasn't been cute and easy. It's been real, and beautiful. This spring, we got eleven more chicks and the children are enjoying "teaching" them lessons (as in the photo). Silke reminds them not to ignore the "big girls." Sixteen hens is probably more than we need, but chances are we'll lose one here and there. Life is unpredictable. The children see that.
I remember watching a clutch of eggs in my own kindergarten class. They sat in an incubator on the table for a week or two, then hatched into little golden chicks. Amazing. Then we never saw them again.