The turkey egg saga

It was six or seven years ago that I read Complications, Atul Gawande’s collection of essays. Gawande is a practicing surgeon who writes about medicine and public health, and one of the collection’s essays, “Education of a Knife,” is about the problem of teaching surgical procedures to newly minted doctors. Every would-be surgeon has to do every procedure for the first time, once. And once for the second. And once again, over and over, until he is good at it. He has to practice, and somebody has to be on the table in order for him to do it:

In surgery, as in anything else, skill and confidence are learned through experience — haltingly and humiliatingly. Like the tennis player and the oboist and the guy who fixes hard drives, we need practice to get good at what we do. There is one difference in medicine, though: it is people we practice upon.

And you don’t want to it to be you. You want to wait until your surgeon has honed his skills on other people and then have your appendix removed or your kidney transplanted or your hip replaced. Yet it is in our collective interest to have a new crop of surgeons every year, or we’ll run out of appendix removers, kidney transplanters, and hip replacers in short order.  And so the patient of the new surgeon makes a sacrifice to the common good – although, if the bargain were put to him in those terms, he might very well change his mind.

That essay has come to mind often, as I’ve done so many things for the first time over the last few years. Not many of them are physical skills like surgery, which require a very specific kind of learning, based on repetition, that hard-wires the procedure into your brain. But even more general undertakings – designing a hydroponics system, building a hoophouse, making a souffle – have a better chance of success when they’re undertaken by people with experience. The Internet will take you only so far.

As I venture out way beyond my comfort zone, I’ve been grateful that it’s not people I practice on. The soufflé falls, and the worst-case scenario is take-out Chinese. Nobody’s going to die on the table.

But livestock is different. It’s not people, and I am very clear on the difference. But it’s live. The animals we raise are sentient, can suffer, and are completely dependent on our stewardship. When we bungle it, nobody dies on the table, but it’s not take-out Chinese, either.

And bungle it we do. There’s no way to venture into taking care of animals without making mistakes born of inexperience. Almost all the deaths we’ve had around here could have been prevented if we’d simply been better at our job.

I’m not being hard on us here. I know that mistakes come with the territory, and you do your best and try and learn from what goes wrong. But I am responsible for our animals, and it sometimes feel like they got a bum deal being stuck with us instead of, say, Jen over at Milkweed & Teasel.

The issue at hand, this time, is our first attempt to hatch fertilized eggs. We bought six turkey eggs about four weeks ago and popped them under Queenie, our broody Buff Orpington hen. About a week before we were expecting chicks, we found one of the eggs cracked open, so we were down to five. We did, however, learn that at least that one egg was fertilized, so we had hopes for the remaining eggs.

Then, four days ago and a day ahead of schedule, we had an actual chick! It was peeping and eating and drinking, and Queenie was being very attentive to it. We were hopeful that the remaining four would follow suit.

But then things went south. Queenie seemed to have trouble attending to both the chick and the eggs, and she abandoned the nest to keep the chick warm. We had set the Varmintcam up above the brooder, and we knew from the timestamp that the nest had been empty for at least four hours. Was the brooder too big? Did we put the food and water too far away from the nest? We didn’t know.

By this time, the full 28 days had elapsed, and we thought it was possible a chick might have survived, but didn’t have the strength to get out once it had gotten cold. So we tried opening one of the eggs. There was a chick, barely alive, and we tried to warm it and revive it, but our efforts failed and the poor thing died inside ten minutes. Was it a mistake to open it? We didn’t know.

Three eggs were left, and Queenie clearly wasn’t going to be able to keep them warm. But Kevin had the brilliant idea of putting them under Blondie, who was also broody and had hunkered down in a nest box in the coop. I also sent an e-mail to Jen, who assured me that chicks were sometimes much hardier than you think they’re going to be, and told me not to give up hope.

And I didn’t, but it was close.

After Blondie had been sitting on the eggs for a day, we checked on her. She was exactly where we’d left her, but she had moved two of the three eggs out of the nest, and had only one under her. We checked the two eggs she’d rejected, and they were clearly long dead. How she knew is beyond me – and I think she did know, because the one she was sitting on was alive. There was a little hole, with a little beak! And I heard a little peep!

We wanted to make sure the chick bonded to Queenie, so we gave it some help getting out of its shell and put it in the brooder with its little sibling and surrogate-mother-to-be. And Queenie took to it. She tucked it under her wing and kept it warm. An hour later, it was almost dry, and looked comfortable.

But by evening it was dead.

If you had told me this story, I couldn’t have imagined being so sad about a three-ounce, just-born turkey, but I actually had to hold back tears. When we’d found that second chick alive, I’d been elated – yes, actually elated – that our chick would have a playmate, and that little death of an hours-old creature affected me as much as any livestock death ever has.

Partly, I mourned the failure. I suspect we made a number of mistakes, because all the eggs were fertilized and all had developed substantially. Was the brooder too cold? Did Queenie get enough to eat and drink? Should we have put the other eggs under Blondie as soon as we realized Queenie was having difficulty? Should we have watched more carefully so we could have taken corrective action more quickly? But, our role aside, I feel bad for this little chick. I don’t think animals, with the possible exception of cats, should be alone.

We will get more turkey poults from the feedstore when they get a batch in a couple of weeks, and I’m hoping everybody will be young enough for the flock to integrate successfully. And I am glad that we got at least one chick out of the effort – and a mighty cute little chick it is, too. But I wanted to do better. I really wanted to do better.

On the plus side, at least I’m not a surgeon.

15 people are having a conversation about “The turkey egg saga

  1. occasionally, when I am feeling particularly brave, time laden and flush, i will embark on a “so simple an idiot could do it” home project. I require the above items because there are just never that fucking simple for me. it will require multiple trips to home depot where i depose their staff, show them pictures, ask for demos. it will cost 3x more than expected. It will drag on for weeks instead of an afternoon and end up looking like ass. I look at people who can accomplish these tasks with no fear and even better, no advice and under budget with just awe and jealousy. You know. People like YOU TWO.

    You guys are fearless and when I’m at the shack, I marvel at everything you’ve built. Being there for the hoophouse, where I watched you figure it out as you went, was maddening. Why can’t *I* do that? But I just can’t:) Even starting vegetables from seed… at some point I stopped and said, “fuckit. its less stressful to buy starts”. In time, I was able to learn how to grow from seed, but even now, its hit and miss, and I accept that I am not the X factor.

    When I look around at your home, all I see is success. Structures built. Animals taken from infancy to the end. Plants grown. And eaten. Even when they’re TERRIBLE (squash, dude).

    Stop looking at the failures and see the successes, and understand there will be more, in time. Sometimes, the X factor is time. Sometimes its DNA. Sometimes its the reliability of chickens. And sometimes we are not the X factor. Basically, shit happens. Personal responsibility is important. Its one of the reasons I like you so much, but these are not platitudes. You can only do your best and then learn from it, if there’s anything to be learned. If a turkey can be mothered by a chicken, why can’t a turkey poult be friended by a chick? You’ll figure it out. I know, because you always do:)

    Now go have some ice cream. 4seas just opened.

  2. Tamar, as usual you give me far too much credit. We make all those same mistakes, but in our case it’s a weekly learning curve, and it’s 10,000 eggs instead of half a dozen.

    But we’re always learning something too, and because of the numbers involved we’re priviledged to see the impossible happen, and even some little miracles (for lack of a better word). Only last week we found an egg that must have slipped into the incubator already cracked – like yours – and a chick developed to almost hatching point. I’ve always been told that’s not possible, but nature compensates, and doesn’t read the textbooks apparently.

    Amanda’s right – Congratulate yourselves on your achievements, though I know dead chicks are far more heart-wrenching than pulling up radish seedlings. And, hey, if you’re going to 4Seas, get me a coffee cone.

  3. I’m right there with you…pretty much any mistake you can have made while raising baby chicks, I’ve done, and the number of birds I lost to predator attacks before getting my sh*t together and building a really secure coop…I don’t want to think about that.

    On the other hand, a lot of us are trying to re-learn skills that have been mostly lost in our fast-food consumer culture. Some mistakes are going to be made while we’re figuring it out.

  4. If, instead of moving the production of food to large agribusinesses and supermarkets for the last fifty or so years, food was still produced at home you might have a good reason to lament your failures, but you don’t. You didn’t grow up knowing how to do this, so instead you have to learn by trial and error, success and heartbreak. The fact that you can still mourn the loss of your poults in addition to feeling the burden of failure means you have a heart.

    Don’t ever lose that, and don’t ever stop trying. I bet if you tallied up all your efforts into two columns, the success side would far outweigh the failure side. And I’ll bet your husbandry efforts are much more successful than Nature’s unassisted. Somehow, I can’t help but feel that her numbers are probably much worse than we all realize. So stop beating yourself up and go get that ice cream.

  5. For me, like parenting, keeping animals comes with guilt. I am always asking if I did enough, if I should have anticipated the problem, if I made the right decision. My animals live better than at least 3.5 billion of the *people* in this world, let alone the other members of their species, and yet I always feel like I do not do enough for them.

    I am impressed with how well you did working with your own inexperience and a hen that was a newby. A lot of first time broodies do not hatch anything, and you got a healthy poult that Queenie is caring for. Sad for the poults that did not make it, but joyous for the one who did.

  6. Accidental Mick says:

    @ Tamar,

    All the people above are correct and you are wrong. Don’t be so hard on yourself and don’t be so quick to assume the mantle of guilt. English farmers have a saying (and they are not as pessimistic as this sounds) “If you’ve got stock you’ve got trouble and if you’re all arable you’ve got trouble”.


    When I started renovating our first house (over 40 years ago) an old guy working the counter in the hardware shop told me;
    ” Every D.I.Y. project takes at least 4 visits to the shop.
    First, to get all the things you want.
    Second, to chang those items for the things you actually need.
    Third, to get more of those things because you underestimated.
    Fourth, to get the bits to make something you hadn’t thought of which will allow the first project to work.”

  7. Thanks, all. Thanks.

    I know you’re all right, but the thing is that I don’t feel like I’m beating myself up. I know that we will make mistakes. I know that people who do things for the first time don’t do it as well as people who are doing it for the nth time. I recognize it as a cost of starting something new — a cost worth paying, since it’s the only way any of us get to expand our horizons.

    In this case, the cost was the poult. When it died, I was sad. I’ve never been involved in any enterprise in which my learning curve could cost a life. Or lives.

    And it’s ok. It has to be ok, or none of us would ever have livestock and we’d all have to eat vegan food and THEN where would we be?

    One of the things we wouldn’t have would be ice cream, and I’m going to go get some. And then I will come home and admire my healthy little turkey poult.

  8. It’s a pretty harsh thing to say, but if they can’t make it out of the egg, then the odds are for them not making it at all. In our modest experience, there’s not much to be gained from helping. Most of the ones we’ve helped died anyway. Sometimes they’re not fully developed, or improperly formed.

    Don’t count your chickens when they’re only partially hatched.

  9. Maybe Queenie knew long before that the other eggs were doomed. We’ve had that happen with our chickens here at home. A few hatch from a complete nest of eggs and after a day and a bit the mother hen leaves the nest to go cold. Nothing ever comes of the cold left eggs. This I suppose doesn’t help though if you are trying to use another hen to raise acquired fertilised eggs.

  10. It’s so frustrating when things don’t go as planed. We are trying to figure out how to cull a baby chick which is awful.

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