The practice of hatching chicks or ducklings in elementary school classrooms is a long tradition. I remember it from when I was a small child in the 1960s. I probably gave little thought as to where those eggs came from or where the chicks ended up once they left our classroom. As kids, we were probably more engrossed in the novelty of playing with baby birds than thinking about them as living beings.
For the last four years I’ve donated hatching eggs to several elementary schools. I always feel a bit conflicted because they usually only keep the chicks a week or two and then return them. Does the classroom hatch send the wrong message: that animals are there for our entertainment; that once they start to be a little work, or smell, it’s time to get rid of them? Despite that, I think it can offer the opportunity for discussion and some literal hands-on education about other species.
I learned that one school use to incubate eggs and the teacher cracked one open each day to show the kids the various stages of development. I wonder what kids thought about a practice that demonstrated just how expendable the chicks were? One of the parents, horrified by the mounting annual death toll, purchased a set of plastic eggs from a science supply company; each one, upon opening, shows a different stage of embryo development. Enlightening and not so morbid.
Some chicken keepers donate eggs and then it’s the school’s responsibility to find the chicks homes, which is easier in areas where folks already have chickens. I heard a story in which each child was allowed to take one chick home, regardless of whether they had other chickens or were set up to keep them. Who knows what the fate of those poor chicks was. My policy is that I donate the eggs and I get back whatever chicks hatch.
If I know which hens have laid particular eggs I write their names in sharpie on them, so the kids can follow the progress of the egg they adopt. I try to supply them with a variety of different egg colours and sizes that will also produce different looking chicks. I send photos of the hens and my rooster and explain a little bit about the genetics of egg shell colours, frizzles and naked necks.
When I’m approached about donating eggs I negotiate the terms, the dates of drop off and pick up, what I would like the teacher to do (keep me updated as to what hatches or not; notify me if there are any issues like slipped tendon, spraddle leg or curled toes, which can be fixed if caught in time).
For the most part my experience has been good. Where I’ve run into some issues is around different interpretations about what our original agreement was.
One time I donated eggs to two different schools and my experience with them was vastly different. The first teacher, a young First Nations woman, was very appreciative, kept in touch and even took the chicks home on the weekends. I never met the other teacher, who worked at a private school; I left the eggs in the school office. She didn’t respond to my emails and it was only until just before I was to pick up the chicks that she informed me that she was giving some away to her students. I have to say that I was a bit upset as I had given them particular eggs that I considered special and wanted as part of my breeding program. After a couple of firmly worded emails I got all the chicks back, still never having met her.
If you are donating eggs get a clear understanding of what your role and the teacher’s role are.
- Who gets the chicks once hatched?
- How long will the school keep them?
- What kind of record-keeping do you want the teacher to keep?
- Do you have the time to mentor someone who may not have a lot of experience with incubators (or with chicks)?
- Will you send a reminder about lockdown and what that entails?
- Provide some information on health problems to watch for that are related to incubation issues?
If you are receiving eggs make sure you understand that hatching eggs is a commitment.
- If you have never used an incubator there’s a learning curve keeping the humidity and temperatures consistent. Failure to do so can result in birth defects (e.g. curled toes, spraddle leg) that will need to be addressed upon hatch in order to fix them. Are you willing to do that?
- Will you put in the time to do some basic reading?
- Are you willing to come into work on the weekend to check the incubator or the chicks?
- Are you up to cleaning daily?
- What will you do if there are weak or disabled chicks or those struggling to hatch?
The highlight of course, are the chicks. But a not-too-distant second are the responses from the kids. Sometimes I’m passed a box of chicks at the office and don’t have any contact with the caretakers of my birds, but other times I’ve been invited into the classroom to meet them. Some teachers go out of their way to have the kids work on thank you notes which are given to me in a pile. They often talk about the bird they’ve taken on as their own, giving it a goofy name and wondering what its life will be like post-school days.
Some teachers perform ‘eggtopsies’ – cracking open unhatched eggs to see what’s inside: eggs that were unfertilized or died early in development. Or more sadly, fully developed chicks that, for whatever reason, failed to hatch. I love the enthusiasm and curiosity they have. I also appreciate their attempts to thank me.
Last summer, I got some drawings from a class of five and six year olds. My favourite came from a budding Picasso. It was the only illustration not accompanied by a letter. Later the teacher informed me that the little boy who drew it didn’t speak English, but wanted to give me something to show what the chicks meant to him.
I wondered if the two chicks at the bottom were ones from their ‘eggtopsy’ lesson. I liked it so much my partner framed it for me.
“The kids (and I) are over the moon in love with these little birds – what an amazing learning experience for them. They love seeing the feathers changing on the wings already!” – MaryLee, Teacher
This year I donated eggs to two schools, and like the example above, were quite different experiences for me. One teacher was a great communicator, sent me photos and updates, and kept them our agreed upon two weeks. The other, I think, quickly realized that chicks were work. Before they were even all hatched she asked if I would pick them up a week early. I heard very little from her and got the sense that she wasn’t really interested in what it means to steward animals.
Next year, I will ask more questions and get a stronger commitment before going down that path again. I think it can be a great experience for kids, but only when their teacher models values of empathy and dedication so they understand what taking care of animals means. Often our attitudes about animal welfare start in childhood and develop throughout our lives. I’d like to plant a seed for those kids about bringing animals into our lives and what that means for both parties.