We learned a painful lesson in caring for baby chicks, and I’m hesitant to tell this, because I know some will condemn me. They’ll call me irresponsible, a bad parent. The guilt is still fresh. We’ve raised backyard chickens for five years. I grew up on a farm. My children have been involved in each step, a little at first, and more as they age. With the help of urban farming, I’m able to work part time. I rely on my family to help grow the food because I still have to earn a wage.
Currently we keep our chicks with broody hens, in sturdy cages within a climate-controlled greenhouse. I turn on a small heater at night, and a fan during the day. Yesterday, the sun never peeked through the clouds and the temperature in the greenhouse never rose above 80 degrees. We know exactly how to keep chickens cool in summer, especially when it comes to caring for baby chicks.
As I showed my 13-year-old daughter how to care for baby chicks by cleaning the brooders, I stood over her shoulder the entire time. We lined a large bin with pine shavings and gently moved the hen and each chick into the bin. I showed her how to set the lid on askew so the little family wouldn’t escape but air could also circulate. We set the bin in a shady location. My daughter performed flawlessly. Maybe next time I would show her how to clean a chicken coop.
Yesterday, the brooders needed cleaning again. I also needed to go to work. My daughter said she could handle it, and wanted to practice caring for baby chicks. My husband was home, in case she needed help. So with her assertion that she had it covered, I left for a few hours.
Right before returning home, I checked my text messages:
“Your daughter is on a crying fit of sadness and woe. She killed 7 of your meat chicks.”
I felt like throwing up. I set the phone aside and concentrated on the road, wondering just how this had happened. Seven?
She waited in the driveway, holding a plastic bag with seven little bodies. Ten days old, they had white wings and fluffy butts. I felt the bag. Their bodies were hot.
“Okay,” I said, trying to remain calm. “Tell me exactly what happened.”
She told me how she had set the lid on the bin to contain the family while she changed out the dirty shavings. When she lifted the lid, seven were dead and the others panted in the heat.
“How long were they in the container?”
“I don’t know,” she wept. “Fifteen minutes?”
She was shocked how quickly the temperature can rise in a container when you don’t set the lid askew.
I’m not sure if it was fifteen minutes. She didn’t have a watch. My husband claimed she was in the greenhouse about forty-five minutes, and in that time had cleaned the first brooder before even placing the meat chicks in the bin.
I was angry, disappointed, sad, and sick to my stomach. But as I witnessed those bitter tears and gasping breath, I knew no discipline I could inflict would hurt as bad as the guilt she felt from her failure at caring for baby chicks. So I told her to take care of the little bodies then come in for dinner. I wasn’t going to punish her. A hard lesson learned.
Through the evening I wrestled with my own guilt. Condemning thoughts churned through my mind, the same ones others might hurl at me for the tragedy. What if I’d just cleaned the brooders myself, instead of assigning a child to do it? What if we had done it at night when temperatures outside descended to freezing? What if I hadn’t gone to work? What if I didn’t have a job, and I just stayed home to monitor every single detail of both my farm and my children? That night those meat chicks haunted my dreams. I woke several times, wondering if this isolated incident, through five successful years of chicken ownership, should convince me to give up urban farming and abandon raising heritage chicken breeds.
The rest of the chicks are fine. They received water and cool, clean bedding in time to fully recover. I know next time my daughter wants to work at caring for baby chicks by cleaning the brooder, she will cock the lid aside and set the container in the shade. It will be a while before I regain the confidence to leave certain chores to my children as I go earn a living. But eventually, we have to move on and learn from our mistakes in caring for baby chicks. Especially the really painful ones.
Originally published in 2015 and regularly vetted for accuracy.