JENNIFER JACKSON’S PORT TOWNSEND NEIGHBOR COLUMN: Chickens come first at Chimacum Creek

SIGNS OF SPRING abound in the kindergarten wing of Chimacum Creek Primary School.

Pussy willow catkins emerge from slender, poster-paint stems on the common room walls. Bright faces peek out from pink-paper blossoms in the avenue of paper trees lining the hallway.

And in a white box on the counter, 12 speckled brown eggs get ready to hatch.

This is an annual rite of spring at Chimacum Creek kindergarten pod, the hatching of chicks from eggs, a lesson in life cycles courtesy of the Master Gardeners of Jefferson County.

“We’ve been doing it for about six years,” said Chris Walvatne, one of the school’s three kindergarten teachers.

For the past four years, David Self, who raises chickens on Marrowstone Island, has been the mother hen of the chick program.

He starts in April by bringing in a small, portable incubator and eggs to the school, where he gives a brief talk, illustrated with pictures, to each kindergarten class.

The eggs come from local farmers and are different breeds each year, he said. This year, they are French Marans, a dark brown chicken from Jenny Watkins’ flock at Ananda Hills Farm off Beaver Valley Road in Chimacum.

The Master Gardeners also provide a Discovery Kids storybook, Watch Me Grow, for each classroom, and a poster of a hen showing the journey of the egg from ovary to cloaca.

That’s when the instincts of the mother hen kicks in, Self explained, to keep the eggs warm and rotate them to keep them viable.

In the classroom, the incubator performs that function, slowly turning the eggs via rods in the bottom.

When the three-week gestation period is over, Self shuts off the incubator, then comes every morning to check.

It takes 21 days for the eggs to develop into chicks, a lesson that is extended this year when no eggs show signs of hatching.

“We just have to be patient,” Self said.

The success rate varies from year to year.

Usually a few of the eggs are not fertile. Sometimes the chicks don’t make it out of the shell.

One year, before Self took over, the incubator failed and none of the eggs hatched, something Self is careful not to let happen again.

But when none of the eggs show signs of movement on the 20th day, he starts to worry.

“Last year, we had seven out of 12 hatch on time,” Self said. “Two were not fertile and the others didn’t get out.”

When one chick starts to break out but gives up after a day of struggle, he is more anxious. The next day, he is relieved to see it hopping around with two fluffy nestmates.

As the kindergartners arrive in the morning, they flock to the habitat box SEmD an old aquarium SEmD to see the new arrivals.

“Shhh. They’re sleeping,” one girl tells her classmates.

After the chicks hatch and dry out, they must be moved within 24 hours from the incubator into the habitat box so that they have access to food and water, Self said.

But seeing an egg hatch into a chick is more than a lesson in animal husbandry.

It also underscores the students’ earlier study of dinosaurs, teacher Justin Bento said.

That dinosaurs lived millions of years ago is an abstract concept, but just like chickens, dinosaurs hatched from eggs.

“They make that connection, and ask questions,” he says. “It’s happening right in front of them.”

Bento also uses the arrivals as the focus for that day’s writing lesson, asking students to draw a picture of the incubator, the chicks hatching and add words SEmD chick, egg, beak, crack, peep, fuzzy SEmD he writes on the flipboard.

“Is there a ‘k’ in chick?” one student asks.

The students get more firsthand experience of life cycles on field trips to local farms SEmD the Bishop Dairy, Harmony’s Way Goat Farm, Spring Hill Sheep Farm SEmD to see cows and calves, ewes and lambs, nannies and kids.

“It’s all about watching things develop and how nature does what it does,” Bento said.

“Chimacum is a rural area, but some kids don’t have that connection.”

After two weeks, the chicks will be adopted.

This year, they are moving to the Selfs’ henhouse, where they will contribute eggs for the kitchen and compost for the garden.

The incubator is put away until next year, the school year comes to a close, the kindergarten students graduate.

Next year, they will return as first-graders, and last year’s preschoolers SEmD the faces in the tree blossoms SEmD will take their place.

Next spring, the pussy willows will bloom on the walls, Mr. Self will arrive with a dozen eggs and the lesson will begin again.

________

Jennifer Jackson writes about Port Townsend and Jefferson County every Wednesday. To contact her with items for this column, phone 360-379-5688 or e-mail jjackson@olypen.

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