My First Chickens

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Roll back the years to 1985. I was in fourth grade, Mr. Summers’ science class. We did a project on embryology, lining up rows of white eggs marked + and 0, pointed end slightly downward, in a white styrofoam incubator. I remember peering through the plastic windows, looking at those eggs. Twenty-one days is a long time when you’re only 10 years old.

Mr. Summers taught us how to candle the eggs with a flashlight to determine the viability of the embryo. The phrase “one rotten egg spoils the whole bunch”… oh, wait, that’s the Swedish version… nevertheless, it’s true. Gases escaping from an infertile or unviable egg can ruin the hatch. We pulled those out and threw them away.

We used a scalpel and cut a tiny window in one hard calcium shell, using wax to seal it off with plastic wrap. Blood vessels carried oxygen-rich fluid to a tiny heart, beating a pulse of new life. I liked the egg with the window and candling. How exciting to see something come from nothing, a tiny life form from what would otherwise be breakfast.

The days passed. We turned the eggs. More days passed. And finally one day, there was moisture on the incubator windows. A tiny yellow chick, wet, weak, and weary, had arrived. The rest of the flock soon followed, and before long the little guys were dry, energetic balls of fluff.

Sadly, the one we’d had a window on, whose development we’d watched with curiosity over the last three weeks, didn’t make it. Like Schroedinger’s cat, it seemed the very observation of life in the making destroyed it. My 10-year-old’s heart was sad for that chick and sorry that our curiosity and desire to know more had killed it.

Did we want to take some home? was the question Mr. Summers posed. Of course, yes! My two little chicks landed in a cardboard box behind the chair in the living room. They were soon joined by my friend Sam’s chicks (her parents decided that chickens weren’t a good idea) and a fuzzy buff-colored chick from my Pappy. I’d inspect the box of avian energy several times a day, to which my mother said, “Don’t pester those chicks! You’ll kill them!”

Far from that: After all my high-quality handling, those were some of the tamest white Leghorns on the planet. Personalities became evident, and naming soon followed: Baby, the sweet, docile hen; Jitterbug, the slightly schizo, easily startled hen; Hot Stuff, alpha male; and his subservient sidekick, Little Boy. The buff-colored one, well, she  was just Red Hen.

A life-long fascination (obsession?) with chickens and other fowl followed hard on the heels of those first little fuzzy critters. I soon had my own incubator. I sold chicks at Easter, eggs to the neighbors, boxes of fowl at stock market. Ducks, peafowl, turkeys, quail, golden pheasants, geese, pigeons… The incubator was running almost all summer, and I candled and turned, and turned and candled, enjoying taking part in the process of new life. But I never cut a hole in an egg to watch a chick grow.

5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Dwight Rotz on October 20, 2010 at 11:54 pm

    Congratulations on becoming a TV personality! Wish I lived in the Chicago area so I could view the show.

    Is this a one time event on will you be featured on an on-going basis?



    • As far as I know, this is a one-time deal. But maybe they could make it a regular feature, and I could combine my culinary and art collection skills with my chicken-keeping skills in a show that features chicken art, chicken recipes, and chicken care… Ha! The Jen Murtoff Chicken Revue: Fine Art, Fine Dining, Fine Poultry.


  2. Posted by Beverly on October 21, 2010 at 3:28 pm

    Jen, this brought back many memories, precious memories. Growing up I was always told that if you held them to much they would die. I guess my parents did not want us to get attached to them, because our chickens were not pets.

    I like the Jen Murtoff Chicken Revue idea.

    m & d


  3. What great pictures! This brings alot of memories back to me as well… grandparents had chickens, but they were soooooo mean….I decided at an early age that I wanted “nice chickens when I grew up”. I will have to dig up an old 1970’s-something picture for chuckles, hehe!



  4. Posted by Lisa on April 18, 2012 at 4:01 pm

    Jen, thanks for sharing your experience. I hope that school kids can continue to be exposed to incubation in school like you said, you never know what spark it will ignite!


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