The incubator has been humming for nearly four weeks, the large, speckled turkey eggs within “meditating” to the hum of the heating element and the gentle rocking back and forth. For the last several years, the soonest my turkey hens start laying and it’s no longer too cold for the precious embryos within, makes the hatch land on Memorial weekend. But baby turkeys with their enormous eyeballs are cute enough to be worth the extra work on a big weekend.
The dry spring weather we’ve been having can cause the membrane beneath the shell to be tough, so I keep my favorite nut pick handy during the process. When a chick is ready to hatch, the first thing they do is peck a hole in the shell (called a pip), so they can breathe and gain strength before breaking out. But if the membrane is too tough, the shell will crack and the membrane will not split, which means fresh air still can’t get in. That’s where the nut pick can come in handy, to open a flap in the membrane so the tiny ones can breathe easy.
I’ve had turkey chicks wear out before they could get all the way out of the shell — they really are fragile creatures when they are young. Again with the nut pick, I carefully help them out once I see they are making a good effort to escape the shell. If I intervene too soon, blood vessels beneath the membrane haven’t yet collapsed, and the chick could die. It’s very delicate indeed! With practice and patience, however, my turkey hatch of heritage breeds has become an annual success, cheeping away in a stove box in our walkout basement.
Then, just the other day, I was watering the spinach and radishes in our long high tunnel, slowly making my way from the front to the back. I’d already dropped the sidewalls in preparations for the evening as it was soon growing dark. As I neared the back of the greenhouse, I heard a sound like a really big bee buzzing. Sometimes bumblebees get trapped in the high tunnel, forgetting how they got inside, and I often try to scoop them up on a leaf and let them free. But this was no bee — it was a hummingbird! The only open door was 50 feet away at the other end of the tunnel. She was never going to find her way out, and she was looking exhausted.
I set down the hose and gently started talking to her, just as I used to do when tending to my beehives. “Honey,” I offered, “I can help you get out of here, but you have to trust me. Will you trust me?”
I reached up, and cupping my hands like a cage, encircled the tiny bird. I felt the miniscule feet clamp on to one of my fingers while she kept her wings spread, the tips of the feathers brushing my palms. Calmly, I walked back to the front of the greenhouse and out the door, opening my hands to the world outside. She sat there a moment, feet still firmly gripping my finger, and just as I wondered if I should walk her down to our feeder she took off in a zoom. I hope she is well and has learned to stay out of the high tunnel.
And then, another morning, I had finished up chores and cleaned up to come down to Farmstead when something caught my eye on our lane. There in the east-facing bank of grass behind the high tunnel was the tiniest fawn. Deer and sheep are closely related, and I could tell by the boniness of its back that it was very close to newborn. (Lambs have that same look before they plump out on milk.) Curled up with its nose at a dandelion, it just looked at me with large blinking eyes. I crept close enough for a photo and to see that it was not injured, then carefully backed away, knowing that momma was likely grazing nearby and would return for the little one she had stashed.
The next time I came by that spot, the fawn was gone, off on its next adventure.
Moments like these remind me not only of the fragile nature of tiny creatures but also our stewarding responsibility to care for them. Whether this is helping them through a tough situation or choosing to admire and do no harm. We may find ourselves in these situations more often than we’d expect — a turtle trying to cross the road, a baby bird that’s fallen from a nest, a kitten looking for adoption.
As we rush into summer, with all its activities, we can become too distracted by our own agendas to tend to the tiny around us. If I was in too big of a hurry, I wouldn’t have noticed the fawn on the hillside, obscured in the grass. If I had loud music playing in my ears, I wouldn’t have heard the hummingbird in the high tunnel. And if I didn’t have the patience and willingness to get up several times in the night, I wouldn’t have these sweet baby turkeys hatching successfully in the basement. It takes time and attention, but those precious moments with the tiny are worth it.
See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453, www.northstarhomestead.com.