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the christmas chicks, December 1983

2003-01-18 - 5:58 p.m.

All this cold weather reminded me of a strange experience I had during the Christmas of 1983. Actually, it's the Noah's Ark-like thing of having all the parrots in the house that reminded me of it. In any case, I decided to hunt up the article I wrote about it and paste it in my diary. Warning: Read no further if you dislike feel-good Christmas stories.

The Christmas Chicks
originally published in the Dec. 1986 issue of Bird Talk
1986 by Elaine Radford, all rights reserved

It had to be a miracle. When I awoke that morning to the coldest Christmas in 20 years, I seriously considered staying right there in bed -- especially after my roommate reported that the toilet was full of ice! Like most older homes in New Orleans, our house was built to withstand flood, not cold, and the exposed pipes under the raised structure had frozen solid overnight. It wouldn't have been so bad if the gas heater hadn't been on the blink, but as it was, birds and all were crowded into one tiny room kept warm by two electric heaters going full blast. "Some Christmas!" I grumbled loudly. Then I heard the first peep. The silver button quail were hatching.

Rosebud and Tony1 were the first pair of button quail I'd ever owned, a gift purchased by a friend at an October bird show. Although they were sleek and healthy, all the rules said they shouldn't have bred. For one thing, we'd moved into the house a little before Thanksgiving, after Rosebud had already started laying what would turn out to be 18 eggs. For another, a pair of green singing finches who shared the cage decided that they were going to raise this clutch -- and they spent a week chasing poor Rosebud off the nest before I realized she wasn't going to defend her right to her eggs. Once the finches were removed, Tony got obnoxious, pushing Rosebud off the nest to copulate several times in the course of an hour. A far cry from the utter peace and quiet button hens are said to need to brood their eggs!

Still, once her mate was gone2, Rosebud set her eggs heroically, spreading herself out flat in order to cover her unusually large clutch. I crossed my fingers and waited. When 30 days passed without a peep, I began to get discouraged. Perhaps the embryos had died in the shell during all the early confusion. Maybe the best thing to do would be to toss the eggs and try again. Yet Rosebud puffed up into an angry ball and hissed if I so much as placed a finger3 in the cage. Did she know more than I did?

So it was that on Christmas morning 12 bumblebee-sized chicks hatched out of their eggs, dried off, and began to take their first wobbly steps. A miracle? Well, one breeder who saw Rosebud's picture in a magazine wrote to say that he'd been raising buttons for 20 years and never seen a hen set yet! And, ever since, I have had to follow the rules and isolate the hen early if I wanted her to rear her own young.

Yes, I'd call it a miracle. Somehow, after a rough fall and a gloomy early winter, my birds managed to bring me the most precious Christmas gift of all: new life.


1. Named after a pair of hippoes at the Audubon Zoo.

2. Gone as in removed to a different cage, not gone as in stuffed quail casserole. This horndog button quail went on to a live a long, full, and impressively athletic life.

3. Yes, the same bird who cowered before a sex-crazed male button quail and a pair of green singing finches. I can't get no respect. Birds know who the marshmallows are.

Obnoxious bonus footnote: The original article was published with a black and white photograph of some of the baby chicks trying to hide under Rosebud's fluffed-out body.

Double bonus extra obnoxious footnote: No, the original Bird Talk magazine article didn't include the bizarre David Foster Wallace-like footnotes. That would be weird.

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