School Hatching Projects: Poor Lessons For Children

The Problem

The Needs of Developing Birds are Not Likely to Be Met

Every year, kindergarten and elementary school teachers and their students place thousands of fertilized eggs in classroom incubators to be hatched within three or four weeks. No one knows how many eggs are used, but in 1994 one egg supplier sold 1,800 eggs to New York City schools alone. These birds are not only deprived of a mother; many grow sick and deformed because their exacting needs are not met during incubation and after hatching. Chick organs stick to the sides of the shells because they are not rotated properly. Chicks are born with their intestines outside their bodies. Eggs can hatch on weekends when no one is in school to care for the chicks. The heat may be turned off for the weekend causing the chicks to become crippled or die in the shell. Some teachers even remove an egg from the incubator every other day and open it up to look at the chick in various stages of development, thus adding the killing of innocent life to the child's experience.

When the project is over, these now unwanted birds may be left in boxes in the main office for many hours without food, water, or adequate ventilation waiting for the district science coordinator to collect them for disposal.

Good Homes Cannot Be Found for the Chickens

Because a child bonds naturally with infant animals, students and even some teachers are misled to believe that the surviving chicks are going to live out their lives happily on a farm, when in reality, most of them are going to be killed immediately (working farms do not assimilate school-project birds into their existing flocks), sold to live poultry markets and auctions, fed to captive wild animals, or left to die slowly of hunger and thirst as a result of ignorance and neglect. As one egg supply farm explained, "We don't tell the school and kids the truth because they become emotionally involved. The emotional involvement of people goes beyond our counselling capacity."

Some children do learn the truth, however. At one special education school in New York City, the custodian flushed deformed live chicks down the toilet, while at another special education school, the teacher twisted the deformed chicks' necks and then flushed them--significant lessons for children who are themselves disabled.

Each year, the ASPCA, United Poultry Concerns and other animal shelters across the country are confronted with unwanted chicks, many of them ill, from educators who never thought of the fate of the birds, or could not find homes for them, adding to the tremendous burden already borne by the shelters. (Virtually all of the chicks turned in to the shelters are immediately euthanized because there are no homes and because they arrive sick.) Fortunately, more and more parents and educators are urging alternatives to these insensitive projects. As ASPCA president, Roger Caras, writes, "Each year, the ASPCA receives numerous calls from public school teachers and science coordinators asking for alternatives to the chick hatching project. These caring educators have demonstrated their concern, as well as the concern of their coworkers and the children's parents, as to the unusual amount of cruelty to animals that this project entails and its negative educational value."

Increasing urbanization enormously compounds the problem. Residentially-zoned areas ban the keeping of domestic fowl, while even people who can provide a good home for a chicken can accommodate only so many roosters. Normal flocks have several female birds to one male, and roosters crow before dawn. Unfortunately, half of all chickens born are males.

The Lesson Never Taught: Chickens are a Marvel of Nature

The lesson never taught is that chickens are one of the marvels of nature. A mother hen turns each egg carefully as often as 3O times a day, using her body, her feet, nd her beak to move the egg precisely in order to maintain the proper temperature, moisture, ventilation, humidity, and position of the egg during the 3-week incubation period. Unhatched chicks respond to soothing sounds from the mother hen and to warning cries of the rooster. Two or three days before the baby birds are ready to hatch, they start peeping to notify their mother and siblings that they are ready to emerge from the shell, and to draw her attention to any discomfort they may be suffering such as cold or abnormal positioning. A communication network is established among the baby birds, and between the baby birds and their mother, who must stay calm while all the peeping, sawing, and breaking of eggs goes on underneath her. As soon as all the eggs are hatched, the hungry mother and her brood go forth eagerly to eat, drink, and explore.

Instead of teaching these valuable lessons, school hatching projects mislead children to think that chicks come from machines with no need of a mother or family life. Supplemental facts, even if provided, cannot complete with this barren, mechanistic, and decontextualized classroom experience.

Meaningful, Humane, State-of-the-Art Replacements are Needed

Chick hatching projects teach children (and teachers) that bringing a life into the world is not a grave and permanent responsibility with ultimate consequences for the life thus created. Elimination of this destructive idea from our schools is a practical extension of the socially responsible atmosphere we are trying to create for our children. Chick hatching projects, which began in the 1950s, need to be replaced with state-of-the- art teaching programs including colorful books, filmstrips, videos, computer programs, overhead transparencies, and vinyl plastic models that demonstrate the embryonic process in the major stages of development of a chick inside an egg. Easily- adapted programs are already in use in other areas of biology.

One example is the human pregnancy series models that are mounted on individual stands showing the human uterus with an embryo and fetus in the major stages of development. Another is the Frog-Biological Model, a plastic chart with removable organs. Educators can help by urging educational supply companies to develop alternative programs, and by purchasing existing alternative programs, creating a demand.

In addition, an understanding of the natural life of chickens incorporating the fact that they are birds can be encouraged by quietly observing a nest of wild birds including pigeons, sparrows and other birds who have adapted to city life. Field trips to places where chickens can be seen socializing, sunbathing, dustbathing, foraging and enjoying themselves outside will help students to see these birds in a sensitizing and appealing perspective. Field trips in conjunction with the local Audubon Society or other local nature study organizations can incorporate holistic projects in which students observe the fascinating ecology of many kinds of birds.

What Educators and Others Can Do