PITTSFIELD — On a recent Tuesday morning, there was a buzz of springtime in the air at Hancock Shaker Village — even though there was a fresh coat of snow covering the property.
Baby animals don't care what Mother Nature has planned.
The cycle of life goes on with or without spring-like weather, which is why Bill Mangiardi, director of farm and facilities at the village, stops in mid-sentence while giving a tour of the expectant mothers resting in the dairy ell, an extension of the Round Stone Barn.
"This is a nerve-wracking time," he said, while skillfully eyeing a pregnant pig burrowing in the straw. "I'm waiting around like a nervous father."
Heat lamps are ordered, fresh, dry straw is laid down and preparations are being made for the village's 16th season of Baby Animals, which marks the opening of the village's season on Saturday, April 16. The exhibit — which is open through May 8 — has become a rite of passage in the Berkshires for generations of families stopping by to mark the beginning of spring by holding a lamb or photographing squealing piglets.
But on this reporter's visit, there was only the grunts of two large pig mothers-to-be and a pen of 13 pregnant sheep suspiciously eyeing the new visitors. Even the pygmy goats were waddling around with heavy utters, ready to give birth at any moment.
"We had a brutal winter last year and the cold weather is tough on the animals," Mangiardi said. "So, I pushed up the births two weeks this year with a later opening, hoping for warmer weather."
He looked at the fresh snow and shrugged.
But just like the snow will eventually melt, babies will be there on opening day, he said.
In the meantime, he and farm volunteers do their best to keep the animals warm and comfortable and let nature do the rest. But with such cold temperatures, Mangiardi, who also runs his own farm in Lanesborough, where he cares for many of these animals during the rest of the year, makes a midnight trip every night to check on the expectant mothers, especially the pigs.
"When the piglets are born, they are wet and covered with mucus," he said. "They will then crawl up and begin nursing. But when it's real cold like this, there's a danger they won't nurse right away or freeze."
It's a hard truth and a reminder that these baby animals are more than just a cuddly photo opportunity. It's also a chance to learn about farm life, something that is covered in depth in the 90-minute Behind-the-Scenes Farm Tour that Mangiardi hosts. The tour — which requires reserved tickets for $27 on weekdays and $30 on weekends and includes the price of admission — gives visitors a chance to bottle-feed and hold some of the babies.
It's also an excellent time to ask questions and learn more about the animals and farming, something Mangiardi loves to talk about.
"That's the whole point of [baby animals]," said Mangiardi, who has been with the village since 2006 and is always happy to see familiar faces return year after year. "Where else can you go to pet, hold and touch these animals and learn about them in this way?"
Along with calves, chicks and lambs, the village is also ushering in its new season with a newly designed and freshened up Discovery room in the Discovery barn.
"We've curated this space to focus on Shaker children," said Lesley Herzberg, curator at the museum who worked on revamping the space with Cindy Dickinson, director of education. "We wanted to answer the question: 'What did Shaker children do?'"
In the former dairy barn, visitors will be able to try on Shaker clothes, learn about the different jobs Shaker children would have and what they did for fun, said Herzberg.
The revamped space — complete with fresh paint, a leveled floor and a handicap-accessible bathroom with a changing table — can also be used as a classroom for visiting students, she said.
Standing in the new space, Mangiardi smiles and looks across to the Round Stone Barn.
"Baby animals is always a touching time for me," he said. "There is nothing I love more than walking across the field and seeing strollers lined up outside the Round Stone Barn. Seeing little human kids meeting little animal kids, there's nothing like it. This is a special place."
If you go
What: Baby Animals on the Shaker Farm
When: Opens Saturday, April 16, through May 8. Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., daily
Where: Hancock Shaker Village, 1843 W. Housatonic St., Pittsfield
Cost: General adult admission, $20; Youth admission (ages 13 to 17) $8; children 12 and under free. Behind-the-Scenes Farm Tours $27 for weekdays and $30 on Saturday, Sunday. Reservations required for tour.
For more information: Visit babyanimals.hancockshakervillage.org or call 413-443-0188