One of the nerve-wracking issues of hatching eggs – whether with an incubator or broody hen – is if, and when, you should intervene. I’m not one of those people who thinks the hen always knows best – the idea that if she kicks eggs out of the nest or abandons unhatched eggs she has some intuition that they aren’t viable or aren’t healthy. In my experience that’s not always true.

I think after sitting for almost 24 hrs/day for 21 days a hen heaves a great sigh of relief that all her hard work has paid off. She can feel the chicks moving within the eggs and she talks to them to encourage them to hatch. Ideally, they all hatch close together, but that’s not always the case. I’ve had some chicks hatch on day 19 and their last sibling not until day 22. That’s a long stretch to be sitting on the nest waiting for the straggler.

Once a few fluff balls emerge the hen doesn’t always wait for the others. In some cases, they just get off the remaining eggs and are happy to stretch their legs without looking back. That’s what happened with my first assisted hatch in 2014.

Lucy was happy with her pile of chicks and left one egg, unhatched. I usually check if abandoned eggs are viable. If not, I crack them open and do an ‘eggtopsy’ to figure out if the egg was fertilized and if so, when and why the embryo might have died.

I picked up the egg and saw the chick had pipped – it had made a small hole in the shell. I could see it’s tiny beak and assumed it had died. Then I noticed the beak move. I rushed it into the house and googled what to do next (what would we do without online help?). We put the egg into a glass bowl with a cloth in the bottom, over a heating pad and under a light and hoped for the best.

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The egg was placed in a cloth within a glass bowl, over a heating pad and under a lamp.

Sometimes a chick has gotten cold or weak and doesn’t have the strength to get through the last stage of hatching. This is when you have to decide what you will do to save it.

I carefully picked off the eggshell, leaving the white membrane intact. There are blood vessels in it and if you pull the membrane away prematurely the chick can bleed to death. I could see the blood vessels so didn’t touch it.

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I picked the egg shell off but left the white membrane. When the blood vessels are clearly visible removing the membrane at this point could cause the chick to bleed to death.

Once the membrane is entirely white it’s safe to pick that too, if you have to. If the membrane dries out the chick can get shrink wrapped – stuck to it and not be able to make its way out of the shell. I dipped my finger in warm water and ran it along the membrane to keep it moist. I spent the afternoon talking to the chick to encourage it. I felt like a cheerleader: “You can do it, yes, you can”.

The last stage of hatching can take @24 hrs. The chick first breaks through the membrane to the air sac, then, it uses an egg tooth on its beak to break open the shell.

Once it starts breathing oxygen it can stay like that for hours, taking breaks, sleeping, moving and chirping. It took our little guy @6-7 hours to finally hatch and, as soon as he dried off, I tucked him back under Lucy who totally accepted him.

I say little, because Xander was an Old English Game, a tiny bantam. Sometimes chicks aren’t able to hatch for a reason – they have birth defects or are too weak to survive. But he was a healthy chick, who, along with his brother, Angus, were the only two bantams in a hatch of standard chicks with a standard hen.

You can see in the photos how small they were, but they got along with everyone in the flock. Unfortunately Xander never got the chance to grow up – he was killed by a hawk when he was 4 months old.

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