Murphy’s Law that I had been on vacation, at home, for ten days and something should go wrong on my last day when I wouldn’t be around to monitor things. Shona, my Crested Cream Legbar, a first-time broody hen was sitting on ten eggs. I had her in a 4’ x 4‘ coop, all by herself in the nest box. She’s one of my more aloof hens, so I tried to minimize my disruptions: I scooped poop and added fresh water and food daily, but otherwise stayed out of her way.
Around Day 19, I start listening for the sounds of chicks peeping. Hatch day is generally Day 21, but I’ve had a few hatch early. I lifted the nest box lid and heard nothing. I did so again, on Day 20. Nothing. On the morning of Day 21, I saw the remains of a broken shell so I knew at least one made it safely out of the egg. You know the phrase “Don’t count your chickens until your eggs have hatched”? I’ve learned even that isn’t enough: I’ve had chicks get separated from the hen and die from the cold or been buried under shavings and suffocated. I don’t count them until they are a few days old and thriving. I don’t name them until I know I’m keeping them.
By the end of Day 21, I lifted a shrieking Shona off the nest, and saw five chicks and five unhatched eggs. The next morning nothing had changed. By the afternoon I noticed she had gotten off the nest, with chicks in tow, and abandoned the last five eggs. At this point, you can choose to do nothing or intervene to see if there are viable eggs. I always opt for the latter. If there is a living being that has the will to live I’ll do what I can to support it. The eggs were now cold to the touch – not critical, at that late stage the chicks just slow their metabolism and might take a little longer to hatch.
It’s hard to candle eggs in the middle of the day, requiring complete darkness that I didn’t have. I chose to do a water float test, which is usually only recommended if the hatch is overdue. The theory is you put the unhatched eggs in a bowl of 99f degree water to see if they sink or bob. When doing a float test make sure the eggs have not externally pipped or have any cracks in the shell or you’ll drown the embryo. Your water needs to be the exact temperature. Let the egg sit in totally still water that is deeper than the egg and see if it moves or bobs low or on an angle– those ones are keepers. If they sink or are a high bobber – at least 45% above the waterline – they are duds – either infertile or early quitters.
I tapped each egg gently and put it to my ear to see if there was any peeping. Nothing. I floated them and they all seemed like low bobbers, except the brown one. I have to admit that I’m never quite sure if my readings are correct. I’ve found that some low bobbers weren’t viable. The other thing you want to watch for is if they are totally upright (infertile or dead) or at an angle, sometimes almost horizontal. The brown one listed off to one side, which was a good sign. I laid them down to dry them and I suddenly heard the distinct cries of a chick. I held the dark brown egg to my ear (Black Copper Marans x Naked Neck) and could hear someone trying to get out!
Shona was not going to take those eggs back. She had five chicks and that was clearly her cue to get back to living. Hens give up a lot sitting for almost 24 hrs a day for three weeks and it doesn’t take much to convince them that their job is done.
Good thing I had two more broody hens in the other half of the maternity ward: Aurora (Silver Laced Polish x Appenzeller Spitzhauben) was in one nest box and Puku (Silver Ameraucana x Icelandic) was in another. (If you don’t have a broody hen read here). I would only put two hens in a shared space if they were hatching at the same time, otherwise there can be fighting over the first chicks that hatch. Both were on Day 16-17. Four of the eggs were probably duds, but I tend to second guess myself so I split the five eggs between them: the three biggest ones under Aurora, who already had nine eggs and the two smaller eggs under petite Puku, who was sitting on six.
Now the nerve-wracking part started: my strategy was to go out at bedtime and see if there was any action on the cheeping egg. If so, I could slip it back under Shona and it would hatch by morning and she’d never be the wiser. If not, then what? At bedtime check I could still hear peeping, but the chick had not externally pipped (made a hole in the egg).
The next morning I went out before work at 6:30am with a plan. If the chick had hatched and fluffed it would be tucked under Shona right then; if not, it would stay with Aurora until I got home from work – the theory being Shona might leave it to get cold and Aurora wouldn’t be moving an inch. I heard peeping, tried to lift Aurora off the nest, but couldn’t see the chick. It must have got caught up under her, but I finally located the little one all fluffed and ready to be reunited with her mum and hatch-mates.
I cupped it in my hand and noticed it had a tiny naked neck and pouf of feathers on its head resembling a little hat. Its mum, Bif Naked, carries only one copy of the naked neck (NN) gene so she has what’s called a bowtie, a partial naked neck, and can only pass on one copy of her NN gene to 50% of her offspring. If bred to a non-NN, half will have bowties and half with have fully feathered necks. If bred to a NN rooster, all their chicks would have fully naked necks and be called ‘strippers’.
I only had a couple of minutes before I had to leave for the day so watched Shona as she let the chick crawl under her. My hope was it would be mobile enough to follow her and the other chicks around, not get separated or cold, while I was at work. It would be a ten hour wait till I got home to find out if I had made the right decision.
By the end of the day I was a bit anxious. I was pretty confident that Shona would accept the late-comer, but I’ve also heard horror stories of hens killing chicks for no apparent reason. When I got home I headed straight for the coop and didn’t immediately see any dead bodies – good sign. Shona retreated to the nest box with her chicks. I opened the nest box lid and the first chick I scooped out was the Naked Neck looking robust and healthy. I kept her out of the coop long enough to take a couple of quick photos and then returned her.
I checked the four remaining eggs and still no action. I decided to leave them just in case they were still viable. Two days later, and just the day before both Aurora and Puku’s expected hatch I planned to remove them. My fear was if the eggs were unfertilized the gas build up might cause them to explode making a big mess on the remaining eggs.
Unfortunately my timing was a bit off: in my effort to give Shona’s eggs a chance I inadvertently left it one day too long. When I lifted the nest box lid, both Puku and Aurora’s first chicks were hatching. I tried to locate the eggs I marked and couldn’t easily find them. So I left them another day hoping they wouldn’t explode. The following day I finally removed them.
Just out of curiosity I always crack open and perform ‘eggtopsies’ on any unhatched eggs. I like to record whether eggs were unfertilized or if they were, but had unhatched chicks inside. The most likely times that embryos die are either the first three, or the last three days, of incubation. If the former, there’s not much to see and if the latter, it’s the sad sight of a fully formed chick that didn’t make it.
Sometimes at this stage they have pipped internally (broken through the membrane and into the air sac) but have run out of air. They might be malpositioned in the egg which makes it difficult to zip – to turn around and start the long process of breaking out of the egg.
I cracked open the two Ameraucana and one green egg and found they were either unfertilized or had died in the first couple of days. At that stage its hard to tell. If they had been a week old I might have seen a tiny blob of a developing embryo. The forth egg, a Mille Fleur D’Uccle x Ameraucana was an early quitter (you can see the embryo forming).
One time, when hatching eggs I got from a friend, I found a fully formed chick with abnormal eyes that was also missing part of its upper beak and egg tooth, so had no way to crack open the egg.
If you use an incubator doing ‘eggtopsies’ can provide useful information about problems, such as fluctuating temperatures or humidity, that might have affected your hatch rate.
I’m happy to report that Shona and her chicks are all doing well. Aurora and Puku both went on to have good hatches.