I’ve had 66 hatches with broody hens over the last decade. Most have gone according to plan, some with sad endings of chicks that died before hatch or even worse, just as they were hatching. A few times I’ve managed to find externally pipped eggs, those that have cracked an opening through the shell, that needed help. It’s always a dilemma about when and how to intervene. My guiding principle is to assist if there is no alternative and the chick has a will to live. My experience of happy ending outweigh chicks that didn’t make it.
Some folks think that a hen will know when an egg isn’t viable or there is something wrong with a chick and abandon it, or kick the egg out of the nest. For me that hasn’t been true. I’ve had hens leave healthy embryos once their first few chicks have hatched. This is especially true if the chicks hatch over several days. For that reason I’m careful to place all the eggs under a hen within a 24-hour period to ensure they all hatch around the same time. The hen starts talking to the chicks a couple of days prior to hatch in encouragement. The chicks can also hear their siblings peeping and that spurs them on as well.
I’ve had a number of broody hens this season, but have worked hard to dissuade them until my grow-out pen fencing was repaired. Once that project was completed I let Shona, a three-year-old Cream Legbar, fulfill her dream of motherhood. For the past two seasons she’s gone broody twice each summer and been a good mum. I put two eggs under her and then, the next day, I added 11 more. I’m not sure why I went over my dozen-egg maximum, but she wasn’t happy. The following day she carefully broke and ate all evidence of the unwanted 13th egg. She must have rolled it out of the nest box first, because there wasn’t a trace of yolk on the remaining eggs. I should have known better: if a hen can’t fully cover all the eggs they risk uneven incubation and death. Good for Shona for rectifying my mistake.
She was hunkered down in a nest box in an unoccupied 4’x4’ coop with access to food and water. I saw evidence of her eating and drinking, but I was amazed how little she pooped. Usually broody hens store up a whole day’s worth and evacuate it all at once in a big, smelly deposit. There were days she didn’t poop at all and days when she hung her bum just shy of the edge of the nest box, which is level with the floor, and pooped inside the lip. It was my job to carefully extricate it so it wouldn’t contaminate the eggs.
Twenty-one days is the usual amount of time required to incubate chicken eggs. I’ve had some chicks hatch as early as day 19 and others as late as day 23. The first two eggs hatched on their day 22, followed by the next six on their day 22. On day 23 there were four eggs remaining. I usually try to coordinate hatching with my days off so I can monitor their progress, but this time I was at work. I got home just after 4pm and found Shona had left the nest with the chicks and abandoned the eggs. I saw that two looked intact, but two had small external pips. At this point a chick is breathing oxygen, but if too weak can die before breaking through the rest of the shell.
All four eggs were cold, so I imagine Shona had been off them for a number of hours. I did a bit of Bitchin’ Chickens mouth-to-beak resuscitation: I blew warm air into the hole and the little beak responded by moving. I very gently picked off some of the shell, leaving the white membrane, which still had visible veins. This is a chick’s blood supply and if severed before the veins were totally absorbed and the membrane clear the chick can bleed to death. I did the same for the second chick, who was also still hanging on.
If it had been evening and Shona was in the nest box for the night I would have put the eggs back under her. Once ambulatory, I knew she’d have no interest in incubating them. I’ve had some half-assed broody hens that I had been trying to convince to give it up. I now hoped one of them had defied me and was still sitting. As luck would have it, Nigella, was in the nest box and screeched when I approached. I tucked all four eggs under her hoping her heat source would be enough to revive them.
I was cautious about annoying her, but I went back two hours later and the chicks were still alive. I picked off more shell and moistened the membrane with my dampened fingertip. If the membrane dries out it can shrink-wrap a chick so they are unable to move within the egg. As I picked off the shell and membrane, one of the chicks had evidence of dried blood deep within the eggshell. I’ve never seen that before and don’t know what caused it. The struggling chicks went back under Nigella.
I returned in another two hours and was dismayed to see Nigella in another nest box and the ramp to the roost bars was on the floor. I don’t know if she panicked and knocked it down or when it fell she bolted and returned to another box. At that point I wasn’t feeling too hopeful. The eggs and the chicks were cold. More breathing on them and working to get them out. I chipped away at the shells, moistened the membrane and worked them loose. Their only hope of survival was heat. I removed the rest of the eggshell and membrane, which was now totally clear.
Chick 1 had dried blood inside the shell as well as a patch on its abdomen. Shona was tucked up with her chicks for the night so I placed the two back under her. I cracked open the two that didn’t pip: one was unfertilized and the other had a fully developed embryo with an unabsorbed yolk sac, who I estimate died on @ day 18-19.
One of the things about intervening is trying to figure out if you made the right decision. Did those chicks not hatch because they were weak and something was wrong with them? Did I inadvertently save a chick with health issues? Should I have brought the eggs into the house and tried to hatch them rather than putting them under Nigella? I had a fairly sleepless night reviewing all the potential scenarios of what I would find the next day: two dead chicks, two healthy chicks, chicks with problems, or one of each.
At 8am I went out to find Shona in the main area of the coop with the chicks and there was one dead chick in the nest box. I did a quick scan and didn’t see another body so I was hopeful that the remaining chick was mobile enough to have followed her hatch mates. I am not overly hands-on with my birds, which can cause them stress, but I did want to check on the late hatcher. I hadn’t even seen all the other chicks yet as they’d always been under her. I nudged Shona a bit, which revealed 5 mostly black and 4 mostly yellow chicks. I could tell which one I’d helped, as she was significantly smaller at a full day or two behind the others. She was able to motor around just fine, which was a relief.
I picked up the dead one and was sad to see it was a fully formed and robust looking with 5-toes like her Silkie x dad. She had fluffed up, so I assume she had lived long enough to dry off. Her body was along the back wall of the next box so I wondered if she didn’t get the full benefit of Shona’s body heat.
Both chicks that I helped were similar looking and by the next day I couldn’t tell which was the one that had dried blood on it, as there was no trace left. I did figure it out from looking at the photos that is was chick 1, the one who had died.
I’m always sad when chicks don’t make it, but at least there is a happy ending for the healthy chick that did survive.
At 10-days old I could still tell which was the assisted hatch chick as she was a bit smaller and had a darker yellow head than the others. Soon she’ll have caught up in size and her colours will lighten and I won’t notice any difference between them.
It’s interesting to note a couple of things about this hatch: I can usually tell when chicks are close to hatching as the hen starts clucking softly and spends hours cheerleading them on. I checked on Shona two or three times a day and never heard her talking to the eggs.
Another islander, Auralee, got two dozen eggs from me on the same day that I put the 11 under Shona. Her chicks started hatching on day 18 and by time mine were just starting she had 20 chicks. I know Shona diligently incubated those eggs, rarely getting off them for 23 days. What I don’t know is how often she turned them or if some eggs were directly under her breast, while others were situated on the periphery. I do know that I was glad to have intervened even if it meant I could only save one healthy chick.