My first broody hen hatched out chicks a decade ago. Over the next couple of years I had handful of hatches, and by 2018 my girls had kicked into high gear. That was the year I also started donating eggs to elementary school programs so urban kids could experience ‘the miracle of life’. When possible I used a sharpie to write the name of the hen who laid each egg, so I could later send the teacher the photos of the prospective parents. I’d also give them some information on the basic genetics of coloured eggshells, vaulted skulls or frizzled feathers. It was great that kids could ‘adopt’ an egg and follow its progress as the chick made its way into the world. When the littles got a bit bigger, and I’m sure smellier, they were returned to me.
My experience dealing with teachers has been varied. Some were in regular communication and clearly interested in the welfare of their charges, while others had a lot to be desired. I’ve always crossed my fingers that they’d carefully monitor the temperature and humidity levels of their incubator to avoid birth defects and premature death. Or they’d follow my instructions if a chick ended up with fixable issues like splayed leg or slipped tendon, and not wait until it was too late.
At the beginning of May I passed along two dozen eggs to one of those teachers, Michele, from four years ago. I went out to the coop several times a day in the hope of figuring out which hen laid a particular egg. I was even so lucky as to catch them in the act and was able to scoop the egg before the bloom had a chance to dry. Since the chicks were being returned to me I wanted to maximize the chances of ending up with blue egg layers and frizzles.
My rooster is a white Silkie crossed with an Easter Egger with unknown genetics. The only Silkie features he sports are a walnut comb, a crest and five toes. He’s got smooth feathers and white skin, although one of his daughters is melanistic (black skin, typical in purebred Silkies). I’ve discovered by monitoring his offspring that he only carries white eggshell genetics, and despite having white feathers he sometimes passes on the barring gene, making for interesting patterned birds. My hens are mostly a barnyard mix of crested birds (e.g. descendants of Appenzeller Spitzhauben, Cream Legbar, Polish and Silkie), four frizzles and a handful of blue and green egg layers. I do have two purebreds – Legbar and Ameraucana – who would pass on one blue egg gene to their chicks.
Of the 24 eggs, eleven were laid by frizzled hens (each chick has a 50% chance of having curled feathers), a dozen eggs were blue, green or olive, and one lone white egg was laid by an unknown donor.
Everything hummed along without issue. On day 16 I sent Michele some tips about what to do at lockdown (days 18-21) and in the case of any health issues. I was relieved to know that she’d be checking the incubator over the final weekend to monitor any activity. Lockdown coincided with the end of the week: she took out the automatic egg turner so the chicks wouldn’t get stuck in it as they hatched and turned up the humidity. The only problem was the humidity wouldn’t go up, stubbornly sticking at 60%. I suggested closing the vents (already done), adding a balled up paper towel or sponge soaked with water or even gently misting around, but not on, the eggs. Finally the humidity inched up to 68-70%. We emailed back and forth as she came into her classroom several times on Saturday, each time letting me know what she was doing.
On Sunday, there was good news. The first chicks had started to hatch, on the evening of day 20. I was concerned that the kids might miss seeing them actually emerge from the eggs. Michele decided to video the big event and got so engrossed in watching them what she overstayed the amount of time she told the security company she’d be at the school, which was closed for the weekend. That little lapse meant a security guard was sent to check on things and she was presented with a $300 bill! I joked that these might be the most expensive chicks, but I was also appreciative of her dedication.
By Monday morning eight chicks had hatched, followed by two more which the kids were able to observe. Four more hatched overnight for a grand total of 14.
With any hatch, by incubator or broody hen, there may come a time when intervention is warranted. Maybe a hen has abandoned unhatched eggs once she’s got some chicks or there are still some still struggling to get out of the egg. It’s not unusual that chicks may hatch over several days – the trick is to figure out which ones are still viable or not. I don’t candle my eggs and neither did Michele.
On Tuesday, the chicks were moved to the brooder and Michele compensated for the drop in humidity by adding some damp paper towel. She asked my advice about what to do with the remaining 9 eggs: three that had pipped and six had no action. I suggested she gently remove the pipped eggs, one at a time, and blow into the hole to see if the chick responded by moving its beak. Or hold the egg to her ear and tap it to see if the chick would cheep. Two of the pipped eggs were unresponsive, but one – on day 22 – was still hanging in.
When the humidity fluctuates or is not high enough the white membrane lining the inside of the egg shell can stick to the chick preventing them from moving by what is termed ‘shrink wrapping’. Their only chance for survival at this point is human help. I walked her through how to safely assist the chick by peeling back the egg shell, lightly moistening the white membrane and when the membrane was bright white indicating the veins had been absorbed, to peel back the membrane as well. What emerged was a weak chick, partially encased in membrane which Michele removed using a damp cloth. She left it in the incubator, the sole chick with the unhatched eggs, until it was ready to join its siblings (who could easily trample it in its current state).
By the following morning Trooper was wobbly and Michele worried she had an issue with his legs. Fortunately within a couple of days she’d caught up to its siblings and you’d never know how close she’d come to dying. I encouraged Michele to tell the kids that her heroic intervention had saved a life.
One of the things I’m always curious about is what happened to the eggs that didn’t hatch. I asked that the class perform ‘eggtopsies’ to find out, by gently cracking them open to see if an egg was unfertilized or if they contained embryos that died early or later in incubation. Of the original 24 eggs, nine didn’t hatch: five were unfertilized (four were from frizzled hens) and sadly, five were almost fully developed embryos (three blue eggs, one frizzle and the lone white egg). The most common time for hatching egg fails are either the first, or last, three days of incubation. It’s always hard to find chicks that died so close to hatching. Michele was disappointed with the hatch rate – 15-24 – but I assured her that ending up with robust, healthy chicks was the goal. (BTW: her 2018 hatch was slightly better at 24-36).
We arranged for me to get the chicks when they were 10- 12 days old. I usually pick them up from the school, but was off that week so she generously offered to bring them to me. I live on an island which takes some planning to catch the right ferry to minimize the amount of time the chicks were without heat. I suggested she leave her car in town and travel as a foot passenger, then hand me the box upon arrival so she could turn around and take the same ferry back. It all went without a hitch and the littles were happy to be introduced to their new home.
For the first day they were in a plastic rodent cage with a wire top which worked fine, but it was apparent that they were far too big to be comfortable in that space. The next day I rigged up some plastic netting in a separate area of my coop and put a dog crate in for their sleeping area. I use a heat lamp but make sure it’s not clamped, but suspended from a secure chain, after I once had a close call with a bulb that got bumped and left a scorched mark on the wall before I discovered it.
Their 2‘ x 6’ area has a pop door out to a 4’x 9’ completed fenced area within the 30’ x 40’ pen where my main flock lives. It’s a great way to keep them protected, but also exposes the chicks to the adults so there are no problems when I open their pen door allowing the two groups to mingle. My flock has been very welcoming to chicks and so far I’ve had no issues integrating them.
At the time of this writing the chicks are just over five weeks old and thriving. The scary news is my community was hit with an outbreak of avian influenza, in which a local farm lost 60 chickens and 40 ducks to the high pathogenic strain of H5N1 flu. The whole community is on lockdown: no birds can move on, or off, a property. Usually I find forever homes for cockerels when they are teenagers, but it looks like I’ll have to wait awhile longer until we’re in the all clear. In the meantime, I’ll get to enjoy the experience of having babies, which is the highlight of the season.
Many thanks to Michele Kraft for her dedication in taking care of the chicks and her commitment to educating her grade two class to be good chicken stewards. All photos Michele or Bitchin’ Chickens, except the featured photo by Home Science Tools