Lessons from Hatching Chicks in Late Winter

Reader Contribution by Jo Devries
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Happy, healthy chicks, despite a rough beginning. Photo by Jo deVries

Last year, I got back into raising chickens after taking a couple years off to write a book. Demand for birds was high in 2020; I was lucky to get what I did. I started the season with a selection of adult birds of different breeds. The birds bred, and I was blessed with a great variety of chicks. I hatched out 35 chicks and kept my four favourite chickens and 10 Guinea fowl.

I thought that the Guinea fowl were going to become my new flock of bug eaters as we had become so close, when they were little.That feeling didn’t last long.  The Guinea fowl were great until they reached maturity — then total hysteria every time I entered the coop. That was it; I’d had enough. I posted an ad, and they were gone the next week. The chickens were on their own to deal with the ticks.

Supporting a Broody Hen

In December, the chicks I had hatched began reaching maturity and started laying eggs themselves. I had a good idea which hens would be the first to sit on their eggs, to go broody. When a chick is only a month old, you can put very young chicks with it, to help determine the nature of the bird. Chicks that will develop into broody hens usually have that type of disposition even as young birds; their mothering instinct is already in place.

In the middle of February, my hen Sandy went broody. I debated for a while, whether it was too early to hatch out chicks in mid-March; sometimes we still have snow in April. Yet, she was willing, and I was keen to get a jump on the season. I left Sandy to sit on 10 eggs. After feeling guilty about the frigid temperatures, I crocheted a wool pad to help insulate the eggs. Sandy hated it. I had been silly enough to introduce it to her during daylight hours. When I slipped it under her in the evening, she was fine.

The crocheted pad proved a bit too rounded on the edge. Photo by Jo deVries

On a few occasions, I would find that an egg had rolled out of the crocheted basket. The curved edge of the pad would make it more difficult for an egg to be rolled back in. I decided that 10 eggs were too many for the hen to manage during this time of year, and removed a couple. On two other occasions, I found an abandoned egg in the corner, and removed it. Now I was down to six eggs.  

A week later, I decided I would bring Sandy and her eggs into my cabin. I had done this several years before; hatched out chicks in a cage in my kitchen. Since Sandy was a bit big for the cage, I decided to just put her on the floor in one corner, under a table. It was mayhem. Sandy scattered the eggs. She then proceeded to poop all over my couch. Luckily, it was covered in a quilt. Back in the coop, she settled down quickly.

Help to a Struggling Chicks

The eggs she was hatching had a green tinge to them; Sandys mother is a purebred Ameraucana that lays the most beautiful large green eggs. These light green eggs were due to hatch on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day. That day came and went.

The next day, there was a small hole in one egg. Hours later, there was no development but I could hear the chick chirping. I peeled away a bit of the shell. It looked to me like the white outer membrane was drying out and limiting the chick’s mobility. I peeled away some of the outer membrane and absorbed a bit of blood with a tissue. I put the egg back under the hen. A couple of hours later, there was no further development. I peeled away more shell and more membrane, and returned the egg to the hen.

An hour or two later, I found the cold, wet chick sprawled out across the straw. I imagined the hen had gotten up for food or water and dragged the chick with her. The chick wasn’t able to get back to her, and she obviously didn’t help it. There was a half shell laying beside it, with blood vessels visible on the inside of the shell. I was sure the chick was dead. I held it in my warm hand, and prayed. Its half-closed eyes closed completely. Well, that’s something. I walked to my cabin. Once inside, I determined the chick was alive, yet too weak to move. After warming it up on the woodstove, its revival was surprisingly quick. I returned it to its mom a couple of hours later. Oh, happy day!

I started with 10 eggs; three of the green ones hatched. Photo by Jo deVries

The next day, the other five eggs were now overdue. I heard chirping from one egg, but there was no crack. I chipped the egg and peeled some shell away. Again, the outer membrane was dry. I didn’t want to repeat the first incident, so I kept the chick warm on the woodstove. It was still too weak to chance leaving it with its mother.

It needed to be kept warm, so that evening, the two chicks slept together, wrapped in an alpaca hat, in a small carboard box, under my covers. They woke me up in the middle of the night, demanding to be fed. I mixed chick starter with water and fed it to them with an eye-dropper. They protested, but then slept till morning.

The next day, I returned the chicks to their mom. After some grueling debate over my predicament, I broke open the four remaining eggs. Three were still yoke; they had never developed. The fourth, was a chick that was also apparently trapped in its drying membrane. I took it inside my cabin and helped it out. There was more blood than the first two; I doubted it’s survival. When it was dry, I brought in one of its siblings to encourage it and help keep it warm. The chick immediately perked up. Once again, I slept with two chicks beside me in a cardboard box.

Lessons from Winter Chick Hatching

Helping chicks hatch is certainly not recommended, although I’ve seen a hen do it on a video. Hatching takes time. The blood must stop flowing through the blood vessels surrounding the chick, and the remaining yoke must ascend into the chick’s abdomen. Rushing this procedure could be fatal for the chick. We should only help out if the chick is likely to die if we don’t intervene.

I should have candled the eggs at some point, which would have saved a lot of disappointment and energy.

Would I do it again; let a hen sit on eggs in February? Probably not. But I’m happy to see Sandy thoroughly enjoying her babies, which are perfectly healthy and growing quickly.

Farm life is wonderful, but it isn’t easy. It’s demanding work, and sometimes involves difficult choices and sad endings. Still, there are the miracles and the many Kodak® moments that make it all worthwhile. Keep on farming!

Jo deVries (Jo of the Woods) designed and helped build her off-grid Ontario home, where she and her son have enjoyed a pioneer-type life-style without electricity. She is the author of Does Your House Know Where South Is? and generously shares what she has learned during her on-going journey of turning a piece of bush land in to a self-sufficient homestead. Connect with Jo of the Woods and read all of Jo’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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