It's summer, and incubators are abuzz with activity as backyard chicken breeders are hatching batch after batch of chicks.
Day 21 of incubation is always an exciting time. You can hear cheeping and eggshells are cracking, and your new chicks are coming out one by one — except the ones that don't.
Raising chickens is a precarious journey of loss and rebound. You can do everything right and still lose birds, because that's life. There is rarely 100 percent success in egg hatching. It's expected, but still it's heart-wrenching when a chick breaks through the shell and then gets stuck. Then you, too, are stuck in a dilemma: should you help? Or should you let nature take its course?
Here's my take on this: By popping those eggs in the incubator, you have already strayed from nature's course. There are many reasons to use an incubator, including timing, quantity, and reliability, but no matter what, I have always found that hatching rates are better with a reliable broody that keeps perfect conditions of temperature and humidity.
In other words, if something goes amiss during hatching in the incubator, it's usually my "fault". Maybe the temperature was too low or the humidity not high enough. Either way, it's my responsibility to help all the chicks that possibly have a chance of making it.
Some people say that chicks that are unable to come out of the shell on their own are deformed anyway and should be culled. I have not found it to be so. Often, the chick gets stuck to the shell because of sub-optimal hatching conditions, but with some assistance, will be fine within a couple of days.
In the photo, you can see one of the chicks from our latest hatch. I practically had to peel the shell as if it were a hard-boiled egg. It was pretty weak when it hatched, but a few days later, I couldn't tell the difference between this chick and its peers anymore. There would have been absolutely no sense in letting this, now perfectly healthy, chick die.
So when should you assist in hatching? A crucial principle is "first do no harm". If the chick doesn't have enough time to absorb the yolk sac, they will die. In the majority of the cases, I'd say it's better to step back.
However, if the chick has pipped (made a hole in the shell) but not zipped (pecked its way around the perimeter of the egg) for 24 hours, or if it has started zipping but failed to continue, and the membranes are drying and turning yellow, the chick may be stuck.
In this case, prepare a bowl of lukewarm water, take the hatching egg out of the incubator and, wetting the membrane just below the shell with your fingers, begin gently breaking off bits of shell. Sometimes the chick will be able to get on with minimal assistance. Sometimes you will have to do the whole job, like with my little friend here - the membrane was so dry and stuck I had to peel it off even when the shell was already gone.Be very careful not to damage the chick's fragile skin while chipping off the eggshell. Chicks are extremely delicate, and you could easily make them bleed. Go slow and steady when you help them hatch.
I hope you enjoy a rewarding hatching season with excellent success rates.
Anna Twitto’s academic background in nutrition made her care deeply about real food and seek ways to obtain it. Anna, her husband, and their four children live on the outskirts of a small town in northern Israel. They aim to grow and raise a significant part of their food by maintaining a vegetable garden, keeping a flock of backyard chickens, and foraging. Anna's books are on her Amazon.com Author Page. Connect with Anna on Facebook and read more about her current projects on her blog. Read all Anna's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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