Last time I posted, I talked about incubating chickens and how to candle them. 21 days came and went and on that last day I had the privilege of watching 16 chicks hatch out of their shells. Seven of them were from Brown Betty Farm and fellow From Scratch Club blogger Liz, and the other nine were from my local cooperative extension office. I have a variety of chicks in my care now – a blue cochin, some buff brahmas, New Hampshire reds, Red sex links, and some mystery breeds.
Finishing out the incubation and watching them hatch was spectacular. On Day 21 I heard peeping from inside the shells and the chicks started to pip through. They would peck a ring around the shell, taking breaks along the way, and after a few hours of pecking, they would use their heads and feet to push free. After emerging they would lay on the floor of the incubator, wet and exhausted, then when the energy came to them, they would thrash around and practice walking. I had heard that when they were dry and fluffy, they were ready to be moved to the incubator. I came to define it a different way: when they were tired and resting, they stayed in the incubator, but as soon as they used the incubator as a gymnasium, running around and peeping at the other chicks, it was time for them to move to the brooder.
After going through it once, I’ve learned a thing or two for the next time. Eggs that are turning into chicks need a few basic things: constant heat, constant humidity, and regular turning. The incubator provided the heat, and I made sure to turn the eggs 3-4 times a day. What had me confused starting Day One is the humidity. How do you know how much is too much, or how little is too little? Next time I’ll put a gauge in the incubator. This time I only had a plastic liner on the bottom of the incubator with a few different troughs, in which I was supposed to put water during the incubation. There were times when I would fill the trough and when I opened the incubator to turn the eggs, the air was heavy and humid. Was this normal or not? In hindsight I can say it wasn’t normal – there was too much water in there! How about the last several days, when I was supposed to fill an extra trough, close the lid, stop turning the eggs, and wait for the hatch. After a few chicks hatched out I noticed that the water level was down, so I added some extra water. Bad move. I’m sure that the 3 eggs that didn’t hatch at the end suffered because of the extra water. The water sealed up the membrane and the shell a little too much and prevented the chicks from being able to peck out.
There are two different schools of thought about helping chicks get out of their shells. Either you do it or you don’t. If you don’t, the chick won’t live. It’s not as simple as being pro-chicken versus indifferent to their life; there are very real reasons for not helping a chick out of the shell. I had no idea what I believed until I was faced with the decision. If you’re a geneticist and breeder, as was my Grandpa Fred, you would never help a chick out of the shell. A chick that has trouble getting out will go on to breed baby chicks that also have trouble getting out. Or the chick might have a birth defect that prohibits it from emerging into the world and it will die soon after hatching anyway.
My very last chick to hatch was one that wasn’t coming out on its own. I watched it peck open the shell, then push and push for hours but it couldn’t get out. I was prepared to let it be – after all, Grandpa Fred may not have helped it, and loads of other people would agree. Then my mother got in touch. “Can’t you help it out?” she asked. “No,” I said. But then I did. I peeled away a little of the shell. The yolk was already fully absorbed – no blood was seen by me as I chipped away at the shell and membrane. And lo and behold, out came a big and beautiful buff brahma, healthy as could be.
I don’t regret helping the buff brahma out of its shell, because I believe that the reason it had trouble in the first place is related to my “too much water in the incubator” moment. If I hadn’t added more water, and if the humidity had been kept at optimal levels, I probably would not have helped the chick out. I would have been more comfortable with the fact that nature was taking care of things as it should.
Now I have 16 one-week-old chicks who are developing wing and tail feathers, starting test their flying skills, and are practicing perching. They are active in spurts, then fall asleep suddenly, mindless of where they are when they make their temporary bed. Until the coop is finished, they live in a cardboard box indoors (see this post for more information on the brooder). I make an effort to handle them several times a day, not just because I think they’re adorable, but because I want them to get used to being around me and my children.
Overall, incubating eggs and taking care of chicks has been a fantastic experience, one I will recreate again in the future.
Note: My grandfather is the late Fred P. Jeffrey, former Dean of the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at the University of Massachusetts and one of the most well-known poultry geneticists in the world. He kept an enormous flock of bantams in his backyard and spent countless hours studying their behavior, their plumage, and everything else that is passed down in their genes. I wish he were here to guide me, but since he’s not, I rely on and trust the advice I know he would give. He never would have helped nature along in her process. What should be will be, he would convey. It’s a lesson to remember time and again, even when I’m not reflecting on the chickens.