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Chicks hatching

Newly hatched chickThe most exciting part of the incubation process can also be the most traumatic if you don't know what you're doing.  This final post in the lunchtime series tells you what to expect during hatch time, but the 99 cent ebook from which the post is drawn covers much more information.  I hope you'll splurge a buck if you want to learn more about preparing for the hatch, helping chicks out of the shell, troubleshooting incubation problems, and getting your youngsters off to a healthy start.

Chick pippingYou'll probably see at least one chick pipping (pecking the initial hole into its shell) on day 19 or 20.  I like to record the date and time each egg pips to give me an indication of whether chicks are having trouble.  I explain how and when to help chicks in another section, but for now, just be aware that it's very normal to see a delay of 8 to 12 hours between pipping and unzipping (when the chick severs the blunt end of the shell and breaks its way free).  But if a chick has pipped but not begun to unzip 24 hours later, it might be in trouble.

Taking a chick out of the incubatorIf you've done a good job with all of the early incubation steps, your chicks will probably pop right out of their shells one after another with no help from you.  Some manuals recommend leaving your chicks in the incubator for an entire day without lifting the lid to allow the youngsters to dry off completely, but I've had much better luck plucking chicks out of the incubator within 45 minutes of hatching and either plopping them into the brooder to finish drying off or placing them in a smaller incubator.

Struggling chickThe trouble with leaving chicks in the incubator after they hatch is that the baby birds will stumble around madly, rolling eggs and (in the worst case scenario) spearing partially hatched chicks with their claws.  In my experience, newly hatched chicks are upset by not having anything soft to snuggle into, so they keep hopping around even though they're exhausted.  Once I pop a newly hatched chick under our brooder, it stops peeping shrilly and soon falls asleep.

Two day old chicksThere are two downsides to removing chicks from the incubator one at a time throughout the hatch process.  Chicks come out of the shell soaked to the skin and can easily catch a chill, especially if you're hatching in cold weather.  Forty-five minutes in the incubator is just long enough that the chick's feathers are (mostly) dry, but is not long enough that they puff up into the protective ball of fuzz most of us think of when we envision a chick.  In warm weather (and even in cold weather if there are at least two or three other chicks in the brooder for the newly hatched youngster to snuggle into), this level of dry off is enough.  However, if your first chick comes out of the shell when your room temperature is below about 50 degrees Fahrenheit, you should either put up with the problems caused by leaving the chick in the main incubator until at least one more chick hatches and dries, or should place the newly hatched chick in a spare incubator for a few hours.  You'll be able to tell if you put a too-wet chick into a too-cold brooder because it will keep chirping frantically rather than quieting down after a minute or two.

Increasing humidity within the incubatorThe other issue with removing chicks from the incubator one by one is that every time you lift the lid, the incubator cools slightly and the humidity levels drop.  You can counteract this problem to some extent with speed --- open the lid with one hand while you snag the chick with the other.  If it's pretty cold in the room, I like to heat up some water until it's steaming and top off the wells when I take off the incubator lid since the hot water will keep the temperature in the incubator high and will also increase the humidity drastically.  Using an evaporating cloth (explained in another section) also helps keep the humidity within the incubator at a high level.

Two new chicksEven though it's not 100% necessary, I open the lid a second time after the new chick is safely ensconced in the brooder, this time to tidy up the interior of the incubator.  I remove large pieces of eggshell so chicks won't cut themselves on the sharp edges and I roll any disturbed eggs over so their pipping holes are facing up.  (Sometimes, a chick will stumble across a neighboring egg and turn that chick face down, which makes it harder for the down-turned chick to hatch.)  Finally, I quickly move eggs around so that ones likely to hatch soonest have a little more open space around their blunt ends.  As with removing the chick, I work quickly to ensure I don't lower the temperature and humidity in the incubator enough that it doesn't rebound a few minutes after I close the lid.

Chicken incubation bookThis post is part of our Chicken Incubation lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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I've gotten through the intro of the newest ebook. I love the description of your first hatch. It sounds like a lot of fun to raise chicks this way, but I would much sooner get chicks 3 or more weeks old than try to raise them from tiny fluffballs. Our Feed Store is pretty good at keeping stocked with desirable breeds and it's much easier to let them suffer the early losses and pay the same price for older, stronger chicks. That said, I'm not raising more than 4-6 chicks a year, and mostly just pullets for laying.

I've honestly never considered incubating, because I remember my grandfather trying when I was younger and he threw in the towel. Luckily, he had no trouble with broody hens raising their own (especially the cochin, or cochin crosses-- we didn't know their full history, but they were small with feathered feet). He always had an interesting assortment of little bantam chicks running around. I think he ended up with purebred and hybrids of Lakenvelder, Golden Penciled Hamburgs, Black Rosecombs, Partridge Rocks, the cochin crosses and maybe a few others that I'm not remembering. Those were fun times.

Comment by Sara Sat Apr 7 13:13:09 2012
Sara --- There is a lot of fiddliness involved in getting chicks from egg to three weeks old. That said, I'm not sure I'd want to count on the feed store's selection. Our feed store had once choice available --- "red layers" --- which might or might not deal well with foraging for their own food. But, as you said, if you're just raising a few chicks per year, that might not matter!
Comment by anna Sat Apr 7 15:33:54 2012

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