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How to help chicks during hatching

Day old chickIs it worth it to help chicks who are having trouble getting out of the shell?  For that matter, how can you tell if they're having trouble?  If you do help, how?  I'm far from an expert, but after our second hatch, I'm starting to feel like I have a handle on the answers to these thorny questions, so I thought I'd share.

First of all, the course of least resistance is to not help, which is what I did with our first hatch.  If you're okay with some good chicks dying in the incubator, this route makes sense, but you can improve your hatch rate by giving troubled chicks a hand.  That said, I wouldn't recommend helping unless:

  • You have some sort of critical care unit prepared (like a spare incubator, all warmed up.)  Chicks you help out of the shell are likely to be weak and will need some extra time in a warm spot where they won't be picked on.  Otherwise, your more vibrant chicks might peck them to death.
  • You have a way of boosting the humidity in the incubator.  Helping means opening the lid more, which can harm your currently hatching chicks.  I devised an easy method of increasing the incubator humidity so that the chicks barely noticed me lifting the lid.
  • You're willing to cull chicks.  The process of escaping the shell naturally kills chicks that are damaged or are too weak to make it in life.  By helping chicks out of the shell, you're taking responsibility for euthanizing the ones that survive but are too damaged to live in your flock.  One of the three chicks we helped had a problematic leg (not splayed legs, but worse) that meant it would never be able to walk, and we had to put it out of its misery.  We figured out how to cull chicks so that they die in seconds (but I'm putting the information behind a link since I know the image will bother some of you.)


A brown, dry membrane is a sign of a stuck chick. Compare to the healthy, damp membrane below.If you aren't scared into letting nature take its course, let's move on to when to help chicks.  In most cases, an untroubled chick will pip (peck a hole in its shell) and then spend some time thinking about its options.  After anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, the chick starts hitting its beak against the shell in earnest to unzip itself, a process that usually only takes an hour or so once started.  You can tell the chick is having trouble if it gets stuck for several hours in the unzipping stage, either futilely banging its beak against the hole without making further openings in the shell or mostly unzipped but unable to kick free.  A chick is also troubled if it's pipped but hasn't started unzipping after twelve hours, or if the bit of exposed membrane around the pipping hole is starting to turn tan and dry.  Finally, if a chick somehow maneuvers itself so that it's trying to pip at the pointed end of the shell, it won't be able to get out, so you might as well help from the beginning.

If you have a stuck chick, how can you help?  You'll need a basin of warm water (baby bottle temperature), a clean rag, and nimble fingers.  First step is to moisten the membranes since they've probably started to dry out if the chick has been pipped for so long.  Dampen the rag in the warm water and encircle the egg, then squeeze a few drops of water onto the exposed membrane around the pipping hole.  Be careful not to drown the chick, though, since its beak will be right there --- you don't want any water to actually run into the egg, just hydrate the membrane.  Since the chick has already started a hole, it should be pretty simple to gently pick off bits of shell and membrane, opening up a line around the shell just like the chick would have.  If your chick is worth saving, once you get the shell separated into two halves, it will kick its way out, which is important for development of the chick's legs.  The membrane shouldn't bleed --- if it does, the chick isn't really quite ready to hatch, so pop it back in the incubator.  (All of this is done in a warm spot outside the incubator, by the way.  You plucked out the problematic egg and quickly reclosed the lid to keep everyone else toasty and moist.)

Nine chicksI helped three chicks during our most recent hatch, and all three of them would have survived if I hadn't decided to cull the chick with the troubled leg.  I'm about 95% sure all three of these chicks would have died if I hadn't helped, so I figure the time was well spent.  Plus, I didn't have dead chicks stinking up the incubator like I did last time around, so I was able to let it keep running clear to the end of day 22, netting one late hatcher halfway through the last day.  I'll definitely help any ailing chicks next time.

Don't worry about water and food while the chick is recovering in critical care, but as soon as it reaches the brooder, it will be ready for clean water from our chicken waterer.



Incubation HandbookSince writing this post, I've perfected my technique of helping chicks without bothering their siblings.  I've also got a better handle on when it's a good idea to help, and when those chicks will have to be culled.  Learn more about helping chicks out of the shell in my 99 cent ebook.

Permaculture Chicken: Incubation Handbook walks beginners through perfecting the incubating and hatching process so they can enjoy the exhilaration of the hatch without the angst of dead chicks. 92 full color photos bring incubation to life, while charts, diagrams, and tables provide the hard data you need to accomplish a hatch rate of 85% or more.






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When it comes to raising our own food, it's better that the process is hampered by those who haven't the emotional fortitude to cull a few chicks than laws that prohibit the rest form keeping fowl in the first place.
Comment by Dean Thu May 19 10:57:26 2011

Congrats on your new additions. I hope you didn't get your hopes up to much (counting your chickens before they hatch). I would think of this hatch as a great success. I didn't catch the final number but your hatch rate looks great. I wish I could be so lucky, although you now have me thinking that a part of my problems may be age of my girls.

Your neonatal intensive care chickens look great thanks to their c-section. I have always read to never attempt this. That it is crucial to development. I'm forced to watch as healthy looking chickens die just one crack away from freedom. But after your example, I think I will assist in the final stages next time if need be. I mean what is there to lose.

Congrats again, those are some cute chicks.

Comment by Erich Thu May 19 11:49:41 2011
Wow that sounds like a really high level of assistance to me. What level of humidity did you keep during incubation and then during the last 3 days? It sounds to me like maybe their humidity was too low and they weren't able to get out of the shell well. Our first hatch I helped 0. We had 15 of 20 who pipped, all hatched without assistance. Our second batch we have had 15 hatch so far, and 19 left who have pipped. I did help one of those who had been working on it since yesterday afternoon and had one dry wing waving around. I picked off just a tiny bit of the shell so it could get a better leverage, and let it do the rest itself. It very well may die. Often if it does live it will be more delayed for a very long time. It honestly may not be doing it a favor, but I felt bad and didn't want it to die. We had many who pipped and didn't hatch by 12 hours, or even do much so I don't' think I'd jump in and help in that case. A resource I read said it could take up to 40 hours, but I don't think any took more than 24.
Comment by Homemade Alaska Thu May 19 12:11:08 2011

Dean --- I'm not sure how laws come into play here, but I think I agree with you? (Head's still a little fuzzy from the hatch drama, so I'm not sure I parsed your comment right.)

Erich --- I'm very happy with our hatch rate! Not quite what I hoped, but definitely massively better than the first time along. We ended up with 9 happy chicks, which is pretty good since 4 of the original eggs were infertile and don't count into our hatch rate at all. That's 45% hatch total, but 58% for the cuckoo marans who weren't hindered by old age of the parents. I figure I can reach the backyard hatcher's standard of 75% to 80% within another try or two!

I think that being willing to cull birds that really shouldn't have hatched is key if you attempt helping them. The actual helping didn't seem nearly as invasive as I thought it would be --- I didn't seem to be hurting the chicks at all. And it's just too painful to watch the chicks die when you know you can help.

Homemade in Alaska --- I think that humidity during hatch was a problem during our first time around, but this time our incubator had a gauge and I kept it around 71%. The really spunky chicks had no problem --- the reason I had to help so many is because our homegrown chicks were just less vigorous due to the age of their mothers. I'm hopeful that during our next hatch (without using our old hens' eggs), we won't need to help as much. That said, it didn't seem to hurt anything --- as of this afternoon, both of the helped chicks that I kept are still alive. Our homegrown one is still a bit tired, resting under the brooder, but the other is perky and I think they're both going to make it.

My analysis of when to help isn't really based on how long they've been pipped, but on how they're acting. If they've only pipped, but are banging their heads futilely against the shell, they're clearly trying to unzip and just aren't able to. I don't think chicks can sustain that unzipping activity for more than a few hours, so even if they haven't gotten past the pip stage in terms of hole size, I help them if they've been trying to unzip for a long time.

Comment by anna Thu May 19 17:27:40 2011

Not sure if it works on chickens, but I have seen this work on other birds, namely a small parrot and a turkey. The leg bones are still a little soft at birth, if the leg is not splayed out to far you can turn it (a little) and splint it. Leave it for a day or two then turn it a little more re-splinting it, if it looks like it will not work you can always put it down later. Since chickens have to be able to roost it would be a wait and see thing. About the parrot, ever so often he would fall off his perch at night. I will not describe the language he used while climbing back up to the pearch; he picked up some choice ones at my dad's garage.

Comment by Don G Thu May 19 21:18:28 2011
I read up on splayed legs when our chick hatched, and was pretty sure that wasn't the problem (although you're totally right that splinting splayed legs seems to fix them in most cases.) One leg was sticking out way behind the chick and I couldn't move it up into a normal position (although I didn't try hard once it was clear I was hurting the chick.) The chick was positioned so that it was pipping at the pointy end of the shell, and I suspect it struggled so hard that it broke its leg or pulled its leg out of the socket or something. I figured that I was going to bumble around and cause a lot of pain without much likelihood of fixing the problem, which is why I culled the bird.
Comment by anna Fri May 20 06:48:45 2011

Thank you so much for having this information available. I had a early pipper who got stuck in process and never zipped her shell all the way. After reading your post I assisted by zipping the shell but not the membrane and she hatched within the hour and appears to be doing well. Thank you so much

Comment by Jenn Chubb Tue Jan 29 14:43:16 2013

E book permaculture chicken infomration handbook. I cant get the book from Kindle although its advertised there, it says there is no pricing information how can i get it?

Comment by Stacey Morley Mon Mar 25 06:58:04 2013
Stacey --- I'm sorry you're having trouble. When I click through, the ebook looks available, so the only thing I can think is that perhaps you're outside the U.S.? If so, go to your country's Amazon page and type "Permaculture Chicken: Incubation Handbook" in the search box and you should see a purchasable version. Thanks for your interest!
Comment by anna Mon Mar 25 09:37:59 2013
This was my first hatch, no incubators... good old fashioned chickens... 2 of my babes were breech in their eggs and pipped at the wrong ends. Both would have died and had been trying to break free with no progress for over 12 hours. After reading, we ever so delicately saved one chick. It's absolutely thriving. The other was not ready to be here, but would have died regardless, so felt like I should try... The Lord did place us to care for the animals, didn't he? The yolk sac was still visible, so now I have a real dilemma. This lil baby (Trooper) has been in a make shift incubator for almost 24 hours and seems to be doing well considering... It is still very sleepy but does chirp a bit. I am checking on it every couple hours, keeping it moist and most of the yolk has been absorbed. Is it possible that this lil one will make it too??
Comment by chickie_mama Fri Apr 26 17:36:46 2013