The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

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:

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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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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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
I have a pipped and zippered baby, but cannot hatch through the rest of the shell, its dry membrane is exposed...and i have moistemed it...the baby is chirping fine and is breathing fine, I have helped Crack the rest of the shell in a circle around the egg, baby is still having trouble kicking out...what do I need to do? otherwise I will Crack the entire she'll and mmoisten the baby carefullcarefully hoping the baby will break free...
Comment by Piper Tue Apr 28 09:08:19 2015
Piper --- Five days after unzipping, I'm surprised your chick is still alive if it's not fully hatched! I would definitely moisten the membrane and peel the shell away, although it sounds like your chick may have leg problems that made it unable to fully hatch. Good luck!
Comment by anna Tue Apr 28 19:17:19 2015
I think its nice for people to be able to find this kind of information. Looking back at myself in July I wouldn't have thought I would have been incubating eggs myself. In August I got the urge to research how to incubate chicken eggs & so I made my own bator set some eggs 21 days later I only had 2 eggs left out of the 9 I started with, 1 pipped & the other 1 had died a day or 2 before hatch day. Me being me I let the pipped 1 sit for a few hours then decided to assist it (after recalling 1 video I watched before I even started to incubate) anyways the chick lived im glad I decided to assist it because I don't think it would have been able to get out on its own. I went through this same scenario with 2 more batches in Sept. & each chick from all 3 batches lived & thrived very well. Im just on here refreshing my memory for a batch I set 21 days ago since I haven't done any since last batch I did in sept. & thought I should say thanks for putting this on here for people who need it, I would post all my details on what I do if I knew how to make a page like you.
Comment by Alicia Mon Nov 23 02:47:18 2015

Here is the just of it: NEVER EVER help a chick hatch. I learned it the hard way, many a time I lost many of them because I simply could not handle my anticipation :) So I had the urge to throw my 2 cents, it might help some others :)

Reading this forum, you probably are a newbie as I am. I know how impatient you could be waiting to see the baby chick out of the shell, I know I was, and still am whenever there is a clutch in the incubator, I was also a bit afraid that would die if the hatching takes too long. You have probably read many times that you should not even open the incubator until all the chicks are out of their shells, much less help them chick hatch, it is dangerous and can often lead to bleeding & the death of the baby birds.

Here is the thing: do not worry for their safety! As long as they cracked the shell and thus they can breath, there is nowhere in the world safer for them than inside that shell.

A chick can survive without food or water for up to 3 days, add to that 1 day (because inside the shell it is not moving nor spending energy). Besides, if it did not get our yet, chances are that it did not finish absorbing its yolk yet, so add 1 more day. All in all, you can leave the chicks in their shell for up to 5 days (in most extreme cases) after they make the first crack !!!

Hope this would help some of you :)

Comment by tabch Tue May 3 06:24:29 2016

Some breeds are harder to hatch than others. Especially after cold winter in the coop(we live near Canada where temps reach 20 below for weeks) getting oyster shell as a supplement. Makes for thicker/harder shells. Larger breeds like Rhode reds jersey giants chicks often need a little assist. We've helped zip and break outs of distressed chicks. If you still see bloody membranes we've wrapped the 1/4 opened egg with warm damp paper towels to keep them moist(not directly on chick) back into the incubator they go. eventually they roll them selves out when ready. There are ways of resolving many leg issues for chicks that have been in too long using pipe cleaners and forming braces(crooked toes etc) Below is a add for poop free water.Chickens are naturally adapted to drinking from puddles lakes ponds and streams. My older birds had a hard time w/ drip line. As babies they drank from the bell. I 've made my own trouble free watering system using a toilet flush valve and cat litter pale ( like what fresh step comes in w/ plastic lid) Cutting the end off & stuffing the 3/8 supply line into a garden hose cutting a hole in bottom of pail opening up the sides for access. Lid keeps chicks from messing in water.The whole thing cost me $15. I may have to clean it once a month as fresh water is added when low(flush valve) If it's too tall toss a rock next to it.

Comment by Robert Tyrrell Tue Jun 7 21:09:12 2016
My chick got hatched today but it was stuck in the egg, I saw it late after some hours and when I went to check on it, it was still in it shell and ants trying to feed on the it while the rest were gone with the hen.......I helped it out of the shell but still unable to stand on it's own and I saw wounds on it's body.........The feathers are not like the rest of the chicks. Help me see to it
Comment by Michael Sun Mar 10 12:57:27 2019
I like to have my hens do the work of raising chicks for me… so if one of them goes broody this year, we might consider sneaking a couple of chicks under her. Otherwise, probably not. 20 is plenty for us!
Comment by thuoc ga da Fri Jul 26 23:41:58 2019
THANK YOU! We have about 40 free range chickens here on our piece of land, and this was the first time I had to help a little guy out of his shell. The membrane had turned hard and brown, I succefully got him out following all your advice step by step.. He is 100% perfect. Thank you for this wonderful info. kind regards
Comment by Heidi stubenvoll Mon Jan 25 09:05:05 2021

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