Hi there. I'm long-time chicken keeper with a lot of experience, but even I can get so caught up in making sure humidity is perfect and the temperature is within 0.01 degrees that I simply forget- like most animals, chickens are built to survive- and they want to survive. We’re just here to help them along that path. This article is a recap of my most recent hatching experience which I wanted to share with you, if for no other reason, to remind us all that mother nature has a plan and our hatching eggs (and chicks) are a lot more resilient than we give them credit for! Of course this isn’t a free-pass to slack off on your incubation, it is a reminder that when things go a little wrong (or a lot wrong), not to lose hope.
The Calm Before the Storm
My bright white Silkie, Snowflake, decided she was going broody for the first time even though my “chicken math” already had me at my head-count limits… so I sure didn’t need any more chickens hatching… but try explaining that to her. I decided I was just going to wait her out. It only took 2 more days of her sitting there being super serious about the whole I’m-going-to-be-a-mother thing before I caved in and gave her 4 small white eggs to sit on (a couple of her own and a couple top hats). This would then constitute “Day 1”.
A few days later, on Day 4, after rationalizing that my neighbors and friends likely needed more chickens (AKA “chicken math” at its finest, sure I don’t need them… but someone else does!) I decided I would incubate another 7 eggs because I had a perfectly good momma bird ready to raise them for me. Easy!
Days 5-17 everything is going hunky dory, Snowflake is a good sitting hen despite being a first-timer, I candled her eggs and the incubator eggs – they look good and strong. Somewhere in this period she threw an egg out of the nest… so she’s got 3 and I had 6 of the 7 in the incubator progressing properly. 9 chicks on the way! Everything is just peachy, what could possibly go wrong at this point?
Here Comes the Storm
Then comes Day 18 and things start going off the rails… right when we’re supposed to be entering the “lockdown” period. Snowflake has decided that for whatever reason, she is done sitting and she has essentially abandoned the nest. I find this strange because Silkies are notoriously good moms, nothing has changed, and even though she was sitting a few days before I gave her eggs this would still only be Day 20 for her. Her 3 eggs are now cool to the touch (which is bad!) and my incubator is full (also bad!).
I carry her back to the nesting box in the coop a few times and she sits for a minute or two and then just wanders off again. I realize she’s pretty much decided she’s off the nest for good at this point so I gathered up her 3 eggs and "lock" her in the brood box of my brooder for the night (which I like to refer to as a 6x4 private luxury run more than a box). My idea with locking her in the box was hopefully if she had nowhere else to go, that maybe she’d go back to sitting, and if not… her heat overnight would keep them warmer than the air temperature while I figured things out.
Day 19 comes around. She still wasn't having it... in fact when I opened the box in the morning, she was just standing over the eggs and had pooped in the nest box which even though I locked her in, a broody hen doesn’t typically do except once a day. The eggs were warmer than the air so looks like my idea works she had to sit on them to sleep. I was thinking of ideas of how to get these eggs through the next couple days to hatch… and was running low on ideas. I had considered stacking them in my incubator but they could fall and/or cause issues for those 6 hatching eggs, so I didn’t want to risk 6 healthy developing chicks for the sake of 3 that were potentially already lost. So I pulled in a heat lamp and tried to position it at the right distance to hit as close to 37.5 C as I could. Pretty sure this isn’t going to work… but I’m out of options. I let Snowflake out, after all she did her best, she was just done- and she went off frolicking with the rest of the flock.
In the Eye of the Storm
The next morning, Day 20, I decide to candle the eggs in the nest, which this late in the game isn’t a great thing to do but I’m at the point of needing to just close up shop for my own sanity. First egg… looks still as expected… but wait… there’s movement in there?! Second egg… same. Third… same. I’m floored. All 3 chicks are still alive and developing. Now I have a completely unbalanced incubation environment being kept together by the humid late-summer weather and a heat lamp… oh, and a nesting box with no hen in it.
But then… I noted my Buff Orpington, Butterscotch, was spending a lot of time in the coop the day before, so I go take a look and no question in my mind, today she is broody. We all know our flock, and well she’s squawking at me and opening her beak and puffing up defending her nest- all things she never does, she’s usually quite mild mannered. I’m ecstatic, I’ve got a warm-bodied hen and 3 abandoned eggs, this is just wonderful. I go grab the eggs out of my brood-box-rigged-with-a-heat-lamp setup and sneak them under her (by sneak, I mean while she is extraordinary vocal... and lightly pecking at my fingers saying don't you touch me I'm broody in case all my cackling hasn't informed you already)... but she doesn’t push them out. I watch for about 30 minutes she pushes them around a bit and then I see her loop her beak in front of them one at a time and pull them under her chest (which for those of you who have hatched before know how adorable that is- but also a sign that she has accepted them into her clutch). Like Snowflake, she is also a first-time mom.
Of course, no blessing comes without a catch right… there is one slight issue in the fact that she has been sitting for 1, maybe 2 days at this point and she now has 3 eggs under her that were supposed to hatch tomorrow (not 21 days from now…). We’re in a far better place than we were in my opinion, but we are still far from out of the woods.
Days 21 and 22 she is sitting on the nest like a Champ. Leaving once a day to eat and take care of business.
Day 23… still nothing. We’re now 2 days past hatch date and I know they were alive 3 days ago. I’m getting a little antsy because my incubator chicks are on schedule for 2 days from now.
No Storm Lasts Forever
Day 24 rolls around and I have no pips I my 3 eggs under Butterscotch, nothing. I figure if they were going to make it after all of that, it was going to be late... but I'm assuming the worst. After trying to talk her down I finally get an egg out from under her and listen... nothing. Then all of a sudden CHIRP! in my ear like the thing was in my hand- wow they’re still alive! So now I am faced with the age-old “should I help them hatch” question- which 99% of the time is a hard NO! So I follow the time-tested advice and leave them be because I know they’ve been through a lot (that’s an understatement).
Day 25 and still no pips on the 3 eggs but there are clearly live chicks inside, and now some of the eggs in my incubator are pipping (on schedule). I have to make an executive decision given what these eggs have been through and how late it is. Day 25 is really late, but it’s not the end of the line late. Still, being 4 days past ideal hatch date I decide I will take some minimal helping action and create a pip for them. I use a scratch awl to break a very small hole in the bottom side of the three nest eggs and put them back under Butterscotch. I’m also concerned about the fact that Butterscotch is a first time mom and has been sitting only 5 days, will she accept the chicks?
A Ray of Light
Day 26 I wake up and check the incubator and I have 2 hatched chicks, 2 close, 1 pipped and 1 without anything.
I go out to the coop expecting the worst but hoping for the best- and lo and behold this is what I see…
Butterscotch has a chick out of the shell and it’s looking at me! I don’t want to mess with her too much, but I do want to confirm where the other two chicks are in their process. She of course greets me in her typical get-away-from-me-and-my-babies way, which I fully appreciate and respect because I wasn’t even sure if she’d accept the chicks! After a little investigation work, indeed all three have hatched into healthy looking baby chicks on Day 26! Welcome to the world little ones!! These chicks went from one mom, to no mom, to a box with a heat lamp, to another mom and hatched 4-5 days later than normal. Amazing.
Now comes the fun part I want to get all my incubator chicks under Butterscotch (she’s a big bird, she has plenty of room and I’d prefer she raises them to them being raised in a box!). So I slip a few day-old eggs under her (in my mind to trick her into thinking there may be a few more chicks still coming). I also want to move her out of my busy main coop (20 chickens or so) into her private, luxurious brood box. So that late evening at chicken bed time I grab her and her 3 chicks and lock them in the new brood box for the night.
Hang on… a Little More Rain!
It’s Day 27, the day I imagine everything is going to just work out perfectly and things will just come together in chicken perfection, right? Almost.
First thing in the morning I go let Butterscotch out of the brood box so she can check out her new space. Inside, I now have 4 chicks in the incubator, one pipped, and one that looks unchanged (this is now day 23 for those eggs). I make the call to move forward with my chick-moving plan and decide I am going to sneak those 4 hatched chicks under her tonight. So later that evening I sneakily slip them under her in the brood box (because really, she doesn't know how many she has under there... right?) and I watch carefully for a few minutes to make sure that she's not going to evict them. In seconds she clucks to them and even though they’ve never seen her before in their short lives, they quickly sneak under her and disappear into her feathers. Success! Butterscotch now has 7 chicks.
Back in the incubator though we have some problems. The pipped chick has been pipped for a day now, but no progress and her beak is poking out of the hole and the membrane around the hole is darkened, thus it has dried some and gotten harder. In truth, this could be from me opening the incubator to grab the hatched chicks out, but that is unlikely, more likely she’s just taking too long to hatch. Again, I only intervene as a last resort, so I decide I’ll let it go overnight. The last egg sadly still has no pip and I assume it is lost.
Day 28 rolls around (Day 24 for the incubated eggs) and still just a beak poking out of the pipped hole, no progress at all, the membrane is leathery and she is clearly in a weakened state. I hate making these kinds of calls because in theory an egg that can’t hatch under “perfect” conditions may be nature’s way of weeding out the gene-pool… but alas, my 4-year-old daughter has already named this particular chick “Shelly” and I’m not about to explain to my daughter that I let a chick named Shelly die because nature didn’t want me to help it. The other egg has no progress so I assume it is lost and open the incubator up to help out Shelly. As quickly and carefully as possible I use a sharp pair of tweezers to slit both sizes of the pip where the hard membrane is and crack the egg about 50% of the way around the top. That’s all I’m willing to do, and even just that little bit I see some blood spots from the vessels in the membrane (which is normal, but eerie). While I have it open I grab the other egg to discard it but decide to give it a quick candling first just in case. As I put it into the candler I hear a chirp. I’m not sure if that was Shelly or the egg… so I wait a minute and sure enough this-egg-is-a-chirping! So I quickly put it back in the incubator and leave it be. About 3 hours later Shelly has already pushed her way out, so that membrane must have really trapped her and likely would have been her demise had I not intervened. I give her the rest of the day to dry off… and as soon as night comes I run down to the coop and sneak her under Butterscotch (who at this point has to be like… where are all these chicks coming from?!?!).
Day 29 and the last egg (which is on Day 25) still has not pipped so like the others that were in the nest, I decide to give it a small hole. There’s some movement in there during the day, but no notable progress so I just leave it be overnight. Outside, Butterscotch has taken on full mommy duties and is just as cute as can be with her chicks (including Shelly!) teaching them to eat and drink and run around.
Day 30 I come down to get a cup of coffee and there’s a wet chick in the incubator! She managed to get herself out and now she’s in there, wet and alone… but alive and warm! She doesn’t dry off in the next few hours because there is so much egg mass and extra liquid creating too much humidity for her to dry- and I need her dry to put in the nest, so I pull the top of the incubator off and put her on a paper towel to lower the humidity back to normal. She dries out about 3 hours later and that night, like Shelly before her, I slip her under Butterscotch… and I promise Butterscotch that I won’t slip any more chicks under her! She now has all 9 in her careful care.
And finally, Day 31. All 9 chicks are alive, well, and happily hopping and skipping and playing in the safety of the brooder under the watchful eye of momma Butterscotch. Snowflake has come by a few times to pay regards and the other hens have watched on in curiosity. My little barnyard mix of chicks beat the odds, multiple times.
So in the end, I hope this short story serves as a reminder to you to not give up easily when you are hatching chicks- you never know when they will surprise you! As mentioned, the nest chicks went from one mom, to no mom, to a box with a heat lamp, to another mom, had difficulty hatching, then hatched 4-5 days later than normal and finally, got moved a day after hatching to their new home brooder. 4 of the incubated eggs went pretty straight-forward and got to sneak under momma on their first night. Two of them had some trouble hatching, but ultimately after some intervention made it under mom as well. In the end... 9 new happy baby lives on Earth!