Story and photos by Bruce Ingram
It’s the 22nd and there are no chicks: what should you do?
Biologically speaking, chicks usually hatch on day 21 of the incubation period, whether under a broody hen or inside a brooder. But sometimes events don’t go as planned, and the past several springs are perfect examples of that fact as my wife, Elaine, and I can attest. We breed Rhode Island Reds heritage, and last spring our three-year-old chicken Charlotte, who had fledged her first two years of life, had her first batch of eggs not to hatch.
Knowing from our past experience with Reds that they rarely stop being excited, we decided to make sure there was a lot that had to go right for the chicks to hatch. One way or another, Charlotte was the mother of the chicks after 21 days. We ordered Rhode Island heritage chicks from the hatchery, collected the eggs and put them in an incubator, and gave the chickens a new batch—three steps other chicken lovers can take if the fates are working against them. We also asked our friend Kristen Haxton to take eight of the 14 Heritage chicks when they arrived so we wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the birds if all goes well.
On the 20th day of the second brooding period, two chicks started to look under Charlotte’s command, but after five days they failed to hatch and when I
When the eggs are opened, it is clear that the embryos have been dead for at least a few days. Meanwhile, on the tenth day of the eggs in the incubator, Ellen waxed the eggs and found only three viable ones. But on the 22nd, none had hatched, and Elaine went back to wax the trio again. Two of them did not develop further, and we got rid of them. The third looked more promising, so we sent him back to the incubator.
However, on day 23, the chicks did not knock and no sounds came from inside. Elaine and I waited 28 days before giving away the incubated eggs, but none of the old eggs had ever hatched. So Elaine told me to throw the egg in the woods. Out of curiosity, I decided to drop it down the driveway instead to see how far Dead Chick had advanced in its development.
When the egg fell, a chick started peeping and, spooked, huddled up
Debris – egg yolk, broken eggshell, and peeping chick. I ran back to our house, Elaine put the whole cup back in the incubator, and four hours later, the chick was “finished” hatching—an amazing surprise. We left the chick there for about 30 hours while it dried out and became more active.
She then brought the chick to Charlotte, who at this time had four 10-day-old babies
chicks from hatcheries. We were worried that Charlotte wouldn’t accept the chick or that the other chicks would bully him – nothing negative happened. Charlotte immediately adopts the chick, giving it a gentle tap on the head (which all her chicks give when they hatch and which Elaine interprets to mean, “I’m your mother, listen to me.”).
After a day or two, I couldn’t see the chick and thought it was dead. Then I saw he was walking along and feeding under Charlotte as she moved – so the hen could keep her chick warm. By this time, the rest of the chicks didn’t need Charlotte constantly for her radiant warmth. As I write this, the chick is now two weeks old and trotting along with the rest of Charlotte’s little flock. Ellen called her “Lucky”.
I asked Tom Watkins, President of McMurray Hatchery, to make sense of all this and to offer helpful suggestions to us chicken lovers on how to
Dealing with “Day 22” and other hatching issues. “First, for day 22 and the chick-no-hatching condition, there is certainly no harm in leaving the eggs alone for another day,” he says. It is likely that they will hatch, although it is somewhat unusual for eggs to hatch and produce healthy chicks after day 23.
There is a reason why this happens.
“The longer it is after day 21, the less moisture there is in the crust
It becomes a problem and the greater the chance of a bacterial infection occurring in the ‘navel’ area of the chick due to the heat inside the incubator. Another problem with late hatching is that the chick has eaten its yolk. And if the chicks hatch after the 23rd day, they usually have a higher mortality rate later on. Honestly, I would describe your 23rd day chick as a miracle bird.”
Why do things go wrong inside the brooder, or under the brooding hen
Watkins gave a ready answer when I asked him about the main reasons why eggs do not hatch in incubators or under hens. “It’s always too high or too low humidity or too high or too low temperatures,” he adds. That’s why at McMurray Hatchery, we have two
Our main system backup systems to make absolutely sure that humidity and heat stay within the proper range.”
Watkins encourages backyard chicken keepers to buy high-quality brooders, rather than cheap Styrofoam brooders. There are, of course, good Styrofoam pods out there, but if the price seems too good to be true, there’s probably something lacking in the product. Watkins also pointed out the two unshelled chicks that had been peeking under our hen but had failed to hatch.
“When those eggs were about to hatch, did the weather get really hot or really cold?” Asked. “Has the weather become too wet or too dry? Has a predator approached the coup and disturbed the hen and made her leave the nest for a long time? Normally, a brooding hen leaves her nest once a day for 15 to 20 minutes to defecate and feed.
Anything longer than that can cause the eggs to stop developing. With all the things that can go wrong with nesting chickens, it’s really surprising that they do it as well as they do at hatching eggs. For example, how does a hen keep moisture only inside her eggs
right? Nature seems to make room for good things to happen, I guess.”
Similarly, events can conspire against people looking to hatch eggs inside an incubator. When someone adds water to the well in an incubator, Watkins says, it can spill and possibly cause problems — as can forgetting to add water at the right time. A power outage during the night for a few hours can wreak havoc on our plans for hatching chicks.
The chicken is closely related to the turkey (both are members of the glyform (ranking) and research has shown that older turkeys are better broodmares and brooders than gennys (females under a year old). I asked Watkins if the same was true of chicken nuggets. For example, I once had a female that bizarrely tried—and failed—to incubate 20 eggs at once. Another shot abandoned its nest on the night of the 20th.
“We’ve seen evidence that year-old hens born twice that year produce larger, healthier chicks the second time around,” he says. “A bird at 18 to 20 weeks old is probably too young to succeed in hatching eggs. Of course, we collect those newborn chicks to ship to customers, so we can’t say what kind of broodmare the chicken might make.”
Obviously, it’s not always the chicken’s fault, condition, or age that makes things go awry. Several years ago, I let Don, a then five-year-old inherited Rhode Island red rooster, into a race with the two chickens most likely to breed. Of the 20 eggs the duo attempted to hatch, only four of them did. The following year, I gave mating duties to Friday, Don’s two-year-old (and active) offspring. There was no problem fertilizing the eggs on Friday, and we enjoyed successful hatching. From Elaine’s experience and mine, we had the best hatch rates with hens and roosters that were two and three years old. Watkins adds that as chickens get older (think age four or older), they lay fewer eggs, and those eggs are usually less viable even if fertilized by a young, healthy roe.
Older roosters can sometimes be a reason for no eggs, Watkins says
hatching. Interestingly, he says that cockerels mature sexually more slowly than cockerels
Hens Although young males may mate vigorously – or try to do so – their sperm may not be enough at such a young age. “A good way to check is to see if a rooster of any age has successfully fertilized a chicken’s egg,” says McMurray Hatchery Chief. “Cut open several eggs and see if there is a small white dot on the edge of the yolk with a ring around it. That white dot is very small, maybe 1/16 to 1/8 inch wide, if that. No white dots, no fertilized eggs.”
Hopefully, when day 22 rolls around and no peeping starts, you’ll now have some strategies on what to do next, such as
And also find out the cause of the error. If you are very
Fortunately, you may have a chick like Lucky enter your world.
Introducing chicks to the brooding hen
There are various methods on how to introduce chicks to a broody hen whose eggs are past the time they should be hatching. For example, Christine Haxton likes to add chicks an hour or so before dawn so the hen will “think” the birds hatched overnight. My and Elaine’s style is much more direct – with a bit of bluff.
At the time when the hen usually leaves her nest in the morning only for the only period of the day, we pick up the hen and her nesting box and put them out for a run. While Elaine puts a new nesting box inside the chicken coop, I carry the old one away, head to the brooder, and return with my two- to three-day-old chicks. I put them inside the nesting box and wait for the hen to come back inside.
With the exception of one occasion (when we tried to give a four-week-old hen a try), the Rhode Island Red Variegated Brooders accepted these chicks immediately. I wouldn’t imagine what goes on inside a hen’s little brain when they see their newly hatched offspring. From our experience, I think the sight of those chicks causes the hen to quickly switch from being a brooder to becoming a mother.
Bruce Ingram Freelance writer and photographer. He and his wife, Elaine, co-authored Live the locavore lifestyle, a book about living off the land. Reach out to them at BruceIngramOutdoors@gmail.com.