A couple of our hens went broody a little over a month back.
Because chicken eggs take three weeks to hatch, it isn’t uncommon for additional eggs to be added to the original clutch along the way. The sitting mama will leave her brood to eat or drink and another hen may seize the opportunity to lay an egg right into the broody’s nest. The problem here is that the new additions aren’t on the same schedule as the original bunch and, once hatching begins, the late joiners can be left behind.
This is what happened to us.
Brahma Mama hatched out four of her eggs, waited a day, and then moved off the clutch to start to teach her new hatchlings how to scratch and peck and be generally chicken-y.
We knew the remaining three eggs had to be within a week of hatching, so we quickly moved them into our incubator to give them a second chance and, a couple of days later, they started pipping.
Pipping is when the chick starts to break through the shell. Once pipping starts, the chick will usually emerge fully within a few hours. It is important to pay attention, however, because sometimes the chick doesn’t emerge but, instead, gets stuck inside the egg and can’t get out. If it takes too long, the membrane just inside the shell will become tough and rubbery and the little chick won’t ever be able to get out–it will die in the shell.
The rule of thumb is 24 hours. From the time of the pip, if the chick hasn’t hatched in 24 hours, it really isn’t going to. When that happens, it’s time to hand-hatch.
Hand-hatching is, essentially, unwrapping the new chicklet. This requires patience, a steady hand, and the dexterity of a mouse surgeon. The work is incredibly delicate and the possibility of damaging the chick-ball inside is super high.
Starting at the pip-point and holding the egg in a warm washcloth, you carefully peel away the shell entirely around the circumference of the egg (“unzippering”). Once the shell is removed, the thin membrane between the shell and the chick is carefully unzippered as well.
I use flat-tipped tweezers to avoid puncturing the bird and frequently clean them in warm water. I dab the tips before going back for more membrane, however, to avoid inadvertently putting drops of water into the chick’s beak and drowning it (yep, that’s a thing).
Once the membrane is fully unzippered, the “cap” of eggshell is gently removed. At this point, if the chick is animated at all, I will place the uncapped egg back in the incubator and allow the chick to finish hatching on her own.
One of our incubator rescues hatched entirely on her own, but the other two needed to be fully hand-hatched.
The difference between chicks hatched naturally (under a chicken) and chicks hatched in an incubator is fairly significant. Add to that the insult of not even being able to break through an eggshell unassisted and you’ve got yourself a pretty unimpressive start to life.
The best possible next step for the hand-hatchlings is to be adopted by a recently broody hen, but this is a hit-or-miss proposition.
Since we had a recently broody hen handy, we thought we’d give it a shot.
Placing the damp and bedraggled chicks into a brooder (a container lined with pine shavings under a heat lamp) for about a day allowed them to figure out how to use their legs and fluff out a bit.
The next night, when Brahma Mama and her four chicks were settled in and calm, we took the three brooder chicks out into the yard where they were set-up in our chicken tractor.
We carefully tucked each chick, one at a time, under the Mama and watched for a few minutes to ensure that she didn’t immediately reject them and start pecking at them or hurting them. Since the evening was pretty chilly, we needed to make sure she would allow them under her or else they would definitely have died overnight from exposure.
Everything seemed alright at first, so we left them alone.
When we checked back an hour later, all seven chicks seemed to be safe and content with Mama.
This is definitely the best-case scenario as not all hens will even care for the chicks they hatch themselves, much less interlopers looking for a quick adoption.
It’s been over a week now, and all seven babes seem equally healthy and hardy. There are four yellow birds and three black ones and I genuinely could not tell you which were hand-hatched at this point. That would not be true if the mama hadn’t taken them in–they’d be behind the others both physically and developmentally in a way that they just aren’t now.
And, of course, they are ridiculously cute (but they’d have been that either way).