Story and photos by Bruce Ingram
It’s day 22 and no chicks: what should you do?
Biologically, chicks usually hatch on day 21 of incubation, whether under a broody hen or inside an incubator. But sometimes things don’t go as planned, and the last few springs are prime examples of that, as my wife, Elaine, and I can attest to. We breed heritage Rhode Island Reds, and last spring our three-year-old hen, Charlotte, who had been broody her first two years, had her first clutch of eggs that failed to hatch.
Knowing from our previous experience with the Reds that they rarely stop being brooders, we decided to make sure a lot of things have to go right for the chicks to hatch. Somehow Charlotte was mothering chicks 21 days later. We ordered Rhode Island Heritage chicks from a hatchery, collected eggs and placed them in an incubator, and gave the hen a new batch – three steps other chicken lovers can follow if fate works against them. We also had friend Christine Haxton pick up eight of the 14 heritage chicks when they arrived so we wouldn’t be overwhelmed with birds if all went well.
On day 20 of the second brooding period, two chicks started peeking under Charlotte, but five days later they had not hatched and when I
opened the eggs, the embryos had obviously been dead for at least several days. Meanwhile, on day 10 of the eggs in the incubator, Elaine candled the eggs and found only three viable ones. But on day 22, none had hatched, and Elaine ignited the trio again. Two of them had not developed further and we got rid of them. The third seemed more promising, so we put it back in the incubator.
However, on day 23 ½ the chick had not bitten and no sound was coming from inside. Elaine and I waited up to 28 days before giving up the incubated eggs, but no egg that old has ever hatched. So Elaine told me to throw the egg in the woods. Curious, I decided to drop it on the driveway instead to see how far the dead chick had progressed in its development.
When the egg landed a chick started to peek and in horror I picked up
debris – yolk, broken eggshell and staring chick. I ran back to our house, and Elaine put the whole parison back in the incubator, and four hours later the chick “finished” hatching – an amazing surprise. We left the chick in there for 30 hours while it dried out and became more active.
Then I took the chick to Charlotte who then had four 10 day old chicks
hatchery expedition chicks. We were concerned that Charlotte wouldn’t accept the chick or that the other chicks would bully her – nothing negative happened. Charlotte immediately adopted the chick and gave her a light kiss on the head (which she gives to all her chicks when they hatch and which Elaine interprets to mean “I am your mother, listen to me”).
A day or two later I couldn’t see the chick and thought it was dead. Then I saw he was walking and feeding under Charlotte as she moved – so the hen could keep her chick warm. The rest of the chicks at that time didn’t constantly need Charlotte for her radiant warmth. As I write this, the chick is now two weeks old and frolicking with the rest of Charlotte’s young flock. Elaine named her Lucky.
I asked Tom Watkins, President of McMurray Hatchery, to make sense of it all and give some helpful suggestions to us chicken enthusiasts on how to
deal with “Day 22” and other outbreak issues. “First, for day 22 and no hatching chick situation, it certainly doesn’t hurt to leave the eggs alone for another day,” he says. “They might eventually hatch, although it’s quite unusual for eggs to hatch and produce healthy chicks after day 23.
There is a reason this is so.
“The longer it lies down after day 21, the lower the humidity in the shell
becomes a problem and the more likely it is that a bacterial infection will occur in the chick’s “navel” area due to the heat that exists inside an incubator. Another problem with late hatching is that the chick has consumed its yolk. And if the chicks hatch after day 23, they usually have a high mortality rate later. Frankly, I would describe your 23 ½ day old chick as a miracle bird.
Why Things Go Wrong Inside an Incubator or Under a Broody Hen
Watkins offered a ready-made answer when I asked him about the main reasons eggs in incubators or under broody hens fail to hatch. “It’s almost always either too high or too low humidity, or too high or too low temperatures,” he says. “That’s why at McMurray Hatchery we have two
backup systems to our main system to ensure humidity and heat stay within the proper range. »
Watkins encourages backyard chicken keepers to purchase quality incubators, as opposed to cheap polystyrene ones. There are of course good polystyrene incubators out there, but if the price seems too good to be true, chances are the product is missing something. Watkins also referenced the two unhatched chicks that looked under our hen but did not hatch.
“When those eggs were about to hatch, did the weather get really hot or cold?” He asked. “Has the weather become excessively wet or dry?” Perhaps a predator approached the blow and alarmed the hen and made her leave the nest for a long time? Normally, a broody hen will only leave her nest once a day for about 15-20 minutes to poop and feed.
“Anything much longer than that could have prevented the eggs from developing. With all the things that could go wrong with nesting hens, it’s truly amazing that they are so successful at hatching eggs. By example, how the hell does a hen keep the moisture inside her eggs
LAW? Nature seems to pave the way for good things, I guess.
Likewise, events can conspire against people who are eagerly awaiting the hatching of eggs in an incubator. Watkins says when someone adds water to the well in an incubator, a spill can occur and potentially cause problems, as can forgetting to add water at the correct time. An overnight power outage of a few hours could also wreak havoc with our chick hatching plans.
Chickens are closely related to turkeys (both are members of the Galliformes order) and research has shown that older turkeys are better brooders and mothers than jennies (females less than a year old). I asked Watkins if the same was true for chickens. For example, I once had a pullet who oddly tried – and failed – to incubate 20 eggs at a time. Another pullet abandoned her nest on the night of day 20.
“We’ve seen evidence that yearling hens brooding twice that year produce bigger, healthier chicks the second time around,” he says. “An 18 to 20 week old pullet is probably too young to be successful in hatching eggs. Of course, we round up these newborn chicks to ship to customers, so we can’t say what kind of mother hens might make.
Obviously, it’s not always the hen’s fault, condition or age that causes things to go wrong. Several years ago, I left Don, our then five-year-old Rhode Island red rooster, in a race with the two hens most likely to brood. Of the 20 eggs the duo attempted to hatch, only four of them did. The following year, I gave the mating duties to Friday, Don’s very manly (and active) two-year-old offspring. On Friday, there were no problems fertilizing these eggs, and we enjoyed a successful hatch. In my experience and Elaine’s, we have had the best hatch rates with two and three year old hens and roosters. Watkins adds that as hens get older (think four years or more), they lay fewer eggs, and those eggs are also generally less viable, even if fertilized by a healthy young roo.
Watkins says older roosters can sometimes be the cause of eggs not
hatching. Interestingly, he says roosters mature sexually slower than
hens and although young males may mate aggressively – or attempt to mate – their sperm may not be sufficient at this young age. “There is a good way to check if a rooster, regardless of age, is successfully fertilizing hens’ eggs,” says McMurray Hatchery president. “Crack several eggs and see if on the edge of the yolk there is a small white dot surrounded by a ring. This white dot is very small, perhaps 1/16 to 1/8 inch wide, if it is. No whiteheads, no fertilized eggs.
Hopefully when day 22 rolls around and there’s no beeping or peeping, you’ll now have some strategies on what to do next, because
as well as knowledge of why things went wrong. If you are extremely
lucky you might even have a girl like Lucky come into your world.
Introducing chicks to a broody hen
Different approaches exist on how to introduce chicks to a broody hen whose eggs are well past the time they should have hatched. For example, Christine Haxton prefers to add chicks about an hour before dawn so the hen “thinks” the birds have hatched overnight. Both Elaine’s approach and mine are more straightforward, with just a hint of trickery.
Around the time of the morning when a hen normally leaves her nest for the only time of day, we collect the hen and her nest box and place them outside the pen. While Elaine places a new nest box in the coop, I take the old one out, head to the incubator, and return with two- to three-day-old chicks. I place them inside the nest box and wait for the hen to come inside.
With the exception of one occasion (when we tried to give a hen four-week-old chicks), our various heritage Rhode Island Red breeders immediately accepted those chicks. I’m not going to speculate on what goes on in a hen’s little brain when she sees “her” newly hatched offspring. From our experience, I believe the sight of these chicks quickly transforms a hen from brooder to mother.
BRUCE INGRAM is a freelance writer and photographer. He and his wife Elaine are the co-authors of Living the Locavore lifestyle, a book about the life of the earth. Get in touch with them at BruceIngramOutdoors@gmail.com.