After Day 22
Story and photos by Bruce Ingram
It’s Day 22 and No Chicks: What Should You Do?
Biologically, chicks typically hatch on Day 21 of being incubated, whether they’re under a broody hen or inside an incubator. But sometimes events do not go as planned, and the past several springs are perfect examples of that fact as my wife, Elaine, and I can testify. We raise heritage Rhode Island Reds, and last spring, our three-year-old hen Charlotte, which had gone broody her first two years, had her first clutch of eggs not hatch.
Knowing from our previous experience with Reds that they rarely stop being broody, we decided to make sure that one A lot has to go right for chicks to hatch. way or the other, Charlotte would mother chicks 21 days later. We ordered heritage Rhode Island chicks from a hatchery, gathered eggs and placed them in an incubator, and gave the hen a fresh batch — three steps other chicken enthusiasts can take if the fates are working against them. We also asked friend Christine Haxton to take eight of the 14 heritage chicks when they arrived so that we wouldn’t be overwhelmed with birds if everything went well.
On Day 20 of the second broody period, two chicks started peeping under Charlotte, but five days later they had failed to hatch and when I
opened the eggs, the embryos had quite 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 of them viable. But on Day 22, none had hatched, and Elaine once again candled the trio. Two of them had not developed further, and we disposed of them. The third looked more promising, so we put it back in the incubator.
However, on Day 23 ½, the chick had not pipped and no sounds emanated from inside. Elaine and I have waited as long as 28 days before giving up on incubated eggs, but no egg that old has ever hatched. So Elaine told me to toss the egg into 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 peeping, and, horrified, I gathered up
the debris — yolk, broken eggshell, and peeping chick. I ran back to our house, and Elaine placed the entire gob back into the incubator, and four hours later, the chick “finished” hatching — a stunning surprise. We left the chick in there for 30 hours while it dried and became more active.
Then I brought the chick to Charlotte who by this time had four 10-day-old
chicks from the hatchery shipment. We were worried that Charlotte wouldn’t accept the chick or that the other chicks would bully it — neither negative happened. Charlotte immediately adopted the chick, and gave it a gentle peck on the head (which she gives all her chicks when they hatch and which Elaine interprets to mean, “I’m your mother, listen to me.”).
A day or two later, I couldn’t see the chick and thought it had died. Then I saw that it was walking along and feeding under Charlotte as she moved — so the hen could keep her chick warm. The rest of the chicks by this time did not constantly need Charlotte for her radiated warmth. As I write this, the chick is now two weeks old and scampering about with the rest of Charlotte’s young flock. Elaine has named her Lucky.
I asked Tom Watkins, president of McMurray Hatchery, to make sense of all this and to give helpful suggestions to us chicken enthusiasts on how to
cope with the “Day 22” and other hatching issues. “First, for the Day 22 and no hatching chicks situation, it certainly does no harm to leave the eggs alone for another day,” he says. “They possibly could hatch, although it’s fairly unusual for eggs to hatch and produce healthy chicks after Day 23.
There’s a reason why this is so.
“The longer it gets after Day 21, the more the reduced moisture in the shell
becomes a problem and the more of a chance there is that bacterial infection occurs in the ‘belly button’ area of the chick because of the heat that exists inside an incubator. Another problem with late hatching is that the chick has consumed its yolk. And if the chicks do hatch after Day 23, they typically have a high mortality rate later. Frankly, I would describe your Day 23 ½ chick as a miracle bird.”
Why Things Go Wrong Inside an Incubator, or Under a Broody Hen
Watkins offered a ready answer when I questioned him on what the major 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 low temperatures,” he says. “That’s why at McMurray Hatchery, we have two
backup systems to our main system to make absolutely sure that the humidity and heat stay within the proper range.”
Watkins encourages backyard chicken raisers to buy quality incubators, as opposed to cheap Styrofoam ones. There are, of course, good Styrofoam incubators, but if the price seems too good to be true, chances are something is lacking in the product. Watkins also referenced the two unhatched chicks that were peeping under our hen but failed to hatch.
“When those eggs were about to hatch, did the weather become really hot or cold?” he asked. “Did the weather become excessively humid or dry? Did perhaps a predator come near the coup and alarm the hen and cause her to leave the nest for an extended time? Normally, a broody hen will only leave her nest once a day for about 15 to 20 minutes to poop and feed.
“Anything much longer than that could have caused the eggs to stop developing. With all the things that could go wrong with nesting hens, it’s really amazing that they do as well as they do at hatching eggs. For example, how on Earth does a hen keep the humidity inside her eggs just
right? Nature seems to make a way for good things to happen, I guess.”
Similarly, events can conspire against folks looking forward to eggs hatching inside an incubator. Watkins says when someone adds water to the well in an incubator, spillage could occur and potentially cause problems — as could forgetting to add water at the right time. An overnight power outage of a few hours could also wreak havoc with our plans to hatch chicks.
Chickens are closely related to turkeys (both are members of the Galliformes order) and research has shown that older turkey hens are better brooders and mothers than jennies (females under a year of age). I asked Watkins if the same holds true for chicken hens. For example, I once had a pullet that bizarrely tried — and failed — to incubate 20 eggs at one time. Another pullet abandoned her nest on the night of Day 20.
“We have seen evidence that one-year-old hens that go broody twice that year produce bigger and healthier chicks the second time,” he says. “A pullet 18 to 20 weeks old is probably too young to successfully brood eggs. Of course, we gather those newborn chicks to ship to customers, so we can’t say what kind of mothers the hens might make.”
Obviously, it is not always the hen’s fault, condition, or age that causes things to go awry. Several years ago, I left Don, our then five-year-old heritage Rhode Island Red rooster, in a run with the two hens most likely to go broody. Of the 20 eggs that the duo tried to hatch, only four of them did. The next year, I gave the mating duties to Friday, Don’s very virile (and active) two-year-old offspring. There was no problem with Friday fertilizing those eggs, and we enjoyed a successful hatch. From Elaine’s and my experience, we’ve had the best hatch rates with hens and roosters that were all two and three years old. Watkins adds that as hens grow older (think age four or more), they lay fewer eggs, and those eggs are also typically less viable even if fertilized by a healthy, young roo.
Watkins says that older roosters can sometimes be the cause of eggs not
hatching. Interestingly, he says that cockerels sexually mature slower than
hens and though the young males may be aggressively mating — or attempting to do so — their sperm may not be sufficient at that young age. “There’s a good way to check to see if a rooster of any age is successfully fertilizing the hens’ eggs,” says the McMurray Hatchery president. “Crack open several eggs and see if on the edge of the yolk, there is a small, white dot 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 pipping or peeping is commencing, you’ll now have some strategies about what to do next, as
well as knowledge concerning why things went wrong. If you’re extremely
fortunate, you might even have a chick like Lucky enter 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 instance, Christine Haxton prefers to add chicks an hour or so before dawn so that the hen “thinks” the birds hatched overnight. Elaine’s and my approach is more direct — with just a tinge of trickery.
About the time in the morning that a hen normally leaves her nest for the only period that day, we pick up the chicken and her nesting box and place them outside the run. While Elaine puts a fresh nesting box inside the henhouse, I carry away the old one, head for the incubator, and return with two-to-three-day old chicks. I place them inside the nesting box and wait for the hen to return inside.
Except for one occasion (when we tried to give a hen four-week-old chicks) our various heritage Rhode Island Red brooders have immediately accepted these chicks. I am not going to speculate about what is going on inside a hen’s tiny brain when they see “their” recently hatched offspring. From our experience, I do believe that the sight of those chicks makes a hen quickly switch from being a broody to becoming a mother.
BRUCE INGRAM is a freelance writer and photographer. He and wife Elaine are the co-authors of Living the Locavore Lifestyle, a book about living off the land. Get in touch with them at BruceIngramOutdoors@gmail.com.