Chickens / Incubation

Easter Chicks!

   While I planned to lead you through the process of incubation, I have been so busy that just the tasks related to incubation were all I could manage along with graduate school and work over the past few weeks.  I will summarize the process here, but I am receiving another dozen hatching eggs in the next few weeks and will document the process more thoroughly the second time around.

   When I received the eggs in the mail, I set them in the bathtub where it is cool in egg cartons, elevating one side or the other every eight hours or so to allow the eggs to settle without allowing the yolk to become stuck to one side.  I set 21 eggs in the incubator at 10 AM, Saturday, April 2. 

   I was using a $3 thermometer and hygrometer; the HovaBator Genesis 1588 incubator has a thermostat and forced air, which creates a more consistent temperature, but the humidity is regulated manually.  I added water to a plastic trough beneath the eggs using aquarium tubing threaded through a vent hole.  I purchased an automatic turner so that I did not need to turn the eggs by hand.  I set my humidity at what I thought was 35%, but, having weighed the eggs before incubating, I found that by the eighth day, they had lost too much weight in water.  I added a shot glass of water which boosted my humidity to 50% for the second week.

   Having candled and weighed my eggs on the eighth day, I saw that many were developing, but most were questionable.  I decided to leave all eggs in the incubator until I had more decisive information.

   Around this time, I became concerned about the accuracy of my thermometer and hygrometer and ordered digital upgrades.  The Caliber III is a thermometer and hygrometer intended for use in a cigar box.  It requires no calibration and has a 5-year warranty.  I also purchased the Brinsea SpotCheck incubation thermometer.  It measures temperature with a probe.  People suggested buying a “water wiggler” toy – I just tried to write a description of this thing and am at a loss for words – to stick the probe into, better simulating the temperature within an egg, where it should be 99.5 degrees, plus or minus .5 degrees.

   When these arrived, I saw that my 50% was really 30% – I wonder what the humidity was when I thought it was 30%?  Whatever it was, it was far too low.  Lesson: do not skimp on thermometer or hygrometer. 

   On day 14, I candled and weighed my eggs again.  This time, the information was decisive.  Developing eggs were nearly dark with a very clearly defined air cell.  Non-developing eggs were clear (“clears,” or non-fertile eggs) or had a few small dark clumps (“early quitters” which developed for a few days and died).  I removed six eggs and left the remaining 15.

   While incubating, I read that many people use a separate incubator as a “hatcher,” a place to lockdown the eggs for the last three days with higher humidity and allow them to hatch.  Hatching is very messy; fuzz, feathers, poop, goop, and shell are everywhere.  By using a hatcher, you keep your incubator clean and in better condition.  I purchased a Little Giant (LG) incubator for $41 at Tractor Supply Company, an incubator commonly used as a hatcher, but without a fan, thermostat, or turner.

   Unfortunately, I was unable to stabilize the temperature: Every time I had it steady at the correct temperature for several hours, it would slowly increase in temperature overnight until it was far too hot – 106 degrees or more!  I couldn’t use this as a hatcher, but I had done all of my lockdown humidity planning with that incubator!

   So, when day 18 came, I had to improvise with the Genesis, and I made a few mistakes.  I used two plastic shoe box lids to raise the floor so that the eggs would be on the same level, and therefore the same temperature, as they had been in the incubator.  This was a good thing, but there was a small gap around the edge of the metal hardware cloth floor – wide enough for a floppy newborn chick to get stuck in.  I put a dishcloth in one shoebox lid and used it as a water tray, aiming for approximately 65% humidity.

   Well, the humidity went up to 81%, but slowly dropped throughout day 19 to about 78%.  My first pip – where the chick pokes the shell from the inside – occurred at 3:20 pm on day 19, an Easter Egger.

   The next morning, day 20, I awoke to the sound of chirping in the incubator!  (Which I somehow heard in bed asleep with the door closed over the sound of the air filter,  though the kitchen and dining room, from within the incubator with the fan running.  Mark said I must have gone broody. J )  The poor chick was alone, having hatched to find no mama hen to cluck back at him.  So, I ended up spending all morning hovering over the incubator comforting the lone chick, until the second chick hatched at noon.  The second chick, a Speckled Sussex, promptly  got stuck under the wire.  After seeing it struggle and cry for a while, Mark and I decided to help it.

   However, other eggs had pipped; they  were no longer in a contained environment.  The sudden drop in humidity could make them stuck in their shells, unable to hatch.  Others have added water when opening the incubator.  We figured the humidity was already so high that we would just risk it.  I opened the incubator and Mark moved the chick.  Then, I rolled paper towels to make thick bumpers, and not opening the lid completely but sliding it over to preserve temperature and humidity as much as possible, I put the paper towel rolls all around the incubator, eliminating the gap.

   A total of 6 chicks hatched on day 20; clearly, they had not become stuck.  One had pipped but not progressed, so we left them all in the incubator overnight and went to bed.  Chicks need to stay in the incubator until they dry.  Also, they can live off of their yolk sac for three days, so they are usually left in incubators until the hatch is over for several reasons.  This minimizes the risk of drops in temperature and humidity  to other eggs, and the mad chaos of little chicks tearing all over the incubator, pooping and playing soccer with the unhatched eggs, actually encourages the others to hurry up and hatch!

   However, each little wet chick hatching also raises the humidity in the incubator.  Because my incubation had been so dry and the air cells were so big, I knew that the chicks would not “drown” in the humidity.  I had not known that very high humidity can make the liquid in eggs gummy and cause them to be stuck for other reasons.

   Two more chicks hatched overnight between day 20 and 21, but the egg that we had waited on the night before had not progressed.  While we could see the beak, it was moving much less than it had the day before.  I solicited advice from people on BYC, and member dsqard messaged me directions for saving the chick.

   We pulled out the egg.  Mark used tweezers to “zip” the shell like a chick would, that is, make small breaks in the shell around in a circle.  The outer membrane which is just below the shell was white and dry.  He used warm water to moisten the membrane and finally opened the egg and let the chick out.  He was very weak.  We put him back in the incubator where he just laid and cried.  He was being trampled by the others and crying.  We made the decision to move the eight hatched chicks to the brooder, a box with food, water, and  heat lamp.

   Meanwhile, we noticed that the two other eggs that had pipped were not progressing.  We finally decided to open them both and not let them get as weak as the first had.  Finally, we decided to take the original weak chick and wash him again; he was so bound in dried goo that he could not move his wings or open one eye.  He was also spasming; we thought he would die.  We doused his body in warm water while wiping him with Q-tips.  We also offered him water with Sav-a-Chick electrolytes and returned him to the incubator, hoping for the best but expecting the worst. 

  Within hours, he was tearing around the incubator like a little terror!  All three saved chicks recovered well.  We had no more pips and moved the three to the brooder later that night, day 21. 

  I candled the remaining four eggs on Monday night.  They were late quitters and had died late in incubation.  I didn’t have the heart or the stomach to open the eggs to see what had gone wrong.

   To save electricity and for peace of mind, I replaced the heat lamp with a Brinsea EcoGlow brooder, a rectangular panel which is heated underneath and provides a warm environment like under a mother hen.  This saves electricity and reduces the risk of fire or the light burning out.

   Now, the chicks are five and six days old.  The weakest chick is now seemingly stronger, although he is the smallest.  Mark has dubbed him Lazarus, though I’ve been calling him “Lazzie” for short (and with the hope that he is female!).  It has been quite an adventure!

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