As many of you have been following my journey, you will know that I had my first batch of chicken eggs due to hatch in the incubator at the weekend. Well they did and below details my experience as novice first time chicken breeder.
I don’t think I’ve ever been as anxious as I was during the 48 hours from first pip to last hatch. In fact, during the 21 day build up I was fairly twitchy, but every time I candled the eggs, I saw positive signs of life. And I wasn’t wrong. Each egg was fertile, each egg had a baby chick inside it. But not all of them made it.
Now I’ve researched this a lot. I’ve bought and read books, scanned forums and websites for information and spoken to friends who do this as a side-line business. I felt prepared. At least I thought I was. Until everything kicked off and I crumbled into an emotional and erratic mess.
Day 21 ‘hatching day’ arrived and there was no movement with the eggs. On day 17, the eggs were merrily rocking away, the chicks getting themselves into the right position for hatching in a few days time. But now at the biggest stage of their unborn lives, they were all having a nap. Brilliant.
Now I know from all my research that 21 days is a guide, just an estimate of what the average hatching time is for chicken eggs. So I should’ve remained calm and carried on with my life as normal. But I couldn’t. Firstly, I kept saying “Oh well they must be dead”. Clearly a coping mechanism so that if they were, I was somewhat prepared. Secondly, I could not tear my eyes away from the incubator for fear of missing the first ‘pip’. This is where the chick breaks through the external part of the shell in order to start the process of hatching. That first pip happened about 8.30pm on Easter Sunday. It was such a tiny crack but it was the start of things to come.
I had planned the next day to consist of solely watching the incubator, but fate had cleverly planned for two lots of visitors to come and see us that day, which was a very welcome distraction. My partner’s old work colleague and completely by coincidence, the breeder of our pigs, both came to visit. We had a lovely afternoon and Rob and his family left about 8pm, a full 24hrs after the first pip. By this point, a number of the other eggs had pipped, but there were no signs of ‘zipping’. Zipping is where the chick inside uses the first ‘pip’ as it’s starting point and then inside the egg, uses its wing and legs to propel itself round, breaking through enough of the shell to then push apart two sides using its body and leg strength, exiting the egg completely. This is understandly a very tiring process for the chick, so it takes a long time and can be 18-24hrs after the initial pip.
The egg that had first pipped, which I thought would be the first to hatch, wasn’t making any progress, but another had pipped and the zipping had started. I could not contain my excitement and was fixed to my chair watching it. Chris’s friend who had been meaning to drive back to Bristol hours before, ended up staying till about 10.30pm which is when the first egg hatched.
It was such a moment of relief and excitement, all three of us eagerly watching it happen. I was lucky enough to be recording it on my phone at the time, and when I shared the video clip on social media (see my Facebook or Instagram pages for ‘And Then There Were Pigs’ to watch it) I did not expect it to be so popular! It received over 1,100 views and counting! I guess it’s not everyday you get to experience the live birth of something, so I suppose it is a pretty special moment.
When a chick is first born, it’s feathers are wet from being inside the egg. During the last stage of hatching, before they break through the egg, the chick absorbs the yolk and remaining blood vessels into their bodies through their belly button. The yolk contains crucial nutrients for its survival outside of the egg, and they normally don’t eat or drink for 24hrs after hatch, as the chick is gettting all it needs from the yolk. It is an incredible process but it is vital that you do not remove the chicks from the incubator at this stage, before their feathers ‘fluff up’. You should also not really lift the lid of the incubator until you are pretty sure all the eggs that will hatch have done so, because a drop in humidity could also prevent a hatching egg completing its full zip.
The incubator maintains the correct level of heat (about 37.5c) throughout the incubation process and the correct level of humidity, in order for the hatching to take place. The egg shell and internal membrane have to be moist enough, else the egg can’t break. Similarly, too much humidity can also prevent hatching from occurring, so it’s about getting the right balance and sometimes that is really difficult to judge.
Shortly after the first chick hatched, a second one joined it.
I stayed up for another few hours to see if any more would hatch, which it did in the early hours of the morning, but I was fast asleep by then. Unfortunately I had to go to work that morning at 7am and whilst at work, two more hatched taking us up to five chicks.
At this point, out of the two remaining eggs, one was zipping and the other had still only pipped. We were not hopeful that the pipped one was going to make it, as it should’ve been further along than that, but one casualty was to be expected. To have all seven hatch successfully would’ve been unusual. So my other half went to work and when he came back, the other chicks in the incubator had rolled over the zipping egg, inhibiting the full hatch and the egg was no longer moving. When I came back from work we took the executive decision to move all the hatched chicks into the incubator, as it was unlikely the other two eggs were going to make it. When we checked the eggs, the chicks were dead.
It is really sad to lose two at such a late stage and it could’ve been a combination of things that prevented their full hatch but it’s best not to dwell on those things and just learn from the process.
Aside from that we now had five seemingly healthy little chicks! One of them was a little weaker than the others, but we thought that was because it was the last to hatch, the ‘runt’ if you will and hopefully a nice warm incubator with room to run about in with food and water should do the trick.
Chicks don’t do a lot in the first 24hrs apart from sleep really, so we left them to it and went to bed, keeping my fingers crossed that they would make it through the first most crucial time period outside of the egg. I woke up the next morning and one of the chicks, the weak one, didn’t look good. It was still alive, but wasn’t as active as the rest and its abdomen looked a little swollen compared to the others. There is no magical cure for these things, you just hope that given some time they’ll strengthen up. Within the hour it wasn’t moving and despite my other half performing some heroic CPR skills, it was time to say goodbye.
I cried a lot. And then had to go to work. But it was a welcome distraction. I try and remind myself there is nothing I could’ve done and nature is what it is. But you can’t help but feel partially responsible for its death, seeing as I was the person responsible for it having life in the first place.
Finishing on a happier note, we now have four little chicks who are eating, drinking and being hilarious. They are so inquisitive and active, it makes all the stress and heartache worth it. Today the are 5 days old and seem to be doing well.