Paging Doctor Chickeneer…

Now that the last weak chick is out of the NICU, and it seems unlikely that there will be any more hatching, I can pause to reflect on my very first hatching experience, which was much more operatic than I had anticipated…

This hatching chicks thing is way harder than anyone let on. I certainly set myself up for success when I chose the Hovabator Genesis 1588. This thing truly is plug and go. What impresses me the most is how it is holding its heat and humidity as I open the ‘bator during lockdown over and over. I mean, it’s been busier than a Dunkin Donuts drive-through window in there. I know, I know. Das ist verboten!! And yet, the ‘bator has held its temperature and humidity remarkably well. Miraculously well.

No one told me that, as the chicks began to hatch, the incubator would quickly become filled with shell debris, and rowdy, fluffy chicks (and how ’bout that smell, folks?!). Well, they did, but they didn’t say the situation would quickly become untenable as the stronger first-hatchers pecked at the still-hatching and sat on the heads of the more newly-hatched. I can not imagine leaving them in there undisturbed for 72 or even 48 hours. It would have been Escape From New York in there.

And no one told me I was going to need to help. In fact, I was told quite the opposite, that I should, under no circumstances, help. Emerging chicks need the fight; the fight makes them strong. If you take away the fight in a misguided desire to help, you take away the workout that sets them up for a healthy, strong chickhood.

CAVEAT: Unless they won’t make it to chickhood. That’s the criteria: help only if the chick will die if you do not. It’s not an easy call, especially for this virgin hatcher. (Virgin no longer!)

Fortunately, I was not alone; Justine of Les Farms has been my constant mentor, my Mr. Miyagi, my Ova Wan Kenobi, if you will, available pretty much day or night via email, to guide me, to encourage me, to give her opinion on the photos and video I sent in panic. This is as much her hatch as it is mine.

Thursday morning, technically still Day 20, I awoke to three chicks, just like that. BAM. Here’s yer chicks. Easy peasey. The rest of the day was equally smooth. I went to bed Thursday night knowing there were two Marans on the move, one halfway zipped and another pipped, working since that afternoon.

I was not happy to find them in exactly the same condition early Friday morning. The chicks inside were alive; I could see their beaks gaping with breath. I sent Justine this pic of the zipped chick:

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I was unprepared for Justine’s reply: “If it were me, I’d help.”

Following her instructions to the letter, I placed the egg in the lap of Stepdaughter the Elder and carefully (terrified, mind) moistened the dried membrane at the zip site with warm sterile water and a Q-tip, ensuring there was no dried membrane glued to the chick, preventing hatch.

It was a multi-tiered process, and, in the end, I zipped the shell all the way around and put the chick back in the ‘bator to pull itself out of the shell. S/he had a little help from early-hatching siblings (if torment can be called help) and was up and padding about in short order. (This whole process if well documented on video on the Dúagwyn Facebook Page.) I was thrilled to see s/he is a splash, the only one of the entire hatch, and here’s what s/he looks like now, only 48 hours later:

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We decided to give the other Maran a few more hours, as its progress was much less advanced:

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S/he turned out to be a Cesarean, as well, in the end, and our first Black Copper Marans emerged, safe and well.

There were two zipping Lavender Ameraucanas through all this, and I was thrilled. Only two had hatched the day before, and I had been concerned that was all we’d get. As the day passed, I became re-concerned, as the zipping hadn’t progressed. At all.

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This was the shell of #4, aka Light Preemie, who did not look good when s/he got out:

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Dark preemie had zipped even less, and seemed even more listless upon exit. It was a long, silly story, involving, but not limited to, me bathing both preemies when it became apparent that they were encased in an armour of dried egg. Both chicks fared much better (and certainly looked better) after they’d had a bath:

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Light preemie was off to the races, after a power nap. I never worried about him/her again. Dark preemie was experiencing balance issue severe enough that s/he needed help to stand. For an hour and a half on Saturday, I held him/her to my chest, doing some form of rudimentary, improvised chicken physiotherapy.

And s/he strengthened rapidly. By dinner time Saturday, s/he was standing and walking with confidence, if still a little wobbly at times, and both preemies entered gen pop in the brooder for the night. Here they are today, just 24 hours later:

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Quite the little success story.

In less happy news, a Blue Copper Marans chick hatched (without assistance) that could not get upright. I tries shoes, I tried hobbling, but nothing helped. Here is the chick having shoes installed, to keep the toes spread and the feet flat during a critical period where the bones harden:

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Even with the shoes, the chick was only able to push itself along with floor using its feet and wings as paddles; with the hobble it couldn’t even do that. In the end, I was forced to accept that the issues were not fixable; the hips were badly malformed. And so, I experienced my first cull. It was a brutal experience.

Nietsche said what doesn’t destroy you makes you stronger, but I beg to differ. If culling will be easier next time (and I’m pretty sure it will), then what doesn’t destroy me doesn’t make me stronger, it just snips the connections to empathy. What doesn’t destroy me makes me harder. And that sucks.

As if all that weren’t enough, there was a late-hatching BlackCopper Marans Saturday evening, and it needed help, and it has issues, too. (This doctoring stuff gets old fast. I’m being honest with you, here.) When I took Little Black Copper Marans out of the incubator this morning, it became immediately apparent that there were foot and leg issues. This is probably why s/he was unable to get out of the shell independently, even with a great deal of help.

Darwinism would suggest that all these chicks should have been left to die. I can see both sides of the issue. Certainly, these weaker, problematic chicks should not be used for breeding, even though it’s entirely possible their problems may not be genetic. Because…they might be. Had they been born in a hatchery, they would never have seen the light of day.

I put shoes on LBCM this morning, but I knew there was an issue with the ankle as well; the left ankle was turning inward. Chicken Debbie to the rescue! She concurred that shoes were in order, as well as a brace for the left leg to hold the foot straight. All of that looks like this:

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Poor little guy/girl. What a rough way to start life! It remains to be seen if this chick will be sufficiently independent to grow to full chickhood; I really, really hope I don’t have another “call” to make.

All this to say, in the past 48 hours, I have performed one euthanisation, and five egg surgeries. Four of those have happy endings, and one is too soon to tell, but looks promising. I have performed orthopaedic services, preemie care and physiotherapy.

I am exhausted.

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8 thoughts on “Paging Doctor Chickeneer…

  1. I am so glad to be reading about your experiences AND your happy stories. Now I know that I just should NOT attempt hatching my own eggs. I’d considered it but had no idea what was involved and as for having to cull…yeah, absolutely can’t do it. Even the thought of little baby chicks dying makes my stomach turn. You did your best for all of them and, like you said, if they’d been born in a hatchery their odds would have been terrible so your contribution to their lives is HUGE and you should be proud of that <3

    • Oh, Jen; I’m sorry I dissuaded you. I suppose I’d have been dissuaded, too, if I’d known then what I know now. It’s amazing the strength and resilience you can find within if you do a little well-researched jumping in…

  2. You did so well. I don’t remember mentioning the chicks you help often do not fluff up like the others, often needing wash downs. That egg junk really makes a mess of them.

    I know it was a tough experience overall, but you will enjoy the ones you have.. and I do not think those not able to get out of their shell are any less suitable for breeding unless obviously deformed.. You can always ‘test’ it. Clearly mark the eggs of a hen who had crooked toes at hatch.. see if her progeny has them as well.. and only at that time make your decision. Often these things just happen, yes sometimes it is genetic, but not always.

    I had a crooked toed Ameraucana rooster. It was definitely genetic. Out of his 9 babies I EVER hatched, a good 3 or 4 of them also had mildly crooked toes. But I have also hatched from others that had crooked toes with absolutely no genetic link. It can happen due to low humidity during the first 18 days, high humidity, bad handling, etc.

    What I do know is highly gentic is Scissor or cross beak or even crooked beak…. or wry tail. All those things should definitely be culled (from the breeding program at least). Culling is a term that means weeding out.. Most breeders will have a cull pen which just means those are the birds that are not worthy of breeding, and are either sold off as pets, or used as meat (for the boys mostly).

    Your Ameraucanas are the cutest things ever. Love their beards.. I am a sucker for beards.. I can not wait to watch them grow.

    • You’ve given me hope, once again. Wendy and I are divvying up the kids tomorrow afternoon, and I’m not sure if she will be willing tot take care of the guy. He might be totally fine by tomorrow; I’m planning on taking off the shoe in the morning, but leaving on the ankle braces for another day.

      Maybe s/he’ll be just fine!

  3. Every hatch is a learning process, everytime you incubate eggs, you learn more about the process. I don’t think anyone, hen or human gets it right the first time. It is the heartbreaking reality that some will do better than others. Keeping the healthiest and strongest chicks is the best in the long run.
    But give them a chance, the next two weeks will show the most! I have an Americauna hen that was a premie, she had yolk still attached when she pushed out of her shell, I kept her moist and warm for two days, 3 years later, Silk, her name , is one of my best layers, light mint green eggs, and broody as well! She had the silkiest soft down, and silky soft feathers as an adult! Ya just never know how its going to turn out!

  4. You are an excellent attentive mother hen! Your babies will be wonderfully close to you. The connection and bond with handraised babies is amazingly strong! I have 4 yo hens that come for a snuggle, tucking their heads in under my arm like new baby chicks…gotta love me, I’m the baby, all 40 of them, keep me busy! And they are better broody moms too! Good luck, enjoy them, they are little for so short a time!

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