Assisted Hatching

Once a clutch of eggs has been laid, it takes approximately 21 - 24 days for the chicks to begin hatching. About 7 days before the first egg is due to hatch, I begin checking the nestboxes everyday to monitor the progress of the chicks. Just because an egg is fertile does not mean that it will hatch with no problems. Most will hatch without incident, but I want to make sure that every chick that can hatch will hatch. I generally mist the outside of each box with water at this point to help ensure that there is enough moisture for the shell of the egg to soften properly. Some hens will bathe daily to accomplish the same thing, but others don't. You have to observe and know your own birds. I candle the eggs with a small bright flashlight to make sure that everything is progressing as it should. It has been an accepted fact that you don't handle the eggs in the nest. However, if I can't get a good enough look, I've been known to gently pick up and egg (point side down). I always disinfect my hands prior to doing this. To date, I have never had a hen abandon her eggs. As hatch time gets closer, you will notice that the air cell at the top of the egg starts to get larger as the egg draws down (loses moisture). It eventually starts to go diagonally down one side. This is the side where the chick's beak is located. The first pip marks should appear at the lower end of the diagonal line.

If everything proceeds normally, the chick should hatch within 40 hours after you see the first pip mark. The chick will pip all around the line of the air cell and the top (wide portion) will come off. From there, it's just a matter of wiggling out of the lower end of the shell. Please note that I always remove any remaining pieces of eggshell. I've seen chicks in trouble simply because a piece of an empty shell ended up stuck over their egg and the chick couldn't pip through two shells! The parents will usually take care of the empty shells, but never depend on it. I always check!

The last paragraph discussed normal hatching. But what happens when everything doesn't go according to plan? What do you do? How do you determine when the process is not normal? One of the reasons that I check the eggs daily is so that I can determine when I see the first pip mark. I make a note of the time, and I know from my experience that I should have a live chick within 40 hours. Anything past 40 hours and there is a very real possibility that the chick will never get out of the egg without assistance.

Why 40 hours and what do you look for? Average hatch time for Peachface, Fischer's and Mask Lovebirds is 40 hours. It takes that long for the chick to pip around the top of the egg. Pip marks follow a pattern. If the marks look erratic or irregular, the chick may be in trouble. If there doesn't seem to be any progress, the chick may be in trouble. From my experience, it takes 36 - 40 hours for the yolk sack to absorb. The hatching process requires energy (lots of it!) and the egg yolk provides this energy. Once the energy source is gone, and the chick is still not out of the egg, it will become frantic and begin to chirp. If you don't open the egg, the chick will die. I don't ever recall opening an egg that is 40 hours into the hatching process and finding any of the yolk sack still remaining.

How do you open an egg? Carefully and slowly. Before I do anything, I candle the egg in a dark room to make sure I know where to penetrate the shell. The beak is located where you see the greatest number of pip marks. Making sure I've disinfected my hands (as well as anything I will use to assist the chick), I use a pair of tweezers to open the egg where I've determined the beak should be. Slowly I peel away the top part of the shell. (Looking at the egg, it has a wide end and a pointed end. Always start at the wide end.) I use Q-tips to blot any blood (there should not be much, if any) and to slide the inner membranes away from the head. I never remove the entire shell until I have determined that the yolk sack is completely absorbed. Once I have most of the head clear, I very carefully move the head so that I can see the abdomen. The yolk sack is mustard colored and readily visible on the abdomen. If you don't see any of it, you can finish hatching the egg. If necessary, cut the umbilical cord loose from the eggshell with scissors rather than by pulling. If everything looks O.K., I return the baby to its parents. They should take care of it, but I watch the chick just to make sure. Keep in mind that a chick can usually survive anywhere from 6-12 hours without being fed. There may be too much of the yolk left inside the baby for mom to feed and so she will wait. If the chick isn't fed within this time frame, I usually supplement with a very small amount of Pedialyte if I have it or sugar water if I don't have Pedialyte. If the parents still don't take care of the baby, I either move the baby to another pair that has very young babies or I pull for handfeeding.

What if the yolk sack is not completely absorbed when you open the egg? When I begin an assisted hatch, I always have a brooder set up....just in case I need it. If I check to see if the yolk sack is absorbed and find that it isn't, I stop right there! The chick is put into the brooder, eggshell and all. The shell is what protects the yolk sack so that it doesn't break before it's absorbed. A chick at this stage can't be given back to its parents until everything is stabile. After this, there's nothing to do except watch and wait. It can take anywhere from 2 to 15 hours or more before the lower portion of the shell can be removed. No food is needed. The chick just needs enough moisture to allow the hatching process to complete itself.

Once I see that the yolk sack is gone, I carefully remove the remainder of the lower shell. Again, cut the umbilical cord loose with scissors rather than by pulling. I usually keep the baby in the brooder for at least a few more hours while I make sure that the chick appears strong enough for the parents to feed it. A weak feeding response can result in the parents abandoning the baby. Occasionally, I've kept babies as long as 2 days before returning them to mom and dad. (Yes, that means handfeeding every 2 hours round the clock for as long as I have the baby.) If the parents don't take the baby back, I can either foster or handfeed. I've had chicks grow up very successfully both ways, and I really feel that my efforts are worth all the trouble!

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