Hempsals Community farm often hatches their own chicks, mainly to replenish the flocks of egg laying hens. Our children were very keen to see eggs hatch and watch the chicks grow, so in mid september we got a batch of eggs and an incubator from the farm. We were finally going to get a chance to incubate, hatch and care for our own chicks.
These eggs needed to be incubated for 3 weeks before the chicks were ready to emerge. We arranged the eggs in the incubator and placed it on the rocker and off it went, with its steady whirring fan, maintaining the temperature at 37.5 °C, and hourly clicking rotation.
There was a limited amount we could do during the incubation, although we could ‘candle’ the eggs to see if there was anything going on inside. This involved using a torch to shine a bright light into the shell in a darkened room and seeing if there was anything inside the egg. Developing eggs absorb oxygen and moisture from the environment through the shell (and dispose of carbon dioxide), therefore blood vessels develop over the inside of the eggs, a little like a primitive placenta. The first of these blood vessel can be seen at around 5 days, which was much easier to see in the eggs with white shells.
At about 10 days I could more clearly see which eggs had developing chicks in. These eggs had a distinct mass which blocked the light. I judged four eggs not to have chicks in, and I threw two away; the children wanted me to mark the other two to check they didn’t hatch, which is what we did. The candling was fascinating and could carefully be done until close to hatching. We saw more blood vessels developing and towards the end of the incubation period could see the chick moving inside the shell.
After 19 days of waiting we removed the bars, which stopped the eggs bumping as they rocked, and took the incubator off the rocking base. Finally we felt like something was going to happen soon.
The following morning we came down to the sound of tiny cheeps. We carefully looked at the eggs and found that 2 eggs had pipped and had a tiny hole in. We topped up the water in the wells of the incubator and waited. And waited, it seemed to take ages to see any progress in the eggs cracking. During the day two more eggs were pipped, but still there was little progress in the first two eggs. Ben assured me this was normal and that eggs often take around 12 hours to hatch. Finally at about 6 in the evening the first two eggs hatched and out popped a white chick and a ginger chick with black strips. By 10 in the evening two more chicks had hatched and the incubator was starting to look very full of chicks and eggs.
We had a large cage with a heat lamp, water and food trough. It seemed to be time to move the first two chicks who were now dry and fluffy. The heat lamp is need to keep the chicks warm like the mother hen would do, but we had overestimated the sense of our little chicks. In the morning we found them in the opposite corner to the heat lamp, the two chicks were very cold and still, although they were still alive – just. Their chances looked slim, but we moved them back into the incubator to warm up. To our surprise after an hour, the chicks looked more life-like and after two hours they were back on their feet. It was time to put them in the big cage again, this time using the water container and food trough to keep the tiny chicks near the heat lamp.
By the follow morning, day 21, we had seven chicks; four in the big cage and three still in the incubator drying off, it took about 6 hours for them to fully dry and start standing steadily. This left two pipped eggs, on carefully examination one of the chicks had died. It is common for a chick not to make it out of the shell. We still had one little chick cheeping away in its shell. We watched this egg periodically, the crack was getting bigger and at about 2 in the afternoon there was a claw and beak sticking out. Half an hour later there was more head showing and shortly after that a chick. It was curled up like an egg, wet and looking like it thought the egg was a better place to be. But again, it wasn’t long before he was standing, peering out, looking for his friends who were all now in the large cage.
We had hatched 8 chicks. The incubator was left on for a further 12 hours, but no more eggs pipped or hatched. When I re-candled the eggs, it appeared another two eggs had not been fertilised and three developed eggs did not hatch. So in summary of the 18 eggs we received six were not fertilised, three developed but did not hatch, one died during hatching and eight healthy chicks hatched. This is quite a typical success rate with incubated eggs.
The hatching was only the start of the fun. While the children had been fascinated by the eggs, candling and hatching, there was very little they or I could do, but now we had 8 little chicks to watch, handle and feed.
In the first few days the chicks were very sleepy. They would come and see us when ever we were near and would called to us in their cute little cheeps. But after a short while they would go back to the heat lamp and crash out literally, splat on the floor. To start with they ate and drank very little, although they needed chick crumb available all the time, which had the bonus that they did not smell, yet.
The chicks developed very quickly – by the time they were 3 days old their wing feathers were growing, by 5 days they were stretching their wings and by 8 days old they could fly/jump out of the cage (the lid to the cage became essential). As quickly as the chicks grew, our children’s understanding of them also grew. The children become confident handling the chicks and talking about them. For the children, “Tiger”, the only one we named, developed personality and become the central character in their play and stories.
Originally I had said we would take the chicks back to the farm when they were 8 days old, but seeing how the children were enjoying having them, I relented, cleaned them out for a second time, and agreed to keep them until 12 days. ….. They continued to grow feathers….this will be extended.
We have really enjoyed keeping the eggs, watching them hatch and the chicks develop. I found the candling gave me an amazing insight into how the chicks really develop. The children have loved watching the chicks grow quickly, taken many photos and learnt so much. We all hope the hens go on to happy and productive lives at Hempsals farm, where we intend to continue visiting them for several years.