Hatching your own eggs is a wonderful experience. Caring for the eggs, making sure the temperature is just right, ensuring there is enough humidity, and then going through the nerve wracking experience of watching the chicks’ struggle to escape the shell can be very rewarding. After all of your hard work, of course you will be nervous the little ones hatch successfully. Then you see one that seems to be in trouble. Your first instinct may be to help it, and that is fine, but you should know a few things first.
As it incubates, the embryo is encased by a membrane consisting of blood vessels. These vessels provide oxygen that enters the egg through the shell to the embryo. Several days before hatching, this network of vessels begins to break down and the embryo lacks sufficient oxygen. The egg will have slowly dried out during incubation, forming an air sack. This sack is pierced by the chick in order to get oxygen. Since there is not a lot of air in the sack, the chick will continue to peck until it ‘pips’ a tiny protrusion on the shell which allows for a greater flow of oxygen. After pipping, the chick will rest for 12 to 24 hours.
Once the chick has rested, it starts to make its way out of the egg. It starts at the pip before turning slightly and pecking again. The chick will continue this pattern around the egg until it forms a ‘lid’ which it can push open and wiggle out the rest of the way. During this process, the chick will take several breaks until it is finished about 1 to 3 hours later.
These rest periods are where most nervous soon-to-be bird parents think they are needed the most. After seeing and hearing movement only to have them go quiet and still can be stressful. Knowing when and when not to help a chick hatch is important.
When you help could mean life or death for the chick. If you help before the network of blood veins has completely broken down, you can cause the chick to bleed to death. Following are three scenarios and our recommendations for each.
The chick forms a hole where it pipped and does not start rotating within the shell. In this situation you must be careful as not everything went as it should. You can try to help, but stop and try several hours later if you see blood forming where you have broken the shell.
In the following video, we did not see blood until the 'lid' had been taken off. Make sure to stop and try again several hours later whenever you see blood.
If the duckling has started turning and breaking the shell, then runs into a problem and stops turning, you can normally help them without a problem. The key is they have started turning in the shell which means the blood vessels under the shell have shut down and you can help them without fear of excessive bleeding. Gently pull the head out from under the wing and allow the chick to escape the rest of the egg on its own.
If the chick has gone completely around and formed a ‘lid’ only to get stuck, you can definitely help them out by removing the cap.
Many believe that helping during hatch will make the chick weak. This is not necessarily true. You could have a perfectly healthy and fit chick, but due to less than ideal incubation conditions, it may not be able to hatch on its own. On the flip side, it is possible to get a weaker chick when helping a less than healthy chick to hatch. As author and waterfowl expert Holderread says, hatching is like a “fitness test” for the chicks.