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Plan ahead for the hatch. If the nest has sides that might prevent a chick who has fallen out from getting back in, place a little straw around it to give it something on which to climb back in. A chick who cannot get back under mama will chill and die.
Check progress on the expected hatch day without being too intrusive. With most broodies, you can slip a hand gently under the hen and feel the eggs. If you feel a crack in one of them, pull it out and examine it. The first stage of hatching is “pipping”—the chick cracks open a little hole from the inside. (At this point, if you hold the egg up to an ear and tap with a fingernail, you hear the chick peeping inside. Kids love this.) Later the first crack extends around the entire shell, which breaks open into two neat halves, the wet, exhausted chick sprawled between. After an hour, the chick will be dry and fluffy, and surprisingly active. During the day you can remove the broken egg shells from the nest as more chicks hatch.
Remember that the embryos all started development at the same time. However, their rate of growth varies sufficiently that the first chick may be out of the shell 16 hours earlier than its slowest sibling. The hen has the wisdom to know that she must not leave the nest early, and is quite patient in waiting for the last chick to hatch. The early arrivals hatch with the last of the yolk material in their systems, and are thus able to wait awhile without feed or water. In practice this means that one typically waits until the following morning for the last chicks to hatch. Any egg showing no sign of pipping at this point is unlikely to hatch. If you shake it gently, you may hear a liquid gurgle inside—proof of a non-viable egg. Even if there is pipping which has not progressed, if you tap on the egg and hear no peep, it is clear that the embryo has died attempting to hatch. Such failed eggs should be removed from the nest, and the hen encouraged to leave and start caring for her chicks.
Sometimes a chick is unable to break free of the shell on its own, and it is tempting to intervene and help it out. This apparent kindness is ill advised. Breaking out of its shell is difficult for the chick, but that difficulty itself is nature’s first challenge for the new life. If it is not strong enough to meet that challenge, and you give it a boost it would not otherwise have had, it is likely to start its life weak. Perhaps it is lacking in vigor, a trait you would not want to pass on to offspring. Better to let it make that first big step or fall on its own. Like the hen, you should focus your efforts on the vigorous chicks in the clutch.
Grafting Chicks Onto a Broody Hen
If my description of the advantages of a broody hen over the artificial brooder sounds good to you, you might conclude that it would be great to give purchased day-old chicks to a broody hen to mother. Will a broody accept such an offer? Maybe. Most of my attempts to “graft” purchased chicks onto a broody hen in this way have been successful. However, never assume that success is certain, and be prepared to brood the chicks yourself if the hen doesn’t cooperate. The hen should have been on the nest a couple of weeks—she is unlikely to accept a “graft” if she has been broody only a couple of days. But you can “hold” a willing broody on her nest with plastic eggs for 4 or even 5 weeks until your purchased chicks come in. The hen is not counting off days on a mental calendar—she moves on to the next phase when she hears live chicks under her.
To make a “graft,” you should again work only at night. Remove the plastic eggs and slip the chicks (who have been kept quiet in their shipping carton through the day) under the hen. Check on them later that night, and again at first light. Chances are excellent the hen will be delighted to welcome “her” new babies into the world. I have only a couple of times had a hen reject grafted chicks, but in the worst case, the hen killed a few of the “intruders.” Monitor closely and be prepared to intervene.
My most spectacular success grafting chicks occurred with a White Jersey Giant hen named Hope. Hope came off the nest with only six chicks of her own. Shortly after I put her and her chicks in a section of the poultry house, I bought in 42 day-old chicks, and set them up in a brooder in the next section. Believe me when I say that Hope asked to be mother to those new chicks, and when her “request” finally penetrated my thick skull and I opened the door between the sections, Hope rushed in and began busily mothering them.
But that is not the end of the story. That night I tried grafting ten purchased goslings onto a broody goose. The goose was willing, but the goslings wouldn’t “fix” on her, wouldn’t recognize her as mother, and kept wandering off through the dew-wet grass. By morning, goslings were going down like dominoes. In desperation, I scooped up the remaining seven and prayerfully offered them to Hope. She didn’t even blink.