About three years ago, we had the privilege of hatching our own chickens. It wasn’t anything we’d ever planned on doing. It just sort-of happened, one day, as we were handed a carton-full of fertilized eggs from a friend at church who thought we might enjoy doing a little “homeschool project”.
Wow! What a project that was! I don’t think I’ll ever attempt to do it again, but it was an experience I don’t think any of us will ever forget…
We scrambled, at first, to get our own homemade incubator built. It was a really crude one, made out of a plastic tub, 25-watt light bulb, a small dish of water, and a thermometer. The first problem we encountered was that we couldn’t get the temperature up to the, minimum, 99 degrees necessary for supporting life. Matt had the genius idea of using aluminum foil to line the inside of the tub, though. Eventually, we were able to settle in on a steady internal temperature of 101 degrees. Humidity was another issue we weren’t prepared to deal with. Instead of purchasing a wet-bulb thermometer to determine the relative humidity within in the incubator (which needed to be between 50 and 55%), we’d bought a simple reptile terrarium thermometer, only showing the temperature. But, we didn’t want to spend any more time or money getting the eggs going, so we just trusted that the amount of water we were using would provide the right amount of humidity for the eggs to develop.
Once the eggs were in a secure environment, we headed to the library to find out what we’d need to do next. We brought home a handful of books on raising chickens and the crash course began…
On day seven, we “candled” the eggs. My daughter, Keilah, and I took them, one at a time, into the bathroom, turned off all of the lights, and held a flash-light underneath each one. While cupping it in my hand, we looked to see if there were any signs of vital life coming from inside of the egg. We looked for something in the shape of a “comma”, as shown in day 7 of this chart created by Jill Hixon and the University of Illinios.
To our wonderful surprise, the first egg we candled showed a little chick, swimming around in the egg! I brought the other children in, one at a time, so they could witness the incredible spectacle. They all had the same reaction: “Whoa!”
We candled the remaining seven eggs and found that six had embryos moving around just like the first. One of the eggs, however, was different than the rest. It was dark and cloudy. We couldn’t see anything moving around inside of it. We picked it up and looked at it several different times, at several different angles, but never saw anything but a cloudy, dark mass.
“It’s a bad egg”, I told my daughter, Keilah. “We’ll have to get rid of it.”
“Why, mommy?” she asked.
“Because it might explode if we leave it in with the other eggs”, I told her.
“Oh. Okay”, she said. “But, I want to see what it looks like”, she added.
“You do?” I answered.
“Yes”, she shot back. “Can we break it open and see what’s inside?”
“We can.” I said. “Just not inside. Let’s go outside and do it, in case it smells bad.”
“Okay”, she answered. So we grabbed the egg, and a paper plate and headed out the door.
We set the plate down on the ground and cracked open the egg — and wouldn’t you know it? There it was — a tiny, see-through, comma-shaped chick embryo, with a humoungous eye staring right at us, and…it was still alive! We could see the little heart beating right through its transparent outer tissue!
“Oh, mommy!” Keilah shouted. “We’re murderers!” “We killed that baby chick!”
“Oh, honey”, I reassured her. “We didn’t know. We checked and checked that egg and never saw any sign of life in it. It didn’t look anything like any of the rest of the eggs. It was cloudy and dark and we couldn’t even see the baby in there.”
“We’re still murders!” she insisted.
“I’m sorry”, I said. “There was just no way to tell.” “But, look at this, isn’t it amazing?” I responded. “Now we know what all of those other chicks look like right now.”
“Yeah”, she replied. “They all have really big eyes!”
“They sure do”, I affirmed.
A little saddened and disappointed that we’d lost one, but astonished at what we’d just witnessed, a real-live, baby chick at seven days old, we went back inside to tell everyone else what we’d just witnessed. (It didn’t seem to bother them as much as it did, Keilah, perhaps since they heard the story second-hand.) Jacob asked if he could see another “egg in the bathroom” again. We took another look at one, and then went on with our day.
On day 14, we candled the eggs again to check for viability and see how they’d grown. It was a much different sight this time, as you can see from the chart above. Instead of a tiny, comma-shaped, figure that had plenty of room to move around, by day fourteen the chicks occupied nearly all of the space. When we brought them into the bathroom to candle, we were happy to see that all of the babies were still alive and kicking! In just one short week, if everything continued to go well, we’d be seeing them face to face, I told the kids…
Seven days later, just like clockwork, I heard the first “pip” (the first time the chick pokes a hole in the shell to breathe the outside air). I walked over to the incubator and noticed that one egg had a hole in it. There was no movement, however, and I wondered if the chick was all right. I looked at the thermometer and was shocked to see a reading of 112 degrees! I knew that the chickens’ body temperatures were going to go up when they got ready to hatch, but I had no idea when it would happen or by how much it’d go up.
“Oh, no!” I thought. “They’re fried — I killed them!”
“How could we have come this far to lose them now?” I queried. “Lord”, I prayed. “Please don’t let them die!”
I quickly threw the lid off of the incubator and wafted in the cooler, outside air. The temperature instantly fell back into the “safe” range, but I still wasn’t sure the chicks were all right. I removed all of the aluminum foil from the sides of the plastic tub, firmly put the lid back in place, and waited to see what would happen next…
I was relieved when, a few short minutes later, another chick made its first pip, followed by another, and then another. I’d also discovered, after doing some more research during that short time, that the reason I wasn’t seeing any other movement from the chickens was because they needed to rest for three to eight hours after their first pip to acclimate their lungs to the outside atmosphere.
The first chick made its first pip around 6 p.m. in the evening, and didn’t start its second phase of pipping until around ten o’clock. It was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen! I thought, when chickens hatched, they just created a big hole in one spot and pushed themselves out. Not so! Did you know that they peck, in a straight line, all the way around the egg, dividing it perfectly in half, and then use their feet to split it apart? Well, they do! And, they don’t do it all at once. They chip away, a little at a time, taking long rests in between. It can take six or more hours for them to break free from the shell, and when they finally do, they spastically flop around a couple of times and then lay flat on the floor, completely exhausted. A few minutes later, after regaining some strength, they’re up on their feet again, flopping around wildly, disturbing all of the other chicks who are still trying to break out of their shells.
I learned that it was not good to let them do this, so I quickly moved each new chick, after it hatched, into a separate brooder, where it had more room to move around and finish drying off. It was not the perfect birthing environment, but, hey! –They actually all survived!
I stayed up all that night and well into the next day to watch over all of the births, move the newborns into the brooder, and help them take their first drinks of water. I figured that, the time from first pip to the last chick being born was thirty-one hours — more time than I’d spent in labor with all of my four children combined! I was exhausted. I thanked God that all seven were alive, despite all of the things that could have gone wrong over the span of twenty-one days.
The kids were astounded when they woke up to find a couple of newborn chicks in the brooder and a few more, still in the incubator, vigorously working to push themselves out of their shell. I’m so glad that they got to witness the entire growth, development, and birth process. They learned to recognize the moment when the chick was just about to emerge from the egg, were able to capture it on film, and invited a neighbor over to watch it happen along with them.
Of the seven chicks that were born, three turned out to be hens, and four were roosters. We kept the three hens to use as ‘layers”. The four roosters? Well, that’s the topic of another story.
I’m thankful that we had the opportunity to have participated in this “homeschool project” and see it to its completion. It was an educational experience that we’ll never forget, and one that will never be rivaled by any textbook!