When Hatching Chicken Eggs Goes Wrong

Over the last 2 days, we’ve been hatching our first Icelandic chickens. We decided to help in the efforts to preserve this amazing and rare breed of landrace chickens, and so we got some eggs from a local breeder, descended directly from one of the six imported lines from Iceland.

All was well throughout the incubation period; we only had one loss early on. Going into the hatching lockdown we had 11 eggs and high hopes. On Day 21, just like clockwork, two little darlings popped out right on time. Four more had pipped, and we figured it would all be done in a few more hours. We were wrong — this would be the most stressful, Murphy’s-Law-laden hatch ever. It was also the hatch I’ve learned the most from.

Problem 1: ‘Older’ chicks

The two that hatched first were lively and fun to watch. They turned the incubator floor into their personal playground, jumping on eggs, running everywhere, and even pecking at some of the half-hatched eggs as if to help them along. They helped usher in two more chicks, and all was well for a bit; the four musketeers rampaged all over, having a grand old time. I considered taking them out of the incubator but it hadn’t even been 24 hours yet; none of them were dry and fluffy, so I let them stay a little longer.

At the end of their first day, #5 hatched, and suddenly those friendly almost-fluffballs turned into little monsters. Mercilessly pecking and tearing the down from the new chick, the four originals acted like it was their mission to kill him. Meanwhile, #6 was about half done zipping his way around the egg, and some of the other chicks descended upon the egg, tearing at the shell edges and exposed membrane. The chick was “hatched,” whether he liked it or not, before he was completely ready; his tiny body dragged pieces of yolk and membrane all over the incubator.

I had to work fast, snatching the four little monsters out of the incubator and into the brooder; it gave the two new babies time to take a breath without getting pecked to death.  I was worried about their missing down and early arrival, but the time alone seemed to perk them up a bit while I waited for the last one to hatch.

Problem 2: Crippled feet

The #6 chick had a problem when he first got to his feet — they were completely turned under. Rather than wide-spread chicken toes, I saw two tiny claw-looking things. He struggled to walk, unable to balance himself or really even stand well.  To the internet we went, searching for a remedy, if there was one. It turns out it’s a fairly common problem in late hatchers, and there’s a pretty easy fix — tape, made into a little ‘cast’ for their feet. Apparently, 2-3 days of this little invention will straighten their toes out just fine.

I was dubious but highly impressed, so we got out the tape and put his little feet onto it, taking care to position his toes exactly how they would normally be. We wrapped his feet up in a ‘tape sandwich,’ and let him go back into the incubator to finish drying off. Immediately he was able to stand, his little paddle feet holding him up. An hour later we watched him run clumsily across the area, faceplanting into a much-needed nap. Surely, we thought, that would be the end of the chaos.

Problem 3: Assisted Hatch

It became apparent over the next night and into the morning that #7 had made zero progress. While he had a nice little hole pipped into the egg and was breathing air, he hadn’t even started zipping yet, even after over 24 hours since the first pip. We could see his beak sticking out of the hole, and he was chirping loudly, but seemed stuck in the egg. Back to the internet we went, finding the Mother of all Guides to Assisted Hatching on the single best chicken site on the internet.

We started working our way through the guide, and over the next 6 hours we painstakingly removed one tiny piece of shell at a time, going in stages so that the chick had every opportunity to finish the job himself. After several sessions over the first 3 hours we had removed the air cell cap, leaving the membrane intact so that the chick could “hatch” the rest of the way unassisted. Unfortunately, he was unable to do so, and so the truly exacting work began.

With bacitracin ointment, water, clean paper towels, and some blunt tweezers, we went to work, millimeters at a time, wetting the membrane and stretching it on the air cell side until it opened up, and then laying it over the outside of the shell, being extremely careful to ensure that the blood vessels in the membrane had receded. Once that part was removed, we put the chick back in the incubator on a wet paper towel, hoping he could take it the rest of the way. Every hour we checked on him, re-wet the membrane, added a tiny bit more Bacitracin, and took another little piece of membrane back. Once his eyes were uncovered, he opened them, struggling but failing to get out.

After another 3 hours, he finally was able to get his exhausted little body out of the shell. He had the incubator to himself by that point, and he was able to rest up overnight. We had to tape his little feet too; after so long in the shell he had the telltale claws as well.

This morning, all seven chicks are fluffy, eating and drinking while tearing around their brooder. The two little ‘paddle kids’ are running too, albeit a bit clumsier. We seem to have made it through the worst part, and even the little runt who almost didn’t make it out of the egg seems like a friendly, curious little baby.

Those two days were stressful, a bit frightening, and even a bit annoying. I got very little done; between taping and checking and assisting and mothering, it was a 24-7 job for a bit. I realized something, however — the good hatches, the easy ones where everyone pops out on time and all you have to do is stand there and coo over them, those are fun. The bad hatches, however, when you’re agonizing over whether to step in and help the chick hatch, or you’re trying to figure out if they need something or things are going wrong all over the place…those are valuable.


Good hatches are great. Bad hatches, however, teach you something. I learned more in the last 2 days about hatching chicks than I ever learned in all the other hatches I’ve done — and I’m a lot more confident for the next time something goes wrong. THAT, my friends, is worth more than all the easy hatches in the world.