The Incubator Death Trap

OR “Why I will never hatch chicks in a classroom again”

The science curriculum includes a large life sciences component so it is a fun idea to bring some kind of animal into the classroom to give children first hand experiences. In the past, I have had butterflies, tadpoles and hamsters in my classrooms and even chicks once, about 20 years ago. This year, my teaching partner suggested hatching some chicken eggs in an incubator. Being a chicken fanatic, I was keen on the idea although I recognized that my recent chicken farmer experience would not necessarily transfer to knowledge on incubation.  Until now, I have left all the responsibilities of incubation up to Tweedle Mum.

We borrowed the big foam incubator and egg-turning device from the school district resource centre and a student’s parent brought in 22 eggs from a local farm. We read the page of instructions and did exactly what it said.

Loaned incubator from the school district resource center - circa 1970.

Loaned incubator ‘death trap’ from the school district resource center – circa 1970.

For twenty-one days, we tried to monitor the temperature (100° C) and the humidity (65%) but this was not easily done. Firstly the incubator temp control is clunky and very imprecise.

This pin spins freely and it is difficult to tell if you have actually changed the temperature.

This pin spins freely and it is difficult to tell if you have actually changed the temperature.

Also, our classroom has many large waist-to-ceiling windows which have a greenhouse effect on every sunny day in the spring. By the time the students are dismissed, the room temperature is easily approaching 28° C. This high temp has some effect on the incubator temperature, which would sometimes exceed its incubation limit by a degree or two despite our attempts to turn down its thermostat. So in anticipation of the long holiday weekend, which was forecast to be hot and sunny, I turned the incubator thermostat down a bit and closed all the classroom blinds. When I arrived back three days later after a cool and rainy weekend, the incubator temp was around 97° C. I was pretty sure then that we had just killed 22 baby chicks.

The students waited and watched as the twenty-first day of incubation came and went. No chicks hatched. On the morning of the twenty-second day there was finally one egg with a pip. By the end of that school day, that chick had emerged and a few others had pips and cracks. The 23rd day had more action with six chicks hatched and a bunch more in various stages of pipping but things were not going perfectly.

One little guy had emerged but his bottom was still connected to his shell with a gummy egg-white string. As he tried to stand up and move around the incubator, the egg-shell restricted him and he dragged it everywhere. Other chicks stepped on him and he seemed very weak. By the end of the school day, his innards had been pulled out of his bottom. You could see his intestines, gizzard and other parts lying on the incubator floor while he still gasped for breath for a short while before he died.

Another chick successfully hatched but was unable to get dry even after a few hours. Her thin down covering stayed wet and sticky and, when I touched her, she was cool. That is when I noticed that the incubator temperature was only 97° C again. I tried cranking up the thermostat again, knowing that her life depended on the accuracy of that dial.

The weekend had arrived so we moved the successful hatches into a classroom brooding box with a heat lamp, chick feed and water and I took the rest of the eggs and the cold chick home in the incubator. The incubator was installed in our computer room and it was temporarily renamed the Sick Bay.

The first order of business was to get the cold chick warm. I placed her on a hot water bottle and wrapped that in a heating pad. When I checked on her a little while later, she was dead.

My remaining hopes were with the 4 eggs with cracks. I could hear them peeping to each other and I could see their cute little beaks with an egg tooth poking out of each cracked shell. One of those was so close to breaking out, pushing the shell apart around a middle seam over and over, and I had trouble tearing myself away to prepare dinner.

All the literature about emerging chicks insists that you shouldn’t offer any assistance at all, no matter how tempting it is. A mother hen simply sits and keeps those chicks warm throughout the process but does not help a chick break out. So there was nothing to do but let nature take its course. Survival of the fittest and all that.

When I came back to see her progress, I could see that she had stopped chirping and moving. The trauma of a low temperature and being moved from school to home had taken its toll and killed her. FM and I peeled back a bit of the egg-shell to find that the two membranes beneath were thick and difficult to break through even for us. It broke my heart to see that a fully developed chick had died because of the environmental conditions that I was controlling. There were 3 more eggs with pips and occasional peeps but as the evening rolled on, two more gave up the fight and we found that they had died as well. I removed the eleven eggs with no pip marks, knowing that they were surely dead after 24 days of incubation.

How many of these dud eggs have fully developed chicks in them? My bet is that they died sometime after 18 days due to the cold temperature inthe incubator.

How many of these dud eggs have fully developed chicks in them? My bet is that they died sometime after 18 days due to the cold temperature in the incubator.

With only one more pipped egg left, FM and I were no longer going to stand by and watch another fully developed chick die. He cracked the last chick’s shell and found that the shell had affixed itself to the dry, crusty coating of the chick’s down. The membranes were so thick – probably do to incorrect incubator humidity – and it was improbable that this chick would have emerged on its own. Even after we removed the shell covering his head, the bottom half of his shell still remained attached to his bottom  – the same problem that another chick had had in the classroom. Without hesitating, I got some scissors and cut the sticky egg-white thread to separate him from his shell.

With bits of cracked shell still attached to him, we named him “Shelled In” (Shelden), let him rest in the incubator and went to bed.

For two days, we were treated to the peeps and chirps of little Shelled In. We kept him in the incubator but held him, showed him how to peck food and drink water and tried to mimic his chirp to keep him company.

Fluffed up Shelled In

Fluffed up “Shelled In”

"Shelled In" was a successful hatch only because we intervened. Poor humidity and temperature control would have killed him.

“Shelled In” was a successful hatch only because we intervened. Poor humidity and temperature control would have killed him.

On Monday morning, I brought Shelled In into the classroom and placed him in the brooding box with the 6 successful hatches. He was the loudest of them all, still traumatized from the car ride and he seemed to stare at the other chicks in disbelief. When I left, he was leaning against a blonde chick and snoozing contentedly.

When I look back on this ordeal of losing 16 / 22 chicks and compare it to the joy of watching Tweedle Mum hatch 5 / 6 chicks, it is apparent that nature does it best. I am quite sure that the incubator became a death trap because of our poor monitoring of temperature and humidity. It breaks my heart to see so much death over the course of two days and to think that any of those chicks could have been full of personality and affection, like Chip. But it is also pretty sad to think that a delicious Angel Food Cake could have been made with those 11 unpipped eggs.

Our eleven unhatched eggs would have been better used this way.

5 thoughts on “The Incubator Death Trap

  1. Oh my! Sorry you had such bad luck. We just got an incubator and are hatching our first eggs. Fingers crossed it works out for my poor little eggs! So far our temperature is staying very consistent. I was hoping to use it in my classroom in the fall.

    1. I’m sure your incubator will work just fine. It was our monitoring of it that was the problem. Since I wrote this, I have read a few articles that encourage you to assist incubator eggs if the pipped membrane seems thick and the hatching is taking an overly long time (<8 hours). Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Hope other people get as much enjoyment from your blogs, Martha, as I do….you have such a gift of writing and maybe someday you will publish a book on “My Life as a Chicken keeper”. Hugs.

    1. Hi Mum
      You are my most dedicated reader and I’m happy to pass our stories on to you. I would hate to make you pay for them! xo M :o)

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