It looks like our dream of a brooder full of newly hatched chicks isn't going to happen. We're not throwing in the towel yet, but it's not looking good.
You might remember we started 31 eggs in our new incubator about three weeks ago, and were looking forward to a hatch date of March 4 (today) or 5 (tomorrow). We candled the eggs at about 10 days and had to discard 6 of them - 4 of which hadn't been fertile to begin with, and 2 that showed the telltale ring of a failed embryo. Then on Tuesday we candled them again and took out 2 more that had failed. All of that is quite normal.
What wasn't normal was the massive wind storm we had on Wednesday. It knocked out power to most of Vancouver Island - in our case, from about 10:00 am until 10:00 pm. Under normal circumstances, a power outage would be an inconvenience (when we don't have power we don't have water, which means we don't have toilets), but with an incubator full of chicks in lock-down mode, we had a problem.
Lock down happens for the last three days of incubation: eggs are taken off the turners, so the chicks can solidify their sense of up and down, humidity is increased, to make sure the inner membrane of the egg doesn't dry out, making it more difficult for the chick to escape the shell, and the eggs are left strictly alone, and not disturbed.
Unless a power outage happens. Fortunately we had a backup plan, that had its inception in the days when Kim was thinking of building her own incubator: we used a cooler we were given a number of years ago, that plugs into the cigarette lighter of a car and that can be set to either cool or heat. So very, very gently we moved the eggs to a rack in the cooler, set over a pan of water for humidity and some hot water bottles for thermal mass, put the the temperature and humidity probe from the egg-o-meter inside and then transported the whole apparatus to the car. And then Kim parked herself in the car to monitor the eggs.
We made it comfortable for her: book, cup of hot soup, blankets and pillows, and a walkie-talkie to call me in case she needed anything. Kim monitored the eggs and I trotted in and out, monitoring Kim. After a while we figured out the cooler was doing a great job at maintaining heat and humidity, so Kim could come back in the house for 30 minutes at a time, just going out to check and adjust, and sometimes to run the car so the battery wouldn't be drained.
When I left about 2:30 to tutor and then attend a rehearsal, we were expecting the power to come back on at 6:00. But when I got home at 10:30 that night, the power had just been restored, and Kim was in the process of moving back into the house. And she had exciting news for me: the eggs were peeping!
This (like most things our first time around) was confusing to us, because it was Wednesday, and the hatch date wasn't supposed to be until Friday at the earliest. Could the disruption have caused an early hatch? Kim got up once or twice in the middle of the night to check on the eggs, and we woke up Thursday morning to a newly hatched chick. Yay!
But as the day progressed there was bad news, too: a second chick hatched but seemed stuck to the shell by what looked like an umbilical cord. We did some emergency reading and placed an emergency call to our chicken mentor Ev, and finally sterilized some scissors and cut the chick free. It was probably just some of the inner membrane of the egg, which dries out easily and then can get stuck.
And later, more bad news: another egg was hatching, but seemed stuck. The shell was cracked all the way around, and the chick inside was rocking and rolling, but not making any progress. When I left that afternoon for more tutoring, Kim was worried. When I got home that night Kim had performed a chicky-otomy, and had carefully freed the chick from the egg. We knew it's sometimes done, but you have to be really careful because tearing the membrane of the egg too early on can cause the chick to bleed to death. But it was a good thing Kim intervened, because the membrane had dried and stuck the chick to the egg, and it would never have been able to free itself. Kim also had to carefully cut away some of the dried membrane that was preventing the chick from moving its wing.
And then things just ground to a halt. No more peeping eggs. No more little beaks poking through shells. The one Australorp chick that had broken open a small area of its egg had stopped moving, and we now know it died.
We don't know what to think. All of this has happened before any chicks were supposed to hatch at all. At this point there are two more eggs that are peeping, so maybe the three chicks that hatched are the anomaly, and all we need to do is be patient. But Kim is swearing she's never doing this again - she takes it all so much to heart.
While we wait and try to be patient, there's joy to be had in watching the three survivors. They are active and vocal, and amazed us by pecking at spots on the incubator walls when they were only hours old. What an instinct! They're in the brooder now, staying warm under the heat lamp. You can see the chick that got stuck in her membrane - we're going to wait a day and then clean her up with some warm water.
And hopefully there will be more healthy chicks to add to the brooder soon!