How do you know when a duckling needs help hatching? That's a tough question, and there's no one right answer - but hopefully these tips can help!
This week, I've been hearing from an average of 3 new people each day - all folks who are incubating duck eggs for the first time, and looking for help knowing whether they should help a particular duckling hatch out of their shell.
This is a really common question this time of year, and one thing I've noticed about these emails is that many of them are sent in the wee hours of the morning, from people looking for information about what to do with an egg that's taking much longer to hatch than they expected. Hatching duck eggs can be nerve wracking, since it generally takes much longer than with chicken eggs!
Since I'm getting so many of these emails, but often don't get a chance to respond until a few hours later, I wanted to get a little more information online, to help at least introduce you to my thought process in deciding whether it's time to help a particular egg hatch. (You're still welcome to email me, but my hope is that this might help you in the meantime!)
When should you help a duckling hatch?
Let me just start by saying I’m not one who believes you should never help a duckling. This is something you will often hear in duck-keeping circles, but I don't ascribe to it.
Incubators are excellent, but often imperfect devices for hatching duck eggs, and there's also skill and experience involved. A duckling that may have hatched easily under a mama duck may need help in the not-quite-perfect environment of the incubator, and this is not necessarily indicative of a weak duckling that "nature says isn't strong enough to survive." I'm a firm believer in giving every duckling every chance.
Usually, that best chance involves simply being left alone to take its own time hatching, but sometimes a duckling does need help and in my opinion, they deserve it. I’ve helped quite a number of them, in the course of hatching out many, many hundreds of ducklings over the years.
Now that you know I'm a firm believer in helping when necessary, please hear this:
It can be really, really easy to do more harm than good by helping a duckling hatch too soon.
Knowing when to help hatch a duckling is SO VERY tricky. Just like with human birth, every hatch is unique, so there are no hard and fast rules. BUT - in general, I would not usually consider assisting a duckling until they have been externally pipped for about 36 hours…that’s about when I start to worry.
Here’s what’s really important to know. During that time between pipping and hatching, the duckling is almost always finishing absorbing the yolk sac. The remainder of the yolk sac is drawn up into their belly, and the umbilicus can then close.
Also during this time, the blood veins that permeate the membrane around the duckling still flow into her through the still-attached umbilicus, and those are just beginning to dry up after the duckling pips. This needs time to happen, so that the duckling won’t lose blood as the egg opens and the membrane tears.
This timeline for these things being completed after pipping isn't the same for every duckling. Some are ready to be out of the shell 8 hours after the first pip. For others, it might be as many as 38.
If the hatching process is helped along too early, the fears would be nicking a blood vein in the membrane and weakening the duckling, or worse, the duckling hatching before the yolk has fully absorbed.
Almost never is a duckling ready to leave the shell right away after it externally pips. It has to finish the vital work of ceasing blood flow through the membrane, and absorbing that yolk sac, which can easily be punctured and result in an un-closed navel if it’s helped from the egg too soon.
I’m not saying this to scare you from helping, but I just think it’s important to know about what’s going on in there after the first external pip, and how vital it is for the duckling’s survival that those things happen before getting it out of the shell.
Now - a few questions about your duckling:
How many days has the egg been incubating?
Remember - duck eggs begin to develop when you put them in the incubator. (I've recently had a few people counting days from when the eggs were laid, which was messing them up.) That first day in the incubator is Day 1. The next is Day 2. MOST duck eggs hatch in 28 days, except for muscovies (33-35 days) and bantam duck breeds (usually 27 days). If your duck egg is only on day 27, I'd be less likely to expect it needs help hatching yet, than a duck egg that's going on day 30. That doesn't definitively mean this duckling doesn't need help, but in my experience would be most likely not ready for help.
How many hours has it been since you noticed the first external pip?
It's not uncommon for an egg to pip, and then for no other external changes to happen for even another 24 hours or so. Once zipping begins, that could easily take another 12 to even 24 more hours.
If you can remember about when the egg probably first pipped, I would go ahead and write that down. It's super easy when you're watching eggs hatch to feel like that pip has been there forever - when it's actually only been 9 hours. Once when I was helping someone new to hatching with an egg that was worrying her, I asked how long it had been pipped. "Forever! It feels like days!!" She looked back through the images on her iPhone to see when she'd excitedly snapped the first picture of that first pip, and it had been 7 hours. That's a really long time when you're watching your first egg hatch - but not a long time if you're the duckling inside the egg, finishing the important work of absorbing that yolk and getting ready for life outside the egg, before you zip yourself free. A few hours later, the duckling was ready and zipped and hatched beautifully.
Taking notes on a hatch helps give you an objective timetable to reference. It might feel like you've been standing at your incubator for days, but if your notes say it's only been 4 hours since the first egg pipped, it can be easier to remind yourself that it's not time to worry yet.
Have other ducklings in the incubator already hatched?
In my experience, it is usually the last few eggs in the incubator that are most likely to need help hatching. Rarely have I found that the first eggs to pip are ducklings that truly need help. More often it's the last few eggs left in the incubator after all the others have hatched and dried, that actually end up needing assistance.
One thing that frequently happens is one or two eggs will pip, and then not progress for many hours, or a full day. Meanwhile, other ducklings may pip, zip, and hatch - leading the person nervously watching the incubator to feel that surely something must be wrong with that first egg, since it hasn't yet hatched. It's not at all uncommon for the first egg to pip not to be the first egg to hatch. I would not let that be a reason to intervene. Just like with human birth, some eggs hatch more quickly than others, and that's ok.
Which end of the egg is pipped?
The common way for an egg to hatch, is for a pip to appear somewhere near the widest part of the "fat end" of the egg. The duckling will then zip, making a jagged crack in a mostly-direct circumference around that widest part of the egg.
Sometimes the pip happens on the "wrong" end of the egg - the narrow end. This doesn't necessarily mean this duckling will need help hatching. While it is statistically more likely to need assistance than a duckling that's pipped on the fat end, if your incubation has gone well and other ducklings are hatching without a problem, is it still most likely that this duckling will hatch just fine on its own, too.
I'm going to go ahead and say this again, because unfortunately, this is one of the most prevalent myths about hatching ducklings, and it has led to many ducklings being lost because of getting helped prematurely by well-meaning people who have received bad advice.
You should keep a close eye on an egg that's pipped the narrow end, and be ready to help if it hasn't hatched after 36 hours, or seems to be growing weaker after trying to zip on its own (Usually, I'd try to give it at least 12 hours from when zipping begins before considering helping.)
You may find that after several hours of nothing happening, a second pip appears at the fat end of the egg, and the duckling zips and is out before you know it!
Ways you can help your ducklings hatch successfully, without intervening
When people come to me for hatching help, I always ask them three questions, to make sure their ducklings have the best chance for hatching on their own. Humidity, temperature, and adequate oxygen are three things you can help control, to make sure your ducklings have their best chance.
Make sure the humidity is correct for hatching duck eggs
I find that keeping humidity in the incubator as close to 70% as possible gives me consistently the best hatches, with ducklings that hatch easily, cleanly, and fluff out nicely as they dry. There is a lot of conflicting advice in duck-keeping circles, and you may hear some very vocal opinions on forums and especially in Facebook groups, insisting that very high humidity levels are necessary for hatching duck eggs.
In my experience, I have seen more people lose ducklings in the hatching stage because of high humidity, rather than low humidity. There is a lot of fear about "shrink wrapping," and it's true that you should be conscientious about keeping the incubator lid closed, and keeping a steady humidity that's a little higher than rest of the incubation period.
If it's so humid in your incubator that it's raining, it's too wet in there. If your chicks are hatching with a lot of goop on their feathers, and if they're drying all hard and crusty rather than poofy and fluffy - the hatching humidity is too high. If you're trying to figure out why a duckling never hatched, even though it pipped, and if you look and see that the bill seems encased in "goo" - I would encourage you to try a lower hatching humidity next time.
Each time a duckling hatches, that humidity level will spike - that's normal. But you want your settings and water reservoirs filled in such a way that within an hour after each hatch, the humidity level is falling back into the low 70%'s again.
Make sure your vents are at least partially open.
The owner of a wonderful small hatchery once told me "you know a real hatchaholic, if they've had those vent plugs out of their incubator so long they've lost them for good." What he was talking about, is the importance of adequate air flow and oxygen in the incubator during hatch time. While this is definitely something to pay attention to with chicks, I've found it to be even more vital with ducklings.
The hatching process for ducks is a longer marathon than for chicken chicks. Ducklings expend a huge amount of energy when hatching, and especially if you have a very full incubator, it's important to make sure there's adequate ventilation in there.
If you've closed every vent in an effort to stabilize humidity, I would suggest opening the vents, and then doing whatever else necessary to stabilize humidity at your target level. If that means adding some damp sponges inside the incubator, so that you can have the vents open, I would do that. It's a tangible step you can take to help provide your ducklings with the optimum environment for hatching on their own without assistance.
Make sure your temperature is stable, and not too high.
The usual temperature for incubating ducklings is 99.5 Fahrenheit (37.5 Celcius.) I have found that slightly lowering this temperature by one degree during hatch time helps slightly improve my hatches. This is a tip I read from lifelong duck-keeping guru, Dave Holderread, in his duck-keeping manual, Storey's Guide to Raising Ducks. (This is the ONE book on raising ducks that I recommend, and consider a must-have, by the way.)
While you're watching your incubator, and waiting for that first egg to hatch, this is a good time to double-check all three of those things: temperature, humidity, and ventilation. Making sure those settings are ideal is a practical way you help your ducklings hatch successfully, without actually intervening.
I know this has been a doozy of a post - one of the longest I've ever written. In my responses to emailed requests for help, this is the part where I say "So sorry for the long response, and all the questions! These are each things that I’ve found to have a bearing on how hatch progresses. Every case is different, and I want to make sure I’m not giving you a pat answer when there truly isn’t one."
That's true of this post as well. I wish there were a cut and dried answer for knowing exactly when to step in and intervene, to help a duckling hatch. Even after many, many hundreds of hatches, I still sometimes find myself standing at the side of the incubator thinking "should I help this little one?" I go through everything I know, thinking through my "mental checklist" looking for an answer, and still often find myself whispering a prayer, "God, help me to make the right decision."
Every hatch is different. There's no absolute answer - but my hope is that this long and winding post may have given you a little insight into how I make my decisions about when to help a duckling hatch.
If, after reading this, you feel you should give your duckling some help, just go slowly, chipping away carefully in a line around where the duckling would usually zip.
If at any point you see blood, stop immediately. Put the egg back in the incubator. If you feel you need to continue assisting, I would always wait at least half an hour after seeing blood, before trying again.
Please know that I’m here to cheer you on! If you've read through this post and are still feeling nervous about an egg, and would like some input on your particular hatch, please feel free to shoot over questions or pics/video of what's going on. You can email me at [email protected].
I get a lot of emails from folks hatching their first batch of eggs, and try to be as available for hatching questions as possible.
Wishing you (and your ducklings!) all the very best...