You’ve been on tenterhooks for several weeks now, anxiously waiting for your ducklings to hatch. Then one egg pips! You can see the tiny bill inside, moving and squirming. A few hours pass, and it hasn’t made much progress. Should you help it?
Do NOT help it!
Many beginners want to assist a hatching duckling far too early. Hatching takes a long time. A normal hatch takes at least 12 hours and up to 48 hours after pipping.
Here’s what the hatching process looks like and the schedule it normally follows:
- Mallard-derived ducks often start hatching after 28 days. Muscovies take 35 days. However, a few days more or less is relatively common. Don’t freak out if you’re on day 29 and nothing has hatched.
- The internal pip is the first step in hatching. This is when the duckling breaks into the air cell inside the egg. You will not see any outward signs of an internal pip, but you can often hear the duckling peeping at this stage. If you hold the egg up to your ear, you might hear tapping as the ducklings starts trying to pip. If you candle, you might see the dark shape of the bill protruding into the air cell.
- Approximately 12-24 hours after the internal pip, the duckling pips externally. This is a small, kind of star-shaped crack or hole on the outside of the shell. It should be on the big end of the egg. It should not take any more than 24 hours between internal and external pip.
- After the external pip, nothing happens…for hours…and hours…and hours. Very little, anyway. This is when people often get worried. However, this is a crucial period where the duckling learns to breath and absorbs the yolk sac. The membrane and blood vessels begin to dry. If you try to assist during this stage, you could cause bleeding and kill the duckling.
- I repeat: you will NOT see progress for many hours after the external pip. THIS IS NORMAL.
- At least 12 hours and up to 48 hours after the external pip, the duckling “zips,” or turns around in the shell and makes a crack all around. In other words, it’s 12-48 hours from pip to zip.
- Zipping only takes a few hours, or even less than an hour. After zipping, the duckling pops the top off and is usually out and fully hatched within minutes.
- If 48 HOURS have passed since the external pip and the duckling is not making progress, YOU PROBABLY NEED TO ASSIST.
As you can see, hatch time varies tremendously. Your duckling could be out in less than 24 hours after the internal pip, or three days after the internal pip. “Normal” varies a lot.
If you see blood vessels, DO NOT HELP!
I know it’s incredibly hard to watch nothing happen for so many hours. I know it’s so easy to be impatient. I know how tempting it is to just chip a bit of shell off! But please don’t help a duckling unless there is a good reason to. The duckling will hatch when it’s ready. If it’s been more than 48 hours, or if you have reason to believe something else has gone wrong, like if the duckling is shrink-wrapped, then there might be reason to help. However, the majority of ducklings don’t need help, and helping is more likely to cause harm than good. Remember, it can take more than 24 hours for a duckling to hatch, and that’s normal.
Here is a list of abnormal hatching scenarios which may require assistance.
If it has been more than 24 hours since the internal pip, but the duckling has not pipped externally, you need to assist.
The internal pip is when the duckling breaks into the air cell and starts breathing. However, the air supply in the air cell won’t last much longer than 24 hours, so if 24 hours elapse after the internal pip and the duckling has not pipped externally, the duckling is at risk of running out of air and suffocating. You will need to manually create a breathing hole for the duckling. After this, put the egg back and wait.
If the duckling has pipped on the small end, you might need to assist.
The small end of the egg is narrow, so it’s difficult for a duckling to squeeze out of this end of the shell. A duckling that is hatching on the wrong end of the egg may need help (although not always), but remember that it’s not a time-sensitive emergency, so give the baby time to prepare first and be absolutely sure the blood vessels have receded before helping. There is no hurry to assist with this problem. I recommend waiting through the 48 hours first in case the duckling can indeed hatch by itself.
If the duckling is malpositioned, you might need to assist.
Pipping on the wrong end is one form of malposition, but there are others, such as head between the thighs and feet over head. This article describes common malpositions. Sometimes malpositions will kill the duckling, sometimes they will hatch anyway, and sometimes you will need to assist. If your duckling is malpositioned but still alive, keep a close eye on it and assist if it shows signs of distress or doesn’t hatch within the normal time frame.
If the duckling is trapped in its membrane, you need to assist.
This is often called “shrink-wrapping” or “sticky chick,” depending on whether it was caused by low incubation humidity, low hatching humidity, or high incubation humidity. (It’s very difficult to have too high hatching humidity.)
- Shrink-wrapping is caused by too low humidity during incubation and will result in the membrane drying and tightening around the duckling, thus trapping it. If this has happened, you will usually see that the outer membrane has turned dry and brownish or yellowish.
- “Sticky chick” is caused by a sudden drop in humidity during hatching. This causes the membrane to become sticky, which causes it to act like glue. THIS is why you should not open the incubator during hatching: it will cause the humidity to plummet. This is why lockdown is so important!
- Too high humidity can also cause a very wet membrane, which can drown the duckling or impede hatching.
With these issues, the ducklings do need help as soon as possible, but remember that a duckling is still far more likely to die from you rupturing a blood vessel than from being trapped in the membrane. As long as the duckling can breath, don’t rush too much. Wait until the blood vessels have receded before assisting (as always).
If the duckling has stopped moving and peeping, you should investigate (but not necessarily assist).
This does not signify a problem necessarily, but pay attention if you notice this. It’s possible the duckling is just resting, but it could also hint to membrane problems or some other problem. If there has been no movement or sound for several hours, it might be time to very carefully investigate and see if something might be wrong.
If the duckling started zipping but didn’t finish, you might need to assist.
Zipping shouldn’t take long. If your duckling started zipping but hasn’t made progress for a few hours, you should probably intervene. The duckling will only start zipping after the blood vessels have receded, so assisting should be fairly safe, but be careful anyway, and stop if you do see bleeding.
If it has been more than 48 hours since the external pip, you might need to assist.
Whatever caused the delay, at this point, you will almost certainly need to assist the duckling.
If the membrane looks good (white and papery), the duckling doesn’t seem to be malpositioned, and the duckling is moving and active, there is probably no reason to assist. If you read the comments below this article, you will see there is a comment by someone whose egg took 49 hours, but hatched successfully all by itself!
How to safely open the incubator
One of the biggest worries people have about assisting ducklings is that assistance will require taking the egg out of the incubator. This requires opening the incubator, which is not recommended after lockdown, as it can cause the humidity to plummet, and humidity drops can cause shrink-wrapping.
In my opinion and experience, it’s often not as risky as people make it out to be. Nevertheless, the incubator should not be opened without good reason and not without exercising caution.
Here are some tips:
- If there are no eggs that have externally pipped, or if the egg you want to assist is the only one with an external pip, opening the incubator is not a risk.
- Mist the incubator and eggs every time you open the incubator.
- Be sure the humidity is as high as possible. You probably cannot have too-high humidity for hatching.
- If the humidity is extremely low in the room containing the incubator, you may consider steaming up your shower and opening the incubator in the bathroom.
- You can also try heating up water until it is steaming (but not too hot to touch) and then pouring this water into the incubator water troughs when you open the incubator.
How to take the “cap” off
The area of shell over the air cell does not contain blood vessels and is thus usually safe to remove. If you suspect something is wrong, the first step of assisting should always be taking this “cap” off to get a closer look without endangering the duckling.
(Note: This mainly applies to ducklings in an incubator. If the duckling is under a broody mom, taking the cap off could be riskier.)
Always candle first to find the edges of the air cell. Even if you think you know where it is, even if you’ve previously marked where it is, candle again before chipping away any shell. After a duckling internally pips, it often moves partially into the air cell, so areas that may have previously been occupied by air may now be occupied by the duckling and the blood vessel-filled membrane around it.
After you have candled to find a safe, clear area, you can start chipping away the shell over it. Most of the time, you can start from the external pip or safety hole, but sometimes the duckling will have blocked these areas and you will have to make a new opening in the shell (with the same technique used to make a safety hole).
Never chip away any shell that is beneath the air cell line or touching the duckling or the inner membrane.
Once this is completed, you should be able to monitor the duckling better and perhaps spot any problems, such as excess liquid or shrink wrapping.
Taking the cap off exposes the membrane to much more air, so moistening this membrane periodically is a good idea.
How to know if it’s safe to help a duckling hatch
- Take the “cap” off, if you haven’t already.
- Look for blood vessels in the membrane. Moistening the membrane with a wet Q-tip or similar object will make the membrane transparent, making it easier to see the blood vessels. If you see any blood vessels, leave the duckling alone.
- If you don’t see any blood vessels (or only very tiny, thread-like, brownish ones that have dried up), watch to see if the duckling yawns, makes chewing motions, or opens its mouth a lot. This typically means that it is still absorbing the yolk sac, which often takes longer than absorbing the blood vessels. Do not assist if the duckling is yawning, chewing, or opening its mouth.
- If you don’t see any of those signs, it is likely to safe to assist. If you think assisting is necessary, start by carefully and slowly chipping away bits of shell. Stop immediately if you see any sign of blood.
Watch this video of my sister helping a gosling that pipped on the wrong end of the egg and could not slip through the too-small opening:
If you have to help a duckling, be very careful and gentle. Peel the shell bit by bit. Tweezers help. Stop immediately if you see blood and try to gently remove the blood with a dry paper towel. Do a small bit at a time and wait plenty of time in between. And go slow!
This article has some more good information: http://www.backyardchickens.com/a/step-by-step-guide-to-assisted-hatching. It’s mostly about chickens, but the same information applies to ducks.
If you're not sure whether you need to assist or not, try this quiz.
Disclaimer: It isn't perfect, of course. It may not know the correct answer to every single situation. However, we did put quite a bit of thought into it and I think it may be helpful for some of you. If you have any suggestions or advice, please let us know! This is a new addition to this webpage and feedback would be greatly appreciated. We can modify the script to account for any situations we may not have considered or make other changes.