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Five Cold Eggs and a Miracle: Part 4

Thursday, June 3, 2021

 Meanwhile, in a box out along my driveway, a female bluebird inexplicably abandonded her clutch of five eggs on Day 11 of incubation--only three days from hatching! It took awhile for it to sink in on me that she'd done it, but on the snowy morning of April 21, I'm pretty sure she quit sitting and let her eggs go cold. None of my other bluebirds abandoned eggs--they all sat them steadfastly through the cold snap.

When I finally checked the driveway box on April 24, assuming she was sitting straight through, I was shocked to find them ice-cold. I was inclined to leave them. I have had this happen, and had the female return and resume incubation, and some of the clutch has hatched! However, I saw the female and her mate prospecting at the next box down my driveway, and I knew that meant that she had no intention of returning. She was already starting over.

For those who wonder: Male bluebirds have no bare brood patch on the abdomen for warming eggs, and they lack the instinct to incubate or brood young, so it's all about the female's choices here. The male plays a supporting role, bringing food to female and young, but if his mate decides to abandon eggs or young, the male is unequipped to keep them warm and alive.

I brought the cold eggs into the house, wondering if I could do anything for them. I candled them: all fertile. I could see bright red blood vessels, and the dark mass of the chick inside. The clear space is a gas space, which helps the chick breathe, and takes waste gases to be passed out through the shell.

But were the eggs still alive, after going so very cold for three days, and sitting at room temperature for another day? I mulled and pondered. I wanted to know. And I figured nothing ventured, nothing gained. I looked at my notebook, and I figured out which boxes I might put them in if any of them actually hatched. 
If they all hatched, I was going to surprise Warren 2, the infertile mom, with a whole new brood, and take Roquefort Eddy (The Skinny Orphan) and put that fat little thing in another box with chicks its age, where it would continue to thrive. Crazy, I know, but I did have a plan, and I was pretty sure it could work. That infertile female was up for anything I threw her, after faithfully sitting clear eggs for 20 days. She was pumping food into little Roquefort Eddy until that chick was about to pop.

I called my friend R., who has a huge heart, owns an incubator and more importantly knows how to use it. I call in reinforcements when I'm over my head.  I decided to take the five eggs to him on the evening of April 25. I was bone tired from a full day of baby bluebird wrangling, and I didn't get them to him until almost 10 pm. R. had the incubator up to the desired temperature and humidity, and he started incubating them that same night.

Several days went by. With each passing day, I lost a little more hope that anything interesting would happen. But I'd seen red blood vessels when I candled the eggs, and I had a strong feeling they were still alive. 

I was hanging in my Air Chair on the evening of April 29 when I got a text from R. No words, just this picture. He had walked into the back room, peeked in and found a baby asking for food. Holy holy holy cosmic stardust. One bluebird had hatched. And the other three (one egg had cracked and died early on) were showing real signs of life, rocking back and forth. 

I told R. to make a mama out of something soft, and to cover the begging baby up for the night. I had faith that it could live on its yolk sac until I could get to town first thing in the morning. Its parents wouldn't have  been able to feed it in the middle of the night, either. So he quickly sewed up a scrap of fake fur and that baby went to sleep. 

It's a reflex, this gaping when you're uncovered as soon as you're hatched, but it is a very powerful releaser for the parent birds, and for me. 


In the end, four of the five eggs wound up hatching or at least pipping. Only one baby made it: the first one out, the one you see in the video.

The next two photos are sad. They're the babies that hatched but died within hours. Look and compare them with the baby that made it. 

There's nothing to him--he's skin and bones. 

I think that when an egg has to sit unincubated in the cold for four days, the chick has to live somehow, and it draws on the yolk, which is its power pack for what should be a 14-day odyssey. Thanks to the snowstorm, these chicks had an 18 day wait. They used up their power packs, and had no reserves 
to live on after the tremendous energy expenditure of hatching. I can only guess that the baby who survived started out with a very large yolk in its egg.

It's very sad to see these wasted little things. But what's marvelous about this is that they hatched at all, and that one made it. I didn't expect any of them to hatch, really. And the other thing that's cool is that incubation, which had progressed for 10 days, was arrested on the morning of Day 11, put on hold for days 11, 12, 13, and 14, and then resumed, was completed in four more days. R. started incubation around 10:30 pm April 25, and several chicks hatched the evening of April 29. So they had a total of 14 incubated days, which is the normal bluebird incubation period, and they hatched pretty much on time. 

Like I said, I do all this to learn. I'm compelled to do it because I care about the birds, but curiosity is a very strong driver. I wanted to see what would happen if we tried  this. 

And now my problem was: What do I do with this tiny hatchling, who needs bluebird parents to grow up strong and well?


Your drive, ingenuity,and curiosity are amazing. You press on even when you're uncertain to the benefit of the precios birds. Hope other like-minded have access to what you discover...

Baby bird whisperer

Oh my gosh! So exciting! I just love that you share these stories with us all :-).

Wow! Looking forward to finding out what happens next (I almost typed "nest"!).

Amazing! Absolutely amazing! You are defeating climate change's effects on the bluebirds.

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