How Did a Quail Chick Hatch From a Supermarket Egg?

We all learn about the birds and the bees when we’re children—but it turns out the birds can be a little confusing. Especially when they unexpectedly hatch from breakfast foods.

A man in the Netherlands named Alwyn Wils reportedly managed to hatch an adorable baby quail from a dozen eggs he bought at the grocery store. Instead of scrambling the tiny eggs when he got back to his kitchen, Wils decided to incubate them to test the theory that most supermarket eggs aren’t fertilized, according to The Telegraph.

After 19 days, one baby quail flopped out of its shell. Wils named the little guy Albert (coincidentally, the grocery chain that sells these eggs is called Albert Hein).

(Video edited by Alwyn Wils with additional editing by National Geographic’s Scott Snider.)

But is this feat really possible? It certainly is, although it’s pretty rare.

That’s because most of the eggs we buy in the grocery store aren’t fertilized unless they say otherwise on the packaging—at least, in the United States. Female poultry, or hens, need a rooster to fertilize their eggs, but they lay regardless of whether the egg is fertilized or not. So there isn’t any need for roosters in most of the commercial facilities we get our eggs from. The eggs that come out of these places are therefore unfertilized.

But in less conventional free-range poultry farms, farmers might add one or two roosters per 100 hens to the population to keep the flock healthy and behaving normally, says Maurice Pitesky, a poultry expert and professor of veterinary medicine at the University of California, Davis. So there could have been a few roosters roaming around at the free-range quail farm where embryonic Albert was conceived.

But even if one of the few roosters managed to fertilize one of the hen’s eggs, wouldn’t the refrigeration during transit and in the store kill the embryo developing inside its shell?

Actually, no, Pitesky says. At that point, Albert would have been a clump of cells developing in a small section of the egg yolk’s wall called the germinal disk, cushioned by the liquid albumen of the egg white.

While the embryo won’t grow while it’s in the fridge, it also won’t die. In fact, poultry breeders will sometimes refrigerate fertilized eggs as they collect them so they can start a large batch in the incubator all at the same time. After about five to seven days of incubation, it’s possible to check the embryo’s progress by shining a light through the egg—a process called candling.

So, it’s possible to hatch chicks from grocery store eggs—particularly if they aren’t from conventional laying facilities or are intentionally sold and labeled as fertilized eggs.

Albert the Quail is the only chick who hatched from the dozen eggs Wils purchased, so this is one lucky little bird. Since emerging from his shell, the little cutie took his first leap and his first bath—adorable escapades for a critter that might have just as easily become breakfast. Try not to think too hard about that the next time you make an omelet.

 

Rachel Becker is a freelance science journalist whose work appears in National Geographic’s The Plate, Slate, Nature, Hakai, and others. Follow her on Twitter.

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