Why Some Baby Chicks Are Yellow and Others Aren’t


Watching a baby chick hatch can be as special and wondrous as watching anything in nature. These tiny birds, before they are even born, know what to do to make their grand entrance into this world. Their coloring at hatching would seem to be an indication of what it will look like as an adult, and in part, this is true, although not entirely.

This is why chicks are yellow: It actually has to do with the yolk staining their white down feathers. Because these chicks will eventually be white as they get their juvenile and adult feathers, their down is colored by the same pigment that makes a yolk yellow, and it is proven.

Genetics is a wonderful science to try to figure out, and it is because of genetics that we get those yellow chicks that you associate with Easter. While not all chicks are yellow, neither are all adult chickens white and that is the secret to the whole yellow chick question since it is only white chickens that start as yellow chicks since only white chicks are light enough to be stained.

Why Are Chicks Yellow?

It would make sense to wonder if the yellow yolk on your breakfast plate has something to do with why chicks are yellow, and I wondered the same thing myself and what exactly does domestication of certain animals have to do with chicks being yellow?

Just as not all eggs, even chicken eggs, are white, nor are all chicks hatched yellow. Genetics can play a huge part in that, as does the domestication of the chicken. From Easter Eggers to the Rhode Island Reds, there is such diversity in the chicken gene pool that you could end up with any color chicken, depending on the parents, and that is the fun of genetics.

Are All Chicks Yellow When They Hatch?

When you think of a baby chick, you probably picture a little yellow fluffy bird, and when you think of a chicken, you probably think of the white ones, and this is pretty common. Since we are used to seeing pictures and videos of farm chickens, especially commercially raised ones, this is what we are accustomed to.

If you had the opportunity to visit a smaller farm or a homestead where families are raising chickens for their own purposes, then you just may see more than your standard white chickens. Smaller farms and homesteads tend to like to have diversity in the different breeds they raise, depending on what they are raising them for.

When you are working with different varieties or breeds of chickens, you are sure to get a variety of colors when it comes to hatched chicks. From a brown striped chick to a solid grey one and even a spotted black and white one, the variety that can come with chickens can surprise some that don’t realize how diverse they can be.

There is such a wide variety of chickens that lay a wide variety of eggs that not even the shell is always white, let alone the chick inside of it. If a chick, as an adult, will be any color other than white, it will show some of that coloring in its newly hatched down feathers.

How Genetics Influences Chick Coloring

Genetics can play a huge part in the coloring of a newly hatched chick. As I mentioned, chicks that will not be white as adults aren’t typically yellow at hatching.

If you are looking at chicks from hens that are not white, then they will probably resemble their parentage more with a wide variety in colors and markings. However if either of the parents is white OR the parents had a parent that was white, then you could still end up with a white chicken as it reached maturity.

Because these future white chickens do not form and grow in a completely colorless environment, they are not hatched white. If you think about it, you are looking at feathered down that has been stained prior to hatching.

Now you would think that a chick’s feathers being stained by what it is floating in prior to hatching is just absurd, but it actually isn’t. Although you probably never realized that your yolk actually had some pigment in it, if you have ever accidentally spilled an egg yolk on a white shirt, you have seen it in action.

Proof of the Staining Yolk

While you may think it is far fetched to think that a chick could be stained before hatching, it is actually something that can be proven. A technique that has been used by scientists and farmers alike for years, a colored dye is injected into the egg to color the down feathers of a chick before it hatches.

Care must be taken, and all supplies must be gathered before you even remove the eggs from the incubator. After candling an egg (holding an egg in front of a light to see what is inside), the eggs that are not going to hatch need to be removed. These would include:

  • Unfertilized eggs
  • Ones that are not developing
  • Eggs that the fetus has not survived

Around approximately 10 to 14 days after the egg has been laid, dye can be injected into the egg white. This is not something I recommend you do at home as it does take practice and kill.

For those experienced with it, as long as the egg is cleaned and a weak dye is used, such as food coloring you can buy in your local grocery store, there is no harm to the chick. It will not affect it in any way including health or appetite.

By inserting dye into the egg, you can dye the chick, though care must be taken to ensure that the chick is not hurt in the process, which is why this should not be tried without someone who is experienced in dying chicks present to show you how or at all unless there is good reason. But it does prove the point that the chick is stained by the yolk.

How Common Are Yellow Chicks?

When chickens become domesticated centuries ago, selective breeding techniques were employed, and this gives us the final piece to our puzzle. You see, when humans started selectively breeding chickens, we did it to get traits we liked while reducing traits we didn’t. This may have meant calmer chickens or those that were more friendly to humans or other animals.

As the commercial industry grew, so did the process of selective breeding for desired traits. One of those desired traits was to remove coloring from the feathers. Not only did this make the chickens more visible to the farmer, but it also reduced color spots on the skin for the consumer. It seems that most people don’t like eating chicken that has black spots on it. So, commercially bred chicks are often yellow.

On a small farm or homestead, this is not the case. Where things start to get interesting is when you have a wide variety of chickens on your farm, and you can’t be sure which hen is the mother let alone which rooster is the father.

You could end up with a variety in practically everything involved, from shell colors to the colors of the newly hatched to the plumage of the adults. Chickens, in actuality, come in such a wide variety of colors that yellow chickens on a small farm or homestead are actually pretty rare. It is more common for a brown chick to hatch than a yellow one because of this. 

April

April has owned and worked with domestic fowl including chickens, turkeys, geese, ducks, and guineas since 1998. She has a B.S. in Agriculture from Cal Poly in Pomona, CA where she studied genetics, nutrition and reproduction.

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