Cluck, cluck! This time of the year I begin to feel like a nesting hen. Although we don’t get to keep chickens in our tiny urban garden, this time of the year we borrow some eggs for a few weeks so that my bird-loving daughter can enjoy the experience of watching chicks hatch. The chicks then head back to a local farm, where they’re kept as laying hens. We’ve incubated eggs for a number of years now, and here are a few tips from our experience as mother hens.
What You’ll Need
You’ll need fertile eggs, an incubator with an egg turner, and a thermometer that shows temperature and humidity. After the chicks hatch, you’ll need chick starter food, a water container, a heat lamp, and a container where you can put your new baby chicks.
Getting to Hatching Time
Chicken eggs take 21 days to hatch, give or take a day. Put your eggs into the incubator, and make sure that they are around 99.5 degrees F and no less than 10 percent humidity. This has generally worked for us as a rule of thumb. Keep the eggs in the turner or turn them at least three times a day.
Some eggs may not develop. This is normal. To see if the eggs are developing, you can use a flashlight to “candle” the eggs, shining it through the eggs to see if a mass is developing. This is best done on day 10 and possibly on day 18 as well. Make sure that your hands are clean!
At 18 days, you should remove the eggs from the egg turner. Add enough water so that the humidity goes up to 65 percent, and let the eggs lie in the incubator without turning them.
Before hatching, the eggs will often “peep”. This is not only very cute, but it shows that you have some life in there!
The eggs hatch approximately 21 days after they begin to incubate. Sometimes they hatch a little sooner or a little later. Be prepared for an early hatch! Confession: I try to stay around the house on hatch day. I love watching. It’s educational, and beautiful in a sticky sort of way.
During hatching, the chick will poke a hole in the egg. Then it will likely rest for a while and then continue to move around the inside of the egg. As it emerges, it will twist off its umbilical cord. Of course, these are perfect circumstances, and in reality some eggs may not hatch while others may hatch very quickly.
When a chick hatches, let it rest for a little while. Dip the chick’s beak in some water and allow it to drink to refresh itself. Then dip its beak into the chick food. Chicks don’t need to eat and drink immediately upon hatching, but sometimes they appreciate the water!
If you need to open the incubator to add water, this will lower the temperature temporarily. Don’t panic. Just check back in an hour or two, and readjust if necessary.
If your area permits you to own chickens they are a great animal to keep in a backyard farm. We recommend
Some Tips From a Mother Hen
Avoid making temperature changes right before bed or when you go out for the day. Leave yourself a few hours to check back and see how quickly the temperature is rising or falling.
If the incubator gets too hot, cool it down. One quick way to do this is to open the lid for a minute or two. Don’t panic if it has only been hot for a short time. The eggs are somewhat liquid and take a little while to heat up.
Chickens are not always nice to each other. The chicks that hatch earlier may peck on the ones that hatch last. I often separate the last ones until they (literally) get on their feet.
Decide how you want to deal with chicks that don’t seem to be hatching well. If a chick pokes a hole in the egg and goes many hours without poking another, I sometimes increase the size of that hole. This may help the chick perk up and hatch.
Hatching can sometimes be sad. Chickens may die during or after hatching. Before you take on an egg-hatching project, be prepared to deal with this and discuss it with your children.
Have you hatched chicks before? What tips would you add to this list?