For my husband’s birthday this past summer, I bought him an egg incubator (It’s what he asked for). I gave it to him early, because I get so excited about giving people their gifts that I have a hard time waiting. Once he opened it we were both very excited about the prospect of maintaining our own flock of laying hens, and best of all, watching our own farm-raised eggs hatch into healthy baby chicks!
My husband immediately plugged the incubator in downstairs and added the called-for water. It took three days for the incubator to reach the appropriate temperature and humidity. On the fourth day we carefully placed thirty six eggs into the incubator and closed the lid with a thrill of anticipation.
It takes between twenty-one and twenty-three days for chicken eggs to hatch. We waited patiently, checking them daily to make sure that the temperature and humidity remained stable. We did not have to turn the eggs ourselves since we had an incubator that did this for us. It is also a forced-air incubator with a built in fan that does just what it says- forces fresh air into the incubator.
On July 11th we woke up and went downstairs to check the eggs. A few paces before reaching the incubator we could hear a faint peep-peep-peep. We looked down into the incubator and discovered that our first chick had hatched! We watched for a while in amazement as it stumbled around, bumping to the as-yet unhatched eggs. When my son woke up I took him down and discovered two more baby chicks! He was fascinated. Before long my son had overturned a laundry basket so that he could stand on top and watch them whenever he wished.
The baby chicks are supposed to remain in the incubator for about twenty-four hours after hatching, or until the fluffy down that covers their bodies dries out. If they are removed too soon, when they are still wet, they can get chilled and die. They are fed by the yolk of the egg through their navel, so when they hatch they do not have to be fed or watered in that first twenty-four hours.
After the first chick hatched, we set up our “brooder”- a cardboard box in the basement bathroom lined with newspaper, a chick feeder, chick waterer (lined with pebbles so that they don’t drown), and a heat lamp hanging above the box to keep them nice and warm for the first couple of weeks.
For about three days we had chicks hatch at varying times during the day and night. As each round of chicks dried out, we took them out of the incubator and placed them in the brooder.
We only got twelve chicks out of that first thirty-six eggs. I believe that you can normally expect about fifty percent of your eggs to hatch, so this was a bit low, but we were happy. We had not checked the eggs for fertility, so there is the potential that leaving some of the unfertilized eggs in the incubator negatively impacted those that were fertilized. To check for fertility you can hold each egg close to a light bulb (or buy the special kind of flashlight they make now for this purpose) after they’ve been in the incubator for about a week. It’s called candling, because back in the day the egg was held up to a candle. If it’s fertilized you should see a dark spot in the center of the egg with spidery veins branching out from the spot. If it’s not fertilized it will just look sort of cloudy with no vein structure. The book Living With Chickens by Jay Rossier, with great color photographs by Geoff Hansen, is a great resource for raising chickens and hatching chicks.
Well, not such a great hatch, but all twelve of those chicks that did hatch were strong and healthy. We did not lose a single one. In all of the batches of chicks that we’d had delivered to us by mail, at least one died within the first few days (sometimes several), and twice we received one that was deformed in some way. The fact that all of ours made it was quite encouraging.
We quickly cleaned the incubator and readied it for another round.
Our second hatching delivered twenty-six baby chicks from forty-eight eggs! Again, all of the chicks were healthy and survived to adulthood. Now we are just waiting for the eggs!