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Wait. What's an incubator?

Hatching baby chicks aka fluff butts

The peep peep peep of a newly hatched chick is a sound so precious they’re sure to steal your heart away right from that very first moment. You watch for hours transfixed as the tiny crack in the egg shell gradually deepens into a fault line spanning the circumference of the egg. You see the little chicks beak as it chisels it’s way out pushing the shell apart with its newly formed legs. What a fighter this little chick is! They haven’t even entered the world yet and they’re already working so hard to be apart of it. Then finally out rolls the smallest chicken with the hugest eyes you’ve ever seen and you’re in love! Pure magic. But wait...that’s not until Day 21 and we have lots to learn before then! REWIND!

Alright, so you want to hatch your own baby chicks from hatching eggs? This is your warning: baby chicks are a highly addictive substance. First things first, you must pick a breed or breeds and procure your eggs. If you have a rooster in your flock then it’s likely that you have some fertilized eggs in your nesting boxes. It’s always fun to hatch from your own flock and see the offspring of the chickens you know and love! Here’s how to tell if your eggs are fertilized. When a hen mates with a rooster his sperm penetrates the egg fertilizing it. You’ll have to sacrifice a few eggs to tell if your rooster is doing his job. Crack a few eggs into a bowl and take a look at the yolks. An unfertilized egg will have a simple white spot on the yolk called the blastodisc, which carries the future chick's DNA if it had become fertilized. If your randy rooster was a success in his carnal duties then your little white spot will have a ring around it called the blastoderm, which has a bulls-eye appearance to it. The blastoderm is what becomes the chick and that, my future chicken keeper, is a fertilized egg! If the majority of the eggs you cracked into the bowl are fertilized then it’s time to collect your eggs for hatching. If the ratio of fertilized to unfertilized is lower then you’d like then you can separate your rooster with fewer hens and your fertility should increase over the next few weeks.

Not everyone has a flock with a rooster or you might just be starting out with chickens. If that’s the case, fear not! There are plenty of options out there for you to purchase hatching eggs. My first recommendation would be to find a local breeder offering hatching eggs. The primary reason for this relates to freshness of the eggs. In order for eggs to be viable for hatching they must be fresh, no more than a week old and never refrigerated. After that time period the shell of the egg begins to degrade and become porous allowing bacteria from outside the shell to penetrate into its contents. You can recognize a porous egg by illuminating it with a flashlight and noticing it’s mottled appearance. These eggs typically aren’t viable or have very low hatch rates. When you get eggs from a local breeder you can ensure freshness and also secure a mentor for yourself to refer back to for questions throughout the process. It’s also likely that the offspring will be accustomed to your climate as the parent stock were raised in it. Obtaining from a local breeder should also enable you to see pictures of the parent stock to ensure you’re hatching eggs are coming from robust birds with traits worth passing on.

The final option is purchasing hatching eggs for shipping. There are lots of hatcheries online that offer shipped hatching eggs or breeders in other states who can ship. The difficulty with this is safely transporting a dozen eggs in a box across the country. Sounds scary doesn’t it? I can hardly get mine from my backyard to my kitchen without cracking one! Do your homework when purchasing shipped eggs. Check out the packing techniques to be sure you are going to receive intact eggs and not a box full of smashed shells and yolk. With shipping you lose some viability of the eggs due to detached air cells caused by being jostled around in shipment. Some of the eggs might crack regardless of packing care. Also the eggs might not be as fresh dependent on the shipping method. Take some time, do your research, read reviews if possible and don’t be afraid to ask questions!

You can hatch eggs by placing them under a broody hen or by incubating them yourself in an incubator. A broody hen is a female chicken that has decided she is ready for her own little brood of peepers. You will know when you have one of these momzilla’s on your hands because your normally sweet hen will transform into an ornery grouch! She will likely sit in the nesting box for hours or days on end with her feathers fluffed up, so she’s covering the most real estate. If you reach your hand in to touch her she will likely hiss at you and then go back to her trance like state of sitting and staring off into nowhere. I love leaving the hatching to my broody hens when possible because they do all the heavy lifting of raising the offspring, but when a hen will go broody is unpredictable and some never do. Broodiness is a trait that is dominant in some breeds over others and typically happens in the spring. If you’re willing to wait for your ladies to show you the signs then make sure you strike when the iron is hot. Broody hens don’t always stay committed and you’ll want to have a backup plan if she quits the nest.

Without a boody hen you will need an incubator to hatch your eggs. There are so many options on the market, but I prefer Brinsea incubators. Of all the models we have tried they are the most reliable and accurate. There’s nothing more devastating than carefully tending to hatching eggs in the incubator for weeks only to have the humidity or temperature fail at hatching and lose all your babies. Brinsea makes an Eco model for the backyard hatching enthusiast that can hold 7 eggs. It’s dome shape allows for a great view at hatching and the small space makes temperature and humidity control quite easy. Oh and bonus the incubator takes care of temperature control for you as well as rotating the eggs. From there the incubators by Brinsea only get bigger! There are models that hold 28, 56, even 100 eggs! If you opt for a larger model I would also recommend getting the humidity pump, which will aid in regulating the humidity. Humidity can be a tricky business because there are many factors that influence it. The humidity in the room you will be hatching is influenced by ambient temperature, weather and season. There are also different levels humidity required at different times during the hatching process. The humidity pump will automatically regulate that for you, so you won’t be a slave to your incubator for 3 weeks. Another element to consider when selecting an incubator is whether or not it can rotate your eggs for you. Some incubators are manual, which require you to rotate your eggs multiple times a day. This simulates the mother hen shifting the eggs under her body to ensure even temperature and humidity is provided to each egg and also ensures the floating yolk keeps the embryo from attaching to the membrane on the inside of the egg. This helps the embryo find the nutrients needed to thrive in the egg white.

You’ve got your eggs in hand, finally! Yayyy! The best thing to do now is place them in an egg carton with the pointy end facing down, so that the air cell can have time to settle at the fat end of the egg. Place the egg carton in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight and let the eggs rest for 24 hours before putting them in your incubator or under your broody hen. This is a great time to get your incubator set up and allow it to run for a few days prior to adding the eggs so you have time to allow the temperature and humidity to regulate and troubleshoot any problems that might arise. Stay tuned for a full series on how to utilize your incubator for a successful hatch!

~ Nicole

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