Due to the life changing events of the global pandemic, many people have taken up new hobbies such as baking bread or curling. One less confusing hobby many people have dabbled in is hatching chicken eggs. When I was in elementary school, we incubated and hatched our own set of chicken eggs. We would take turns watching the eggs, checking the incubators temperature and humidity, and turning the eggs. We only had the eggs for about three weeks before they all hatched, and we got to see a bundle of cute chicks running around the class. A good time was had by all. This article is meant to provide you the basics in incubation and hatching in a safe way for you and the baby chicks.
Setting up the Incubator
Incubators are easy to find and purchase, usually not exceeding $50. If you do not want to purchase an incubator you can also create one yourself with normal household items. All anyone really needs to create their own incubator is a thermometer, damp sponge, a cooler box, and a light bulb*. Whether you have an incubator or not the goal is to provide the following environmental conditions:
- Maintain a temperature of approximately 99.5 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Maintain the humidity between 40–50% for the first 18 days and then between 65–75% for the final days before hatching (make sure you have a hygrometer so you can measure humidity accurately).
- Proper ventilation so that the embryo in the egg can get fresh air and properly breath. Proper ventilation is ensured if there are holes on both sides of the incubator so that there is air coming in and out of the incubator.
- Make sure the eggs are turned three or five times a day
*A note about working with electricity if you decide to make your own incubator: Always ensure the light fixture is turned off and unplugged from any power sources when installing the lightbulb, wiring the fixture, or installing the fixture in your incubator. Install the light bulb away from flammable material or plastic that can be easily melted, or properly shield these materials from the light source. In that same vein, incandescent light bulbs are most effective at achieving the temperatures required for incubation. Energy efficient light bulbs and LED lamps will likely not get hot enough. Never use a PTFE (Teflon) coated heat lamp bulb.
Finding Fertile Eggs
This is the most important step. You can incubate as many eggs from the grocery store as you want, but they won’t hatch if they are not fertilized. Hatcheries are the best place to purchase fertile eggs. Ideally, make sure the hatchery you are working with is part of the National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP) which helps ensure that the hatching eggs (and their parents) are free of several common diseases that can be passed on to the chicks. Additionally
- Incubate eggs for around 21 days
- When turning the eggs put an “X” on one side to keep track of what side the eggs should be on
- At day 18 stop turning the eggs
Egg candling is a process to determine if the eggs actually have a developing embryo inside or not. In order to candle your egg, you must be in a dark room to properly see the embryo. You then put a light of some type (a cell phone light works pretty well) in order to examine the developing embryo through the shell. This should be done five days after initial incubation. If an egg does not have an embryo showing then you should throw it away so it doesn’t take up space from the chicks that will actually be hatched. What a fertilized egg looks like is below to the left and an infertile egg is below and to the right:
The chicks have hatched! They have used their beaks to break the eggs shells (do not assist them in breaking the shell) and emerged taking their first deep breaths of fresh air. The chicks will then rest for next six to twelve hours in the incubator drying out and getting warmth.
What to do now
Once you have all your chicks hatched the job is not quite done. Now they need to be brooded (please see these articles on setting up a brooder and raising chicks in a brooder as a reference). The most important measure you can take to keep your flock healthy is to administer the Marek’s Disease vaccine on the day the chicks hatch. See this article on vaccinating against Marek’s Disease for more information.
This article was written by Ari Sallus and Dr. Maurice Pitesky at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine-Cooperative Extension.