It’s almost spring, and you know what that means – baby chickens! This year for the first time ever I’m incubating eggs and will watch my own chickens hatch. Today I’ll share segments from my personal blog, The Village Homestead, about how I set up the incubator and sourced my eggs, as well as how I candled them to see if they are fertile. The projected hatch date is March 29, and at that point I’ll be able to show you the adorable baby photos. Can’t wait!
A note before I go any further: If you want chickens, the easiest way to get them is not to incubate them, but to purchase them from a hatchery. I did explore that option but found that the big hatcheries required a minimum order number (25 chicks! That’s a lot) or they allowed a small number but the shipping was very expensive. I found out about the incubator rental and jumped on it. All told, I will probably end up with 25 chicks anyway (after I take the extras from a friend who is also incubating at home), and it will probably cost me just as much in feed as it would have for the expensive shipping. But because I like to live life fully and with gusto, I am finding that the process of hatching eggs is significantly more satisfying than purchasing day old chicks for the same overall price.
I rented the incubator from our local extension office for $10, plus a $20 refundable deposit, providing I return it in good shape (here in New York it’s Cornell Cooperative Extension that provides the incubators). I bought one dozen fertilized eggs from them as well, Red Sex-Links. I also sourced 10 eggs from fellow blogger Liz (remember all of her great chicken posts?). She has a variety of chickens in her backyard: Orpingtons, Cochins, and Wyandottes.
There are a few things to know about storing your eggs and preparing them for the incubator.
When I brought the eggs home I stored them in the cellar, where the temperature is 55 degrees F, until a few hours before they were ready to enter the incubator. When I brought them up from the cellar I washed my hands, then looked them over and with a paper towel I brushed off any fecal matter and feathers that were on the shells. It’s important to keep the shells dry and not wash the eggs before incubation.
First of all, store them in a cool, dry place (but not as cold as the fridge) until a few hours before incubation time. At that point, bring them out to a warm area to start getting them up to temperature. The incubator is set to 100 degrees and the eggs will get up to that temperature once they are placed inside.
Secondly, you will be turning the eggs 3-4 times a day for a maximum of 18 days (starting from Day One). You turn them to keep the yolk centered and ensure that the chick develops properly. A mother hen turns her eggs instinctively. To make it easier on yourself, mark one side of the egg with an X and the other side with an O. Place them in the incubator with all of the X’s facing toward the ceiling. When it comes time to turn them, make sure the O’s are all facing up. And keep going like this, 75 more times.
After you mark the eggs with an X and O, return them to the carton with the big end up. This helps to keep the yolk centered.
Setting up the incubator
The incubator I’m renting is styrofoam with a plastic water tray in the bottom, a wire screen on which the eggs sit, and a heater that is pre-set to 100 degrees. I have a thermometer in the incubator (kept at egg-level) that I can look at to reassure myself that the temperature is close to 100 degrees. I also took care to plug the kit into a socket that was not loose and not hooked up to the wall switch (don’t laugh, it happens). The incubator isn’t in direct sunlight, so it won’t get super-hot during the day, and it’s not sitting right in front of the window where it will pick up drafts. I plugged in a digital clock right next to it so if the power goes out I’ll know how long it’s been out.
A few things are important: the temperature must be kept at or about 100 degrees F. The humidity must be enough so that the eggs don’t dry out, yet not so much that the eggs are too wet and don’t hatch. The water tray in the bottom of the incubator adds moisture to the air. All this talk about water in the incubator reminds me of another tip: Don’t fill the water tray too high. When the eggs sit on the wire screen they weigh it down and if the water level is too high, they could end up sitting in it. Keep the water level a little over half full.
Something you might also keep in mind if you share your home with any heat-seeking, adorable cats, as do I: Grace will lay on anything that provides a little warmth, so I put a few lightweight items on the top of the incubator to keep her away. I used plastic cups with sharpened pencils in them. It’s enough so that she’ll pass it by should she happen to be sniffing around in the area.
If there is anything at all to know about me, it’s that I’m not a record-keeper. But it’s important to keep good records about the eggs and I have embraced the idea without very much prodding at all. I made a booklet where I will be able to write down what time of day I turn each egg on each day and write down any notes about them. My booklet looks something like this:
|Day 1||Thursday, March 8|
|Turn Eggs #1|
|Turn Eggs #2|
|Turn Eggs #3|
|Turn Eggs #4|
What do I take note of each time I turn the eggs? On the first day I found that one egg, the most crud-encrusted one that went into the incubator, was showing a hairline crack. I removed it and threw it out. Because this is Day One I threw it out as I would any egg from my fridge. If it were further along in the incubation stage, I would have placed the egg in the freezer for 24 hours first to permanently stop the incubation process. I noted that I threw the egg out.
A tip to keep in mind the first 48 hours: the temperature in the incubator will get close to 100 degrees but not quite. That’s normal. The eggs need some time to heat up. By the end of Day 2 the temperature will reach 100 and should stay there.
What is candling, and why would you do it? Candling is the act of looking at each egg with a bright light shining through it. Starting on Day 5 you can see if the egg is fertile, and as the days go on you can track the progress of the incubation to be sure things are going along on schedule. Not all eggs are fertilized, and not all fertilized eggs will develop and hatch. The eggs that don’t make it will begin to rot and smell. One way to keep the incubator clean and fresh is to make sure that all eggs in it are viable and on track for hatching successfully.
Here’s my candler. It’s made from a cardboard oatmeal container, lined with aluminum foil to cut down on the risk of setting the place on fire. I’m using a 100 watt incandescent bulb. Now that I’ve candled successfully and know what I’m looking for, I may switch to a flourescent bulb, which throws off less heat.
How to make an egg candler
Cut a slit in the lid of the oatmeal container to let the cord from the lamp hang out (so you can plug it in to the wall. You want this cord to be as long as possible.)
Then cut (or drill) a hole in the other end of the container. I had read that a 1 1/2″ hole is a good size, but it turns out 1″ worked better for my eggs.
I added a layer of aluminum foil under the lid to deflect the heat from the bulb. You know, so the candler doesn’t melt while you are both holding the precious egg and taking photos of it. What would you do then?
Below is the guts of the whole thing. A painting light that’s been stripped of the metal shade. It lays on the aluminum foil lining. You’ll want to lay the candler on its side like this while you look at the egg to get the best view possible. The bulb lays on the foil.
When you turn it on… WOW it is bright! In reality, you would have the lid with the aluminum foil liner secured in place when you turn it on. This way you minimize the extra light that enters the room while you are looking at the egg.
Here’s how it all works. It’s best to have two or more of you there, but you can do it with one person if you have very steady hands.
If you’re using an incandescent bulb, it will get hot and you don’t want to leave it on the whole time you are candling all of your eggs. You’re going to be pluging it in and unplugging it quite a bit. Or hook it up to a power strip and flip the switch. Either way, you need a hand for that task. You also need a hand to lift the lid of the incubator, take the egg out, and replace the lid. And a hand to turn on and off the overhead room lights so you can see what you’re doing in the incubator. Have I made my case for having someone there to help?
Step One: Lay the candler down on a flat, safe surface.
Step Two: Take an egg from the incubator.
Step Three: Plug in the candler.
Step Four: Turn off the room lights.
Step Five: Hold the egg up to the hole in the candler. Put the large end in the candler and rotate the egg until you see – or don’t see – something.
Step Six: When you’ve made your observation, turn on the room lights, unplug the candler, and place the egg back into the incubator.
How do you know if you are viewing a fertilized egg? I’m probably the last person to ask, because I don’t have a lot of experience with candling. This is what I know about candling on Day 5: If you see a red spot, it’s good. If it’s red with a spider web-type thing coming out of it, it’s good. If it’s a ring of red, it’s not good. If you don’t see anything, it’s not fertile.
There are LOTS of things the professional candler would be able to tell, such as how big the air sac is, how far along the embryo is, and if it is likely to hatch. I don’t know any of that yet.
Below is what my eggs looked like on Day 5. See the dark spot in the circle? That’s the red dot. Yup, hard to see. It’s more obvious when you see it in person.
If you’re considering getting baby chicks for your coop and you have an opportunity to hatch your own, I will tell you that incubation is not that hard to do. In a way, you have more control over your eggs – you know how they’ve been cared for and you know where your chicks have been from the first breath. The big question I had when I first considered this project was, “What will I do with the roosters? I don’t want roosters.” I first checked with a farmer friend to see if he would take them (he would), and then Liz piped up to say, “Why don’t you just eat your roosters? By the time you spend money on them to grow them, you may as well keep them (in dinner form).” Remember her post on Rooster Nuggets?
So there you have it. Go, get some eggs and hatch ‘em!