When you have a clutch of eggs that are fertilized, but no broody hen you have a couple of options… 1) You could eat the eggs as they are or 2) put them into an incubator to hatch. Hatching chicken eggs in an incubator isn’t difficult, but there is a process that needs to be understood before jumping in.
Hatching Eggs in an Incubator
An incubator mimics the mother hen by providing the warmth and humidity required for fertilized eggs to hatch.
1. Circulated Air Incubator
Circulated air incubators are also called forced air incubators. They have fans built into them that keep continual air flow over the eggs. This helps to keep constant temperature and humidity levels. The circulated air incubator that I use is the Nurture Right 360 Automatic incubator.
2. Still Air Incubator
A still air incubator does not have a built-in fan so air sits still. These incubators work, but they require more effort on your part. You will need to check the incubator many times each day to ensure that the temperature and humidity levels are staying constant. The most common still air incubator is the Little Giant Still Air Poultry Incubator.
3. Homemade Incubator
There are many different ways to make your own incubator. DIY incubators are more affordable, but they are much harder to keep a regulated temperature and humidity level. The hatch rate in these incubators is generally much lower than in still air or circulated air incubators. If you decide to make your own, do plenty of research before getting started.
The Hatching Process
Hatching chicken eggs takes 21 days from set to hatch. Before you get started, you need to understand what changes happen inside the eggs during this incubation time frame. Some chicken breeds, like the Jersey Giant, may take a couple of extra days to hatch due to the large egg size.
Preparing the Incubator for Eggs
Preparation is extremely simple if you have an automatic incubator. If you have a manual or homemade incubator, you will need to regulate the temperature and humidity yourself.
Keep the incubator out of direct sunlight and keep the room temperature consistent during incubation.
The temperature of the incubator needs to stay around 99.5 degrees F and the humidity should stay 45-55% for days 1-18 and increase to 65-70% during the lockdown period.
You will also need to ensure that the eggs will be able to turn multiple times per day. If your incubator has an automatic turner, then you just need to turn it on… If you have to manually turn the eggs, make sure you can get into the incubator every 6-8 hours.
Days 1-18 Setting Stage
During the first 18 days, the relative humidity should stay close to 55% and the incubator temperature should stay at 99.5 degrees F.
During this incubation period, the eggs need to be turned at least every 6-8 hours. My automatic egg turner turns the eggs 4 times per day. Egg turning will lead to a higher hatch rate because it keeps the developing chick from sticking to the shell membrane. Place a mark on one side of each egg so you can make sure they have been turned.
Candle the eggs on days 7 and day 14 to monitor the developing embryo. On day 7 you should see blood vessels and a dark spot which is the center of the live embryo. On day 14, the egg contents will be harder to see because the embryo is much larger. If you can see the air sac at the large end of the egg, then you can assume that your chick is still developing on track.
Any eggs that are not developing properly by day 14 should be discarded. These rotten eggs can potentially explode and ruin the rest of the hatch so don’t leave them in the incubator.
Days 18-21 Lockdown
Three days before the expected hatch date you will put your incubator into lockdown. This means that the incubator lid does not open until the chicks are hatched. At this point, the humidity should be increased to 65-70% and the temperature should remain at 99.5 F.
Turn off the egg turner and do not manually turn eggs. Let them sit for these last 3 days as they prepare to hatch.
Day 21 Hatch Day
On day 21 (sometimes a day early and sometimes a day late) the chicks will internally pip. This means that they use their egg tooth to break through the internal membrane. You will be able to hear them chirping inside the eggs once they pip.
Shortly after, there will be an external pip. This is when the chick breaks a small hole through the outer shell. The chirping will increase and the chick will probably not make any more progress for several hours. It can take up to 24 hours for a chick to go from pip to hatch.
Don’t panic about the pause and do NOT open the incubator after pipping. Opening the incubator lid with pipped eggs causes a sudden change in humidity and that can cause the internal membrane to “shrink wrap” the chick inside the egg.
Next, the chick will zip. This could happen quickly after the external pip, but usually it is hours after. Zipping is when the chick opens the shell in a circular pattern around the large end of the egg. This will look like a zipper unzipping. This step can also sometimes take several hours.
At this point, the large end of the egg will be pushed open and the chick will begin to wiggle out of the shell. Again, avoid intervention unless absolutely necessary.
Moving Hatched Chicks to the Brooder
Chicks should stay in the unopened incubator until they have dried out and fluffed up. Don’t open the incubator if there are pipped or zipped eggs inside. The hatched chicks have just absorbed the yolk sac so they are okay to stay inside the incubator without feed for 24 hours or so.
Once the eggs are hatched and the chicks are dry, move them into a prepared brooder with a heat source. I use a Brinsea EcoGlow as a safe heat source.
The brooder should have some type of bedding covering the floor. I use wood shavings. Some people like to put newspaper down over the wood shavings to help keep the chicks’ feet clean. The chicks should also have access to food and fresh water.
Cleaning and Sanitizing the Incubator
When the incubator is empty, turned off, and cooled to room temperature, it is time to clean it up.
Remove the egg shells and toss them in your compost pile. Use soap and water to wipe down all of the incubator parts being sure to not get the electrical components wet.
Then you will need to sanitize the incubator. You can use a bleach water solution or a premade sanitizing solution.
Hatching Duck Eggs with Chicken Eggs
Hatching chicken eggs with duck eggs is generally advised against because the ducks hatch on day 28 while the chicks hatch on day 21. I have had good luck with hatching them together. You can start them together and simply leave the duck eggs in after the chicks are removed. I have done this with a high hatch rate. The issue with this method is that the duck eggs will not be turned during the chick lockdown period.
You can also start the duck eggs 7 days before chickens. Doing this will allow the ducks and chicks to hatch at the same time so the ducks don’t lose any valuable turning days. The concern with this method is that the ducks may trample the chicks as they are larger.