By Susanne Blumer
Thinking about hatching some chicks? You should! As a confirmed Chickaholic, I almost always have an incubator full of hatching eggs. Who am I kidding? I usually have three in various stages of incubation.
When I started out on my Chicken Journey, I decided I wanted to focus on hard-to-find breeds and the best quality stock I could find. That meant purchasing hatching eggs from private breeders. We’ve had eggs shipped from all over the country. My mail lady always seems a little excited when she rings my doorbell with a box of eggs in her hands. Thankfully the United States Postal Service has been very kind to us, and we’ve had very little broken eggs over the years. Now that our flock is finally established, we are hatching eggs from our own chickens. My children love to tell those chicks, “We know your mom and dad!” With the rise in backyard chicken keepers, more and more people are hatching chicks. They know you from birth, and I find that our hatched chicks are just more friendly and tolerant of us.
The hatching process is fascinating, frustrating and sometimes very boring. It takes about three weeks for eggs to hatch (or not hatch which frequently happens).
Setting the eggs When the eggs arrive or we have collected our own eggs, it’s a good idea to let them come to room temperature before putting them in the incubator. And then in they go! There are so many different kinds of incubators….even homemade ones! We have three: two computerized versions that keep the temperature and humidity steady. You need to follow the directions for your particular incubator, but generally the temperature will need to be around 99.9 degrees and humidity around 45% during the incubation period. This needs to be increased during lockdown (the hatching period at the end). This type is especially great for me, since I wanted a foolproof incubator. Translate: one that I couldn’t mess up. But we also have a Forced Air Hovabator that we use primarily for hatching. Because eggs need to be turned several times a day, my incubators all have automatic turners which makes it even easier for me!
When lockdown arrives on day 18, I usually move the eggs to the Hovabator. It holds a lot of eggs and has a huge window on the top for viewing. I spend a lot of time “viewing.” If you plan to hatch chicks, do your research and choose the incubator that’s best for you. There are so many choices!
Incubation Period Or as I call it…the Boring Period. Other than checking to make sure everything is running smoothly, there’s not much to do during this time…except wait impatiently for day 18. And candling. Can’t forget that!
CandlingCandling involves looking into the egg with a bright light to see what’s going on in there. As the chick develops, the air pocket will get smaller and the egg will fill with the chick. Many people candle at 7 days, 14 days and just prior to lockdown. We have a little piece of cardboard with a hole cut out to hold the egg. Then we use a very strong light in a dark room to candle the eggs. It’s definitely not an exact science, and the dark-shelled eggs are hard to candle. But with a little practice, you’ll get the hang of what you’re looking for and what a developing chick looks like.
Lockdown Finally day 18 arrives, and it’s time for lockdown! This is the period when the chick will hatch. It’s very, very important to leave the eggs alone once you put them in lockdown. Humidity is raised to 65-70% or to whatever your incubator manufacturer recommends. You remove the turner and lay the eggs on their side in the incubator. Some people use egg cartons to hold the eggs. The incubator needs to stay closed during lockdown to preserve the temperature and humidity. If the humidity drops, the chicks can actually become “freeze dried” inside the egg. The membrane dries up and the chick can become unable to break through it. It’s hard, but just leave it alone!
Hatching At some point during the next several days, you hope to see a pip. A pip is a little, itty bitty break on the egg. The chick uses its egg tooth to break through the shell. Some chicks pip and then bust on out. Some chicks pip and then take their sweet time hatching. It’s not unusual to see a pip and still be waiting the next day for something new. That’s when I usually start yelling encouraging words into the incubator. Sadly, that rarely works.
After the pip comes the zip. The chick will continue to break through the egg all the way around the shell. It almost looks like a zipper being undone. I love when the little beak pokes through and they start chirping! Many times I’ve walked past an incubator, heard chirping and looked in to find all the eggs completely intact. No pips. No zips. But someone’s letting me know they’re on the way! Or you’ll see a random egg moving around.
Once the chick zips, it will usually hatch fairly quickly. They just need to push against each side of the shell and push their way out. Sometimes (and this happened to me twice yesterday) a chick won’t have the strength to finish pipping and zipping. I hate that! But it happens.
The first time I had a chick hatch, I was very surprised by what it looked like. They do not hatch looking like fluffy, little chicks. They come out wet, sometimes bloody, and weak. Occasionally they are stuck to part of the egg and they’ll flail around for a few hours, dragging the shell behind them. They also sleep a lot and get stuck on their back at which point you’ll be convinced they’ve died. Eventually they begin to dry off and start to look like something you want to keep and not an alien being. Chicks ingest the yolk shortly before hatching. They can be left in the incubator for up to 3 days while the rest of the eggs hatch. You will be tempted to reach in very quickly and take one or two out. The experts tell you not to do that. And I never, ever do that. Okay…hardly ever….sometimes….not all the time…well, not yesterday anyway.
I’ve hatched a lot of chicks. Watching this little life come into the world never gets old. You will root them on, talk to them, say hi to them. You will spend way too much time staring into the incubator for any sign of activity. Way too much time. But when one starts pushing that shell apart and arrives into your life, you will forget all about the last three weeks of impatient waiting. You will have just witnessed the miracle of life. It’s a beautiful thing!
By Susanne Blumer