Incubator 101

How to incubate eggs

Spring time, baby chicks and ducklings go together like peanut butter and jelly.

Many chicken owners want to hatch replacement chicks at some point. I'm no expert, but I've hatched many batches of chicks, a batch of assorted ducks and the latest, a batch of Muscovy ducks. Here is what I've learned.

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There are a lot of images in this post; thank you for your patience as they all download. Some of the photos show our chickens' brown eggs as well as some of our white Muscovy eggs - don't worry, your eyesight isn't to blame for the different colors. 

store display of incubators

Most "casual hatchers" have an inexpensive, still-air Styrofoam incubator. Some brands come with an egg-turner, or you can buy the turner separately. We have two of these; one has an egg-turner unit. These incubators hold many more eggs than the digital one we also own.

Digital egg incubator

We also have this plastic, forced-air digital incubator (above). It has a digital thermometer, so we just set the temperature we want (I use an online calculator to convert °F to °C) and it automatically keeps the heat just right.

The incubator turns the eggs automatically, although it's a rudimentary system. It only holds nine chicken or duck eggs, but one advantage is that it holds them in their natural position - on their side - instead of upright.

Duck eggs in MagicFly incubator

I do wish both types of incubator had a hygrometer that would measure the humidity, but I guess we can't have everything. Well, we could if we bought a much-more-expensive cabinet-style incubator, but the smaller ones are really all I need.

A dozen eggs

To hatch eggs, you'll want to put all of your eggs into the incubator at one time. If you need to "hold" some eggs until you have enough to fill your incubator, place them pointed end down in egg cartons, keep them at room temperature, out of direct sunlight, and tip them back and forth an odd number of times per day (three is recommended).

I tip them back and forth by putting an object (I use a canning jar lid) under one end of the carton. When it's time to tip the eggs in the other direction, I move the object to the other end of the carton, which tilts the whole thing in the other direction.

It's best to use eggs that are five days old or less, perfect in shape with no cracks. Don't use small eggs or double-yolked eggs, or eggs that are dirty. Don't wash the eggs, as it washes off the natural covering and allows air inside the egg. Handle eggs with clean, dry hands.

Temperature in incubator

Turn on your incubator and let it come up to the correct temperature keeping an eye on it to make sure it doesn't get too hot or stay too cool. Look here for a chart of temperatures and hatching times. Add a bit of water to create some humidity. You might put a little jar of water in a Styrofoam incubator, or a one-inch square piece of sponge. I just add a small amount of water to the bottom of my plastic incubator. If you need to increase the humidity, you can use a larger piece of sponge.

DIY egg candler

Candle the eggs before you put them in the incubator, to look for hairline cracks and other imperfections.

Pictured above is my DIY egg candler: a powerful flashlight topped with a roll of toilet paper which directs the light through the egg on top. It's really basic, but it works really well. Brown eggs are really hard to candle; it's very hard for me to see anything. White eggs are much easier.

Draw an X on one side of each egg with a pencil, and an O on the other side. If you can see it, outline the air pocket on the end of the egg with the pencil too. (Don't use an ink pen which could crack the egg, and don't use a marker, which will compromise the egg's "bloom.")

If you have an egg turner you won't have to worry about turning the eggs manually, but you should check daily to make sure the turner is working. Without a turner, you'll need to turn the eggs several times a day. The X and O on the eggs will help you know which side should be "up" if you're turning them manually, and if the automatic turner is working properly.

Eggs with air pocket markings

Candle the eggs weekly and trace the air pocket each time. It should have grown each week. This is how you can judge whether the humidity is too high or too low: in low humidity the air pocket will grow quickly, in high humidity it will grow more slowly.

Muscovy eggs need to be cooled daily during the latter part of incubation; this isn't necessary with chicken eggs. I used the directions at this site when I hatched our Muscovy eggs.

Chicken eggs hatch in twenty-one days. Remove the egg turner from the incubator two or three days before hatch time and place the eggs on the hatching tray. Don't turn them any more. You might need to reduce the temperature a bit, and add a bit more humidity. Refer to your incubator's operating manual for this information.

Candling a duck egg near hatching time

I candled this Muscovy egg at hatch time; you can see how large the air pocket is. You might also hear the chicks/ducklings peeping inside and the eggs might rock back and forth. I held the egg to my ear and I could hear, or maybe feel, a slight rhythmic "thump" as the baby inside pecked at the egg.

Once the chick breaks the shell, called "pipping," you'll soon have a hatchling. Sometimes the chicks hatch very quickly, other times it takes awhile to break that shell in half and climb out.

The first duckling has hatched!

Humidity at this point is important. You don't want the egg and the membrane to dry out so that the chick can't get out, and you don't want the air so moist that the chick can't breathe. I wish I could tell you exactly how humid you want the incubator to be, but it will depend on the humidity in your home and other factors.

I leave the newly-hatched chick or duckling on the hatching tray until it's well dried. I believe they peep encouragement to their siblings too. When the hatched babies get too active and are bouncing the other eggs around I move them to the brooder.

Newly-hatched ducklings drying out.

There are usually a few eggs that don't hatch. Dispose of these carefully; if they break they can be pretty stinky. Clean your incubator carefully before putting it away or using it again.

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NOTE: Do not feed medicated feed to waterfowl.

Incubator 101 - the ins and outs of hatching eggs successfully

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