A month or so ago I decided that I wanted to try hatching some baby chicks this spring. I was really hoping that I could get a hen to hatch eggs herself because it's much easier. She does all the work and then when the babies hatch she protects them from the other chickens who may want to kill them.
The only problem with that idea is that the chickens don't always, ok never, do what I want when I want it. In order to hatch chicks a hen has to go "broody", it's a chickens version of going into heat. She develops the instinct to sit on the nest and not leave it for at least 21 days- the time it takes for chicks to hatch. She gets all puffed up, makes strange noises, and pecks at you any time you try to take the eggs from underneath her.
I had read that you can sometimes trick a hen into going broody by putting unfertilized eggs, easter eggs, or golf balls in a nest and increase the number of eggs in the next until there are enough that a hen wants to sit on them. I started doing this in January- right when we had a really, really cold spell. All the store bought eggs froze and cracked. So I waited a few weeks until easter eggs showed up in stores. I found some white ones and I started adding them to the nest. All the hens decided they liked laying in that nest, but didn't want to sit.
I finally got impatient and decided to take matters into my own hands. I was determined to get chicks this spring, with or without a hen! I bought the book Hatching and Brooding Your Own Chicks and started shopping around for an incubator that I would need to hatch chicks myself. I didn't realize how pricey incubators were, so I put feelers out to see if we knew anyone who had an incubator.
Two people lent us incubators and we decided to use the smaller one that had a self turner and a large picture window so we could see the hatch. Chicken eggs need to be rotated about 3 times a day, as they would be under a mother hen as she shifts around to make sure she's keeping all of her eggs warm, so the self turner is very helpful. The incubator is a Little Giant Still Air Incubator. The other option would be a forced air incubator, or one that circulates the air. They are more desirable because they keep the temperature more constant, but they are much more expensive. If you are handy you can make a fan for the still air incubator out of an old computer fan, but I'm not that savvy so I'm going to see how the still air works on it's own.
I did lots of research online about how to operate a still air incubator, read the book I had purchased and realized that while I had learned a lot, I pretty much know nothing is certain when incubating eggs. The incubator should be set up in a room with a relatively constant temperature varying no more than 5 degrees because it can affect the temperature inside the incubator. It should stay out of direct sunlight so you don't cook your eggs. The temperature at the top of the eggs in a still air incubator should be between 100-102 degrees, so I set up a thermometer on top of the eggs, and have 2 digital thermometers to stick down in the vent holes to take temps with periodically. The humidity in the first stages of incubating should be between 50-70% according to most sources, but another source said 30-40%, so I purchased an IncuTherm Plus Hatch Monitor (hygrometer/thermometer). I also cut a sponge in half and saturated it with water in addition to the water rings inside the incubator because I read that can help draw up the humidity to the top of the eggs.
Eggs put in the incubator should be clean (but don't wash them), free of shell imperfections like cracks or thin shells, and a shape where it is easy to tell the rounded end from the narrow pointy end to make sure the rounded end with the air sac ends up at the top when placed in the incubator.
We were so lucky- one of the women who lent us an incubator also gave us 23 eggs from her flock. She has a mix of Ameraucana, Buff Orpingtons, Golden Wyandottes and Silver Laced Wyandottes. One rooster is a Buff Orpington but all of the others are Ameracuana crosses (Easter Eggers). I can't wait to see the mix we get! We also collected eggs from our flock- we have an Ameraucana cross rooster and a variety of easter egger hens (crosses between Rhode Island Red, Marans, Araucana and Ameraucuana) and 5 Production Red/White Leghorn crosses. We collected eggs over 5 days and kept the eggs waiting to be incubated in our cool laundry room, about 60 degrees. I read that keeping them cool and humid (but not refrigerated) while collecting, and collecting for 7 days or less, gives them the best chance of hatchability. You can collect for up to 14 days, the hatch rate may go down and they may take a little longer than 21 days to hatch.
I ran the incubator for a day and got the temperature stable before adding 47 eggs to it on March 24th. Hatch day should be 21ish days later, or April 14th. Just in time for Easter!
Next up: Week 1 of running the Incubator.