Hatching Eggs

Hatching there are 2 ways of hatching fertile eggs:

Natural hatching using a broody hen and artificial hatching using incubation equipment both are very different but both very successful producing very strong healthy offsprings.

Natural Hatching

Natural hatching under a broody hen is the ideal way to raise a few chicks. It is however essentially dependent on having a broody hen at the same time as the eggs you want to set. Silkie crosses make the best broodies; either Silkie x Wyandotte or Silkie x Sussex. A small pen of those can be bred alongside the purebreds. Alternatively they may be purchased around the neighbourhood , although this is less likely than it used to be. The Golden Rules of natural hatching are: tender care, attention to detail and keep it simple. Nowadays wooden sitting boxes have given way to disposable cardboard cartons for hygiene reasons, but make sure they are in a foxproof area, in a quiet spot away from other stock. The individual broody boxes should be about 16″ (40cm) square and lined with short straw or woodshavings (hay produces harmful moulds), dusted with a pyrethrum based insecticide and have good ventilation. Broodies which sit beside each other spend the whole time stealing each others’ eggs and generally ruining a hatch. The broody hen is best taken to the broody box in the dark to keep her sitting and left for a day or so on just a few unimportant eggs to ensure she is still serious. When she has proved herself steady, put the eggs you want to hatch under her very gently, preferably at night, removing the others. If you want to set more than one broody at a time , make sure either that you set the eggs the same day so they all hatch together, or keep the broodies out of sight and sound of each other as the noise of the cheeping will make the other broody get off her eggs if hers are not cheeping.

The broody should be taken off the nest once each day to feed, drink and defecate. Roughly the same time each day makes for a quieter bird as she is a creature of habit and may get restless if her regular time has passed. The hen should not be disturbed after the 18th day (for chicken eggs) and feed and water should be left within her reach but out of the reach of chicks. As soon as the hatch is finished, which may take from 24 hours up to three days, empty shells and unhatched eggs (these will rattle if you gently shake them beside your ear, but be careful they don’t explode!) should be removed from the sitting box and any muck the hen may have produced. Try not to disturb her while the hatch is on, tempting though it is to see how many have hatched, as she needs to bond with her chicks and turn her sitting instinct into the more aggressive protective maternal instinct. Put a water container that the chicks cannot drown in (pebbles in a shallow dish work well) next to the nest so that any early chicks can drink. The yolk sac inside their bodies will sustain them for up to 48 hours, but provide chick crumbs anyway.

Artificial Hatching

This is the use of an incubator to hatch eggs. Small incubators are in regular use with many poultry keepers, the advantage being that incubation conditions are instantly available at the flick of a switch. It saves extra space or pens for broodies and takes little electricity to run. Technical improvements have greatly improved efficiency, but best results will be obtained with eggs which are between 24 hours old and seven days old and which have been stored in a cool (10°C or 50°F) place, and turned daily. Any dirt on the eggs can be scraped off with a dry potscraper, the ideal being to have clean eggs in the first place. If the eggs do have to be washed use water warmer than they are to ensure the membrane under the shell expands keeping bacteria out (cold water makes it shrink, drawing bacteria in) plus an approved poultry disinfectant such as Virkon. The same disinfectant can be used with safety to clean out incubators after a hatch. This is most important for the success of future hatches.

Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for an incubator, but go easy on adding any water. It seems to be a common misconception that in the UK water needs adding during the incubation process. The egg must lose 13% of its weight during incubation and most of this weight is water loss, giving room for the chick to move around in the shell prior to hatching. Fertile eggs which do not hatch are frequently sticky inside as the incubation time has been too humid. Try and site the incubator in a place which does not vary much in average temperature. During the incubation process the eggs must be turned in order for the embryo to develop normally (the hen does this naturally). If turning by hand do so at least twice a day and turn the eggs end -over -end so that the chalazae (strings which hold the yolk stable) do not wind up, potentially damaging the embryo. If the incubator is an automatic turning one, turn off the mechanism 2 days before they are due to hatch, or stop turning them by hand at this time.

A little hot water can be added when the eggs start to pip (the diamond-shaped start of the shell breaking) to keep the membrane moist. The chick pecks its way out of the broad end of the egg by means of the egg tooth which is on the end of its top beak. The egg tooth falls off soon after hatching. Chicks may take two days to hatch or they may all hatch at once. The latter is better, but not always possible. Most small incubators have a window in so that you do not have to take off the top to see inside. It is better to fill (or part fill) an incubator, hatch the eggs, clean it out and start again, unless you can set a few eggs each week, transferring those on the 18th day to a separate hatcher which then gets cleaned out each week or after each hatch. This avoids the build-up of harmful bacteria which can adversely affect the hatch. In order to make best use of incubator space (and broody hens for that matter) the eggs can be candled after seven days’ incubation. This involves holding a bright torch to the broad end of each egg in a darkened room. If the egg is infertile you will be able to see just the shadow of the yoke. Rotate the egg slightly to make this move within it. If fertile, a spider shape of blood vessels will be seen on one side with the heart beating in the middle. If there is a ring of blood vessels with none in the centre the germ has died. The infertile eggs can be removed and fresh ones added if you are going to use a separate hatcher.

Using just one incubator to set and hatch with eggs of different incubation ages is courting disaster as the humidity then becomes wrong for younger eggs if you add water for the hatching ones. Also, hatching eggs produce a huge amount of bacteria, so can infect younger embryos through the porous shell. If you candle the eggs at fourteen days and the embryo is growing as it should, the air sac should have a sharp distinction from the darker remainder of the egg. If only a small dark area can be seen the germ has most likely died and the border between that and the air sac is fuzzy. The air sac gradually gets larger as hatching date approaches and sometimes the chick can be seen bobbing away from the candling light.