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Our First Experience Hatching Chicks

Marie James head shotHere in our corner of the country, snow flurries are flying less frequently and we even have some frost-free mornings. It looks like spring is on its way! Our thoughts are going in two directions: getting the garden started and raising little livestock babies.  

In my planning and plotting, I came across this blog post about our first foray into hatching our own chicks. It was just last year, so this will be our second year. Here’s how I saw it last year - March 2011: 

A new adventure for us this spring is hatching our own chicks. Last year we raised 42 hatchery chicks, most of which were two days old when they arrived. We got that chick-rearing process down pat and decided to go a step farther this year. We bought an incubator.

 FR hatchery chicks

We looked at the calendar to determine when the weather would be conducive to chicks moving outdoors at four weeks of age. Backtracking from there, we decided that a late March hatch date would be just about right. We collected a number of eggs and got them started in the incubator.

The gestation time for chicken eggs is 21 days, but it’s suggested that eggs be “candled” early on to see which ones contain viable embryos. Candling involves shining a light on the egg to show the air cell, blood vessels, and even little chicky eyes. It’s also possible to see the embryos moving around and tiny hearts beating.

So at one week we candled the eggs and removed several undeveloped ones. Again at two weeks, we took out a couple of eggs. On the 18th day, when the eggs should be “locked down” and undisturbed, we had 12 viable eggs.

 Broody Dark Brahma on nest

An interesting thing had happened early in the month. A few days after we set the incubator eggs, one of our hens went broody. This means that she focused on becoming a mother and glued herself to a clutch of eggs, leaving the nest only about once a day to eat, drink, and take care of other business. She had no idea that since the rooster didn't visit her coop, her eggs were not fertile and would never hatch.

Tiny Pigwidgeon (“Piggy”) is our smallest hen, a petite Dark Brahma banty. She was faithful and determined, and in three weeks I saw her off the nest only one time for a brief jaunt outside. Hopefully she took a break at least once a day. But a broody hen lives for one thing only: to hatch and raise some baby chicks.

We decided to give Piggy half of the incubator eggs in hopes that she would hatch them. So on Day 18, we removed her clutch of infertile eggs to replace them with 6 viable incubator eggs. What a shock to see that she had accumulated 13 eggs in her nest, stealing the eggs her roommates had laid on the other side of the nestbox and hiding them all under her fluffy body and wings.

 Chick hatched in incubator

Day 21 came and went, and by Day 23 three chicks had hatched in the incubator. But not a peep came from Piggy’s private nest. Unfortunately by Day 26 she hadn’t managed to hatch any chicks. Perhaps she was off the nest too long, or the coop was just too cold, or maybe all six of her eggs just happened to fail in the last days of gestation. We didn’t do eggtopsies, so we’ll never know for sure.

Since Piggy had been brooding for weeks, with very little exercise and less food and water than normal, we removed her from the nest and took her private little brooder box out of the coop. We told her to go be a regular chicken for a while, scratching and pecking outside and regaining her strength. Reluctantly, she complied. It didn't take her long to remember the joys of fresh air, sunshine, and treats to be discovered in the great outdoors.

Hopefully we will experience both natural and mechanized hatching and brooding and have the joy of watching some of our hens putter around with little chicks toddling after them. Today we’re starting our second incubator batch but won't be surprised if spring weather also brings on the broodiness in the henhouse.

 hen and chicks

Update from later in 2011: Spring weather did indeed bring on the broodiness! Two of our hens, Silkie Hedwig and Buff Orp Yolk, successfully hatched chicks the old-fashioned way — and it was a delight to see the doting mamas teach their little ones how to scratch in the dirt and take dust baths. 

As for Miss Piggy, she again went broody and again sat on eggs--just a few this time. But again none of them hatched. Maybe she’ll give it another try next year, having learned some secrets from her hen sisters.  

Hopefully 2012 will see us hatching chicks both in the incubator and under fluffy mother hens - perhaps even Piggy will have her dreams come true!

Marie and her husband, Jim, are developing a farm in the Pacific Northwest with their adult children and grandchildren. At The Homesteader Kitchen Marie and her daughter review kitchen equipment and talk about preparing and preserving delicious food. Along with other family members, Marie shares glimpses of country life at Rural Living Today and teaches practical skills at The Homesteader School.