When I first started my chicken flock I assumed I’d use only broody hens for hatching chicks. I had read that this results in healthier chicks that are better foragers, as well as higher hatch rates. So why go to the expense and trouble of using an incubator? I later realized, though, that sometimes a broody hen won’t follow through and will abandon the eggs, leaving you stranded. Besides, I had hopes of eventually selling chicks, and I didn’t want to subject broody hens to the trauma of having their chicks taken away. So I decided to get one of those cheap Styrofoam incubators as a backup. As it turned out, this year brought several opportunities to use it, since — with my flock decimated — I was without broody hens when I needed them.
Back in April I wrote about my first attempt at using the incubator to hatch some eggs from my flock for a potential customer (“Not So Fast, Jennifer”). Having learned a little from my early mistakes, I expected things would go much better if the need arose again. I ordered two dozen Icelandic hatching eggs, to be shipped one dozen at a time, if and when I had broody hens. When no one had obliged by early May, I decided I’d better start a dozen in the incubator.
The instructions say to plug it into a GFCI outlet in a room where you don’t go in often, maintain the room temperature between 65 and 70 degrees, and keep it out of drafts. Well, the only places I had a GFCI outlet were in the bathroom and in the basement. At that point I knew the basement wouldn’t stay in that temperature range, so I opted for the bathroom. That seemed to be going OK until one unusually cool night when I inadvertently left the window open. It really was pretty drafty in there next morning, but the temperature indicator said “Temp OK.” So I hoped for the best, but in the end only one chick hatched and it was severely disabled.
Gail Damerow’s Barnyard in Your Backyard has a wonderful chart that shows what the embryo should look like on each day of the incubation period. So when I break any eggs that I’ve disposed of, or that don’t hatch, I compare them with the chart to see how far they’ve developed. As it turned out, the majority of the embryos seemed to have died at about the time the incubator was in the chilly draft.
By mid-June one of my hens had finally gone broody, so I put the second dozen eggs under her. She had been setting in the middle of the broody pen, but I added a nice nest box for her and moved her into it when I set the eggs under her. Imagine my dismay when, on the second day, I found she had moved back to her original spot, leaving all but one of the eggs to cool! Still, I put them all back under her and hoped for the best.
Now, the experts all advise candling the eggs (shining a light through them in total darkness to see what’s inside) partway through the incubation period, so as to get rid of any that have died or are infertile. This avoids the risk of having them explode and make a mess all over the other eggs, which can be fatal. Well, I thought I was getting pretty good at this, and I was anxious to do it since I feared the worst for all the eggs that had been left to cool. So I was relieved when I found at least five that definitely showed signs of life. Since I couldn’t see any in the others, I dutifully removed them. Next morning when I broke them, I found to my dismay that at least five seemed to have developed to that point! (I’ve since resolved not to dispose of any more eggs until I’m better at this.)
Since I ended up with only five chicks, I decided to see if I could get another dozen eggs and try one more time. My supplier was leery of shipping them so late in the season, lest they get too warm in transit, but I decided to risk it. Wouldn’t you know, this time there were two power outages during the incubation period? I’m sure those didn’t help, but as it turned out embryos died at all stages, and the one that hatched (after two days of trying!) was again a crippled mess. I guess I should have heeded the advice and cut my losses.
On the bright side, it looks like I have four new pullets, so maybe next year I can get by without the incubator.
Photo by Getty Images/georgeclerk