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Hatching Chicken Eggs

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Picture of Light Sussex chickens we hatched out from eggs sourced in Orkney

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Keeping chickens and how to hatch chicken eggs

Starting to Keep Chickens

If you purchased chickens you more than likely have bought a hybrid breed as point-of-lay, that is around 18 to 22 weeks old and ready to start laying eggs. Hybrids are chickens that have been bred to produce a high number of eggs per year and they often lay at around an egg a day. This is what is required for the commercial production of eggs. For the home / backyard chicken keeper they are also a good bird to have as you will never be short of eggs. Hybrid breeds also tend to be friendly and easy to handle and if cared for will give you many years of egg production before they stop laying eggs on a regular basis.

Pure breeds have been around for many years, sometimes hundreds of years as a breed, each with a characteristic size (large, bantam etc), feather colour and egg laying abilities. You will usually find that a pure breed will lay considerably less eggs than a hybrid (hybrids have been bred by crossing pure breeds with other hybrids to get the high egg production characteristics), they also tend to lay eggs during the spring and summer months as this is the time that they would naturally lay and hatch eggs. You will also find the pure breed chickens live longer than most hybrid breeds.

Many people wish to keep pure breeds as some of them are now rare breeds and will only survive if enthusiasts keep the breed alive, and keep breeding them with quality stock.

If you want to start keeping pure breeds you can source them by buying from a reputable local breeder, buying them at farm auctions when they are selling chickens and ducks / rare breeds, or from websites such as preloved and eBay, or local newspapers (occasionally). Another source is forums based around keeping chickens or specialist breed clubs. When buying chickens it is important to keep them isolated from existing chickens for a week or longer to make sure you are not bringing in any disease or illness with the new hens. Most commercial hybrids will have been vaccinated against common diseases, while not all pure breeds will have had this preventative treatment.

Hatching out Chicken Eggs

Another way to start your own flock is to hatch out chicken eggs and this is a fairly straightforward process, (1) you source eggs of the breeds you want, (2) you incubate them, (3) they hatch, (4) you feed them and they grow into chickens.

For each of these four stages you need to do a little research and have the correct equipment to successfully hatch out fertile chicken eggs into chicks and then look after them properly before they will be independent, egg laying hens, or cockerels which you can expect 50% of the hatched chicks to be.

Young newly hatched chicks

Newly hatched Light Sussex chicks, under a heat lamp in a small cage

Sourcing chicken eggs for hatching

We have tried several ways of sourcing chicken eggs for hatching, we have bought them online through eBay, we have bought from a local source (from Orkney, then hand delivered over the ferry to Caithness) and we have hatched out our own eggs.

The advantage of buying from an online source, whether this is eBay, or a website specialising in selling pure breed chickens and hatching eggs, is that you find a large range of chicken breeds to choose from. The disadvantage is that you may end up paying a lot more for eggs than is justified when participating in an online auction, so the Buy Now option may turn out the cheapest way when using eBay, although this may end up also being expensive. The other issue is that the eggs often need to be delivered through the Post and hatching eggs may not do too well when delivered in the post even when specially packaged (using egg boxes with polystyrene egg shaped protection). It is the handling that often disrupts the egg fertility and while you may have ordered 6 or 12 eggs, less may hatch due to the accidental damage caused to the eggs in the delivery process. This is true of any eggs purchased and sent through the post.

If you are dealing with a breeder that is experienced and reputable you may find that the option for special delivery by courier is on offer (or the only way they send out eggs) and it may be a better way of getting hatching eggs delivered to you. It all comes down to the way the eggs are packaged and then subsequently handled by the courier.

If you can find a local breeder or chicken keeper / enthusiast and buy direct from them, you can go and pick up the eggs personally. You may find that the time and money involved in driving for a couple of hours is made up for by the higher hatching rates as well as the knowledge gained while talking to the breeder when you pick up the hatching eggs.

Fertile hatching Eggs

When buying any eggs you will usually see a disclaimer stating that they cannot guarantee that all eggs are fertile, why is this? Simply the process of getting a fertile chicken egg is that the female hen is fertilised by a cockerel of the same breed. When a chicken breeder is offering breed specific hatching eggs they may keep them confined in a run, one cockerel will be with 5-6 hens. In this way there is a good chance that all hens will lay fertile eggs. Sometimes the number of hens to a single cockerel will be more and there is then a chance that some of the eggs laid will not have been fertilised.

How do I know if the eggs are fertile?

After the eggs have been incubated for a while you can do a light test to see if the eggs have an embryo that is getting larger, you do this test either using a torch or specialist light device that you use to shine a light through the incubated egg to see if there is an area of darkness within the egg (this is called candling), if there is, then the egg is fertile and is growing into an chicken embryo. If the egg is clear then it may be that the egg has not been fertile or for some other reason has not been able to develop into an embryo.

I usually check the fertility of hatching eggs after a week in the incubator. Eggs that are not obviously fertile and developing into an embryo are then either disposed of, or I separate them from other eggs and mark them with a pencil to show that they need checked a few days later. Do not leave eggs that are not changing into embryos in the incubator after 10-12 days or you may end up with a very smelly experience, if the eggs “go off”.

How long does it take a fertile incubated egg to hatch?

Answer: 3 weeks – 21 days on average although some can hatch a day or two earlier, and later, than this. If eggs have not hatched after 23 days then check to see if the embryos are alive, by candling them, if they are not obviously moving then they are probably not alive and should be discarded. I tend to check the fertile eggs after 12-15 days to make sure they are still developing into chicks, at 17-18 days you should not be able to see through the egg as most of the space should then be taken up by a living and moving embryo. Be careful not to discard an egg as if you can’t see movement as it is not always the easiest thing to identify movement within an egg. If in doubt just leave the eggs in the incubator until day 23, and candle before discarding.

Usually incubated eggs will hatch out within 24 hrs of each other, although I do tend to give them a couple of days longer just to make sure.

If you have decided to use a broody hen to hatch out eggs then you will find that the hen will discard eggs that are not going to hatch by moving them away from the other eggs that she is sitting on, you need to remove and dispose of these eggs.

Light Sussex chick that has just hatched out

Pictures of a chick that has just come out of the shell, less than an hour old. Notice the feathers are still wet and will take several hours to dry out naturally and fluff up.

Picture of newly hatched chick still in incubator

A newly hatched Light Sussex chick starting to dry out

Chicks moved to small cage with heat lamp.

Chicks moved to small cage with heat lamp, food and water.

Picture of a Chick under a heat lamp.

Chick under a heat lamp.

Picture of young chicks under a heat lamp.

Chicks under a heat lamp.

Picture of two young chicks under a heat lamp.

Adorable chicks under a heat lamp.

Picture of two chicks, one a Light Sussex the other is a Scots Grey.

Two chicks, one a Light Sussex the other is a Scots Grey.

Picture of Hand feeding one of the Scots Grey chicks.

Hand feeding one of the Scots Grey chicks.

What is the best way to hatch fertile chicken eggs?

Honestly, the easiest way is to put eggs under an already broody hen as they then take care of the eggs naturally without any further involvement on your part. You do need to make sure that the broody hen is in a proper environment, ideally away from other hens where she has a quiet, draft free place to sit on the eggs that is secure at night. She also needs space to go out to feed, drink water and do the toilet during the day. Broody chickens will often leave their eggs for 10-15 minutes before returning to brood.

The ideal solution is to have a protected run with an attached chicken house so that the broody hen can go out into the run when she wants to. You can then put out food for the hen twice a day. The house will still need to be secured (closed) at night to keep her safe from predators, such as rats. The attached run must also be secure enough to stop chicks escaping once they hatch as the little rascals can easily go through chicken wire netting. I have found making the bottom of the run finished with 6” (150mm) high timber can stop the chicks from escaping for at least a few days after they hatch.

Hatching chicken eggs using an incubator

The advantage of using an Incubator is that it is available when you are ready to use it, you can’t switch on a broody hen, with an incubator you simply switch it on 24 hrs before you plan to put in the eggs and check that it is keeping the correct temperature and humidity. Many breeders use outdoor sheds that have been insulated, and have electricity and lighting, to keep their incubators. Personally I have kept the incubator in my small home office next to my computer, or in a spare bedroom. While the noise from some incubators can be annoying they are usually fairly quiet in operation.

You can buy incubators that are especially designed for home use, basically automatic egg hatching machines that you switch on and forget about (well nearly, you do need to check the water does not run out that keeps the incubator humid). Often these are relatively expensive for the 5-6 eggs you are able to hatch out with them. Other incubators are designed for the hobbyist and small holder allowing you to hatch out 20-48 eggs at a time, while semi-commercial incubators can hatch 100-200 eggs or more at a time.

To start with, start small, you can always upgrade to an all singing, expensive incubator in the future when you have established that keeping hens is what you enjoy doing, or you want to turn it into a paying hobby / small business venture (I should say adventure). Having a spare incubator around is always handy. I would suggest buy a good quality incubator that has been given a good star rating on Amazon (or similar site), or take advice from a specialist online supplier by phoning them up, or using live chat, to discuss your requirements before placing an order.

You nearly always get what you pay for, so why skimp on the incubator when you may end up paying £30 for half a dozen eggs you want to hatch, buy a good quality make by a known manufacturer.

Other equipment you will require is some form of sterilising liquid to keep the equipment clean between and before use, a thermometer and humidity meter. You can buy low cost manual ones or slightly more expensive digital versions. I often use a combination of both, just to be sure I am getting an accurate reading.

After the eggs hatch you will also need a cage to keep the chicks in (we use a large guinea pig cage) and a heat lamp. Heat lamps should be ones designed for animal / farm use and can be purchased from Pets at Home (often sold to keep lizards warm) or online. I tend to keep a spare heat bulb, just in case of one bulb failing at a critical moment.

One thing to mention is that heat lamps when running do not mix well with water – having experienced ducklings splashing water over a heat lamp and it exploded – without in this case hurting anyone.

Buying an Incubator second-hand

You can often find second-hand incubators advertised on the Internet or in the classified section of rural newspapers. There is sometimes an advantage in buying incubators used, you may save money, you may get extras thrown in for free (candling torch, temp / humidity recorders etc). One thing to remember, when buying used always make sure you use a commercial sterilising cleaner (for chicken houses / equipment) to kill any bacteria or other disease before you use the incubator, and run it for several days to make sure it is working correctly.

The most important thing is that it keeps the correct temperature – without fluctuating – hatching eggs need a steady temp. of 37.5 °C (99.5°F). Check that any automatic egg moving system works and switches off (you need to do this 2 days before the chicks hatch), using the on/off switch. That the incubator is not broken or chipped as this may affect the level of humidity within the incubator. Finally, make sure that all electrical cables are intact and have the correct fuse in the plugs. Ideally it should have been safety checked before it was sold second-hand (PAT tested in the UK). You can get good deals, but not every deal is good.

Eggs starting to show signs of chicks hatching out

Notice the other eggs are starting to show signs of other chicks breaking through there shells. It can take over 24 hrs for all eggs to hatch, patience is required.

Videos of our Young Chickens

Video of one day old hatched chickens

Video of our one day old chicks

Video of 2 day old chickens

Video of our 2 day old chicks

Video of 3 day old chickens

Video of our 3 day old chicks

Video of 5 day old chickens

Video of our 5 day old chicks

Video of 8 to 10 day old chickens

Video of our 8 day old chicks

Video of our 2 week old chickens

Video of our 2 week old chickens

What factors do you need to consider when using an incubator?

Temperature – hatching chicken eggs need a consistent temperature of 37.5 °C (99.5°F). It is very important that the incubator is able to keep a stable temperature and wild fluctuations do not occur as this can affect the viability of the hatching eggs. It is normal for temperature to drop when you open the incubator to check the eggs, to move them manually for example, and the incubator should be able to quickly take the internal temperature back to 37.5 °C. It must not go up / down in temperature by more than 1 degrees when it is normally operating as over this temperature change the viability and health of the developing embryos (chicks) will be affected.

Humidity – eggs need a humidity of 40-50% until the last two days when the humidity should be raised to 60-80% if possible. Humidity is achieved in an incubator by having a small water reservoir filled with warm water. In addition you can spray the eggs with luke warm water (not hot – not cold) for the last few days of incubation to raise the humidity levels, making it easier for the chicks to break through the egg shell. We also sometimes add additional containers with water to provide another source of humidity in the last 2 days, or a warm damp cloth (not lying on the eggs).

Turning the eggs – eggs need to be turned either manually twice a day or use an incubator that constantly moves the eggs. This is to ensure that the embryo does not settle on one side of an egg causing possible development problems. The incubator I have is semi-manual, in that I simply move a small handle and it moves the plastic shelf that the eggs are sitting on, thereby moving the eggs. In some incubators the eggs physically need to be moved using your fingers. If you need to do this then mark the eggs with a non-lead pencil to show you a position, it is then easier to see that you have moved each of the eggs. In nature the broody hen moves the eggs regularly.

Turning eggs continues until the last 2-3 days of incubation – day 18 is the last day you move the eggs. On day 19 onwards stop handling the hatching eggs and increase the humidity to 65-80% where possible.

Hint: if your incubator has a water reservoir area for the water then you need to cover this (I use one of the incubators plastic egg dividers) so that newly hatched chicks do not fall into it and drown.

Do chicks need help getting out of their shells?

The correct answer to this is probably no, chicks that are healthy will get out of their shells on their own, it may take up to 24 hrs to do this and it often looks painfully slow – but most will make it on their own. Chicken breeders will probably say you should never help a chick get out of its shell, let nature take its course and in some cases chicks will not be strong enough to break out of the egg and die.

The reality is if a chick has taken 24 hrs to get out of its shell and is still showing little success then a little help may be required by very gently prying off small pieces of shell around its head. Be very careful when doing this as the shell, if too dry, will stick to the chicks feathers / skin and not only will you take away the shell you may pull off the chicks feathers and skin, causing the chick to bleed, and potentially die. I do not want this to sound too grim, the best way is always to keep the humidity high in the last 2-3 days before hatching, use luke warm water from a plant water sprayer to mist the eggs (not ones that are already hatching) and this will make it easier for the chicks to break out of the egg as the egg shells get softer when moist. If they do need your assistance, take it very slowly and gently, do not panic, and remove just enough shell for the chick to get its beak out of the shell and then leave it to do the rest.

Tip – keep a hand operated water sprayer just for the purpose of hatching eggs, do not use it for anything else – in other words do not use it to feed your plants, or to apply pesticides. And make sure it is scrupulously clean, well rinsed out without using washing up liquid - very hot water will be perfect to clean and sterilise it. It is obvious, yet sometimes we forget the simple things.

One other very useful tip – stop opening up the incubator to see if the chicks have hatched or hatching as every time you do this the temperature drops as does the humidity. Professional breeders will often say never to open the incubator until all the chicks have hatched, often 24 hrs after the first one has. I have found this advice impossible to keep to, curiosity, worry or both have meant I have peaked in to see how they were getting on. Just do not do it too often or you may harm the hatching chicks.

Picture of one day old chicks

One day old chicks that are nicely fluffed up. They have a heat lamp on 24 hrs a day at this point to get them a source of heat. Chicks are already showing off their curiosity and one can even tell the time!

Pictures of baby chickens

Picture of Light Sussex 5 day old chick checking up on her makeup.

Light Sussex 5 day old chick checking up on her makeup!

Picture of 5 day old Light Sussex and Scots Grey chicks.

5 day old Light Sussex and Scots Grey chicks.

Picture of our 6 day old Light Sussex chick.

Light Sussex chick now 6 days old.

Picture of our 7 day old chicks.

Chicks are now 7 days old.

Picture of our 7 day old baby chicks.

Chicks are now 7 days old and wing features starting to show.

Picture of our 7 day Light Sussex chick under the heat lamp.

7 day old Light Sussex chick enjoying being under the heat lamp.

So our chicks have hatched, what now?

Most breeders say to leave the chicks in the incubator for 24 hours to allow them to get their feathers dry and for the other chicks to hatch out. After 24 hrs they then need to be moved to another cage with a heat lamp so that they are kept warm. We use a large guinea pig cage initially then as they get bigger we move them into a dog crate (we just used what we had lying around, although I did go out and buy the guinea pig cage for this specific purpose).

You also need to supply chick crumbs and water for them to eat and drink. Chick crumbs are specially formed food designed for newly hatched chicks, it is small in size compared to chicken pellets, it also contains chemicals and nutrients designed to keep chicks healthy and reduce the incidence of certain illnesses.

You can buy chick crumbs in most large pet stores, such as Pets at Home in the UK, or you can buy it online, just remember to buy it before the chicks hatch. Buy the best chick crumb food available as it will help the chicks grow strongly and make healthy chickens, organic if available is often a good choice.

Picture of adapted dog crate used to keep 8 day and older hatched chicks in.

After 7-8 days you need a larger cage to keep young chickens in - this is our dog crate converted to keep chicks of 8 days and older with a heat lamp positioned well out of the height that the chicks can jump. The 8 day old chicks are so adventurous that we also had to put cardboard around the inside of the crate to keep the chicks from squeezing through between the wires.

We live in a centrally heated house, do we still need a heat lamp?

Your house may be warm to you, yet chicks need to have a constant supply of warmth that is supplied by a properly positioned heat lamp that is on 24 hrs a day. I usually keep chicks under a heat lamp for 7-10 days, and then I leave it on at night until they have formed proper feathers. Chicks need heat until they are 6-8 weeks old, when they can then start to be put outdoors in a protected run during warm sunny days.

When can I put chicks outdoors?

The answer to when you can put chicks outside depend partly on where you live, what time of year you hatched out the eggs and what weather temperature you have outside during the day and at night. So there is no one answer, chicks need to be fully feathered before they go outside and this usually happens when they are 7-8 weeks old, plus you do not want young birds outside in cold, windy weather as they can quickly get cold and even die. Use common-sense, allow chicks and young hens out when the weather permits and always keep them somewhere warm and secure at night.

A broody hen will continue to give her chicks heat and protection by covering them with her body and wings. When the chicks start to become independent and do not need their mother will become fairly obvious – as mother hen will just leave them alone when she goes off somewhere else.

At What time of Year should I hatch eggs?

Again this depends on where you live, usually it is best to hatch eggs out in the late spring or the early summer months so that they have sufficient time to mature before the cold of winter arrives. There is no rules – if you have a secure barn or shed area for young chicks and chickens then you can hatch chicks out at any time of the year as long as they do not get cold (or too warm) and you provide a sufficient number of heat lamps.

Picture of one day old Light Sussex chicks

One day old Light Sussex chicks that are eating and drinking water well. On the road to growing into strong, healthy chickens.

Picture of Scots Grey chicks.

Scots Grey chick.

8 day old chicks.

8 days old chicks

19 day old chickens.

19 day old chickens feathering up as you can see.

What Space do I need to keep chickens?

Most commercial hens are kept in small cages (little space to move), enriched cages (slightly bigger cages with slightly more space to move around), barn (large open barn area with limited space per chicken) or free range where theoretically chickens have the best environment to live in and more space.

If you are planning to keep chickens as a hobby, or as a source of eggs (or dare I say it, meat) while keeping them in a domestic situation, then you really need to consider what is acceptable for animals that are more pets than farm animals. On a personal level we have always provided large open areas for our chickens, they are usually fenced in for their own safety, to keep foxes out.

On a chicken per square metre – our hens have around 8-16 square metres each depending on the chicken / duck run involved. Chickens do not need as much space as this to be happy, to exhibit natural behaviour such as scratching about the soil, dust bathing or simply exploring. They also like sitting on perches in and out of their houses. If you have a small garden then a good sized hobby chicken house will be suitable for 2-3 chickens especially if you allow them out to explore the garden during the day. You can of course build a chicken run designed around the number of birds you wish to keep, this can be fully enclosed with wire or netting to keep your chickens in, and other birds as well as predators (foxes) out.

Chicken houses can be homemade using simple and easy to source materials from any builder suppliers or do-it-yourself stores, or can be purchased online. I have built most of our chicken houses as we live in an area that can experience high winds, so I used heavy timber to build houses that can withstand 80-90 mile an hour winds – as they have.

I hope you have fun and success in your chicken egg hatching adventures, it is certainly worth doing as it does give you a better understanding of the marvels of how an egg becomes a chicken, and an appreciation that chickens are delightful pets as well as productive egg laying machines.

What about cockerels?

I was not going to bring up the subject of cockerels, yet it is a fact of life if you hatch your own chicken eggs you will get cockerels, often 50% of all eggs that hatch will be male. Commercially most newly hatched eggs are sexed at a few days old and the males disposed of, often not in very pleasant ways. If you are a hobbyist then you will not be able to easily sex your hatched chicks until they are getting mature and the cockerels start to exhibit male behaviour.

We have had a hen (a Light Sussex) that turned out to be a cockerel – only when he started to crow did we realise this. By this time I had handled the “hen” fairly often and it was treated as a pet. As she turned out to be a very friendly he, we were able to rehome him with someone wanting a cockerel to keep their chickens company.

So what do you do with all these cockerels – sorry there is no easy answer to this one. Basically you can try and rehome them and if they are one of the pure breeds that are rare or desirable then you may be able to sell a cockerel or two to other breeders or to backyard farmers who would like a cockerel to keep their chickens in check.

Certain pure breeds are known as dual purpose birds, they can be kept for egg laying or for the pot, so in other words you can kill and eat your cockerels. If you plan to do this do not leave it too long, a bird of 20-25 weeks will make for good eating, when they mature the taste and texture is often less desirable.

Killing your birds: If in doubt then it is better to ask a local farmer or chicken breeder to do this for you and if possible the preparation for cooking (plucking and cleaning out the innards), leaving you with the easy part – the cooking. Whatever you do you should not try and keep lots of cockerels together with hens as they will fight and injure each other. Keeping a few cockerels around as pets is fine and some of our favourite, most memorable birds have been cockerels. Keeping too many is just asking for trouble.

If you can't handle the idea of killing male chickens then hatching out your own eggs is probably not the best way to start keeping chickens and you should stick to buying your hens off a breeder, or commercial source. You can then rehome a cockerel to keep your birds company and save one bird that would end up in the pot.

If you do have a cockerel in your flock then remember your eggs will be fertile and hens do have the knack of disappearing if they are free range and appearing 3 weeks later with a clutch of chicks following them. So if you do not want any chicks being hatched "accidently" (probably half being cockerels) then stay away from the noisy, but cute and wonderful cockerel and stick with hens.