So if you're not sure of the best way to go about it, I'll help you through by answering the most common questions people ask me about incubation, from the very beginning to the point of hatch.
Let's start with the basics.
Incubation is the process of keeping fertile eggs warm for however long it takes to hatch a baby bird.
It can refer to chicken, other types of poultry (like turkeys), waterfowl (like ducks and geese) or any other kind of bird.
In our context, of course, it refers to chickens' chicks.
Incubating can be done either naturally, by a broody hen sitting on a clutch until her chicks hatch, or by using an artificial incubator which keeps them at the best possible temperature and humidity levels.
A broody hen is a female chicken who is intent on incubating and hatching chicks.
She will sit on any eggs - they don't necessarily have to be her own. Broodies have been known to hatch other birds altogether - it's reasonably common for chickens to incubate and hatch ducks, for example.
Some breeds of chicken are more likely to "go broody" than others - Silkies are a great example of a breed that often goes broody.
On the other hand, some chickens, particularly those bred specifically as egg-layers, are highly unlikely ever to want to hatch their own chicks.
Red Stars, for example, are great layers but don't make good mothers at all.
Yes, if a hen has been a good broody but she's no longer laying, there's no reason why she can't incubate someone else's clutch.
It might be wise to have an incubator warmed up just in case she loses concentration, though.
Incubating large breed chicken eggs usually takes 21 days. Bantam sized are more likely to hatch around day 19 or 20.
However, this can vary depending on various things, most importantly the temperature levels in the incubator. If the temperature drops for any reason, the hatch will take longer.
I've had chicks hatch as late as 26 days after setting. For that reason, I tend not to discard any (as long as candling has shown development) before that.
Yes, there's no problem with this. I've hatched heavy breed chickens (for example, Light Sussexes and Wyandottes) in the same incubator with little Sablepoot bantams. Having been hatched and raised together, they're the best of friends.
The only difficulty may be if the bantam chicks hatch earlier. You'll need to take them out of the incubator to dry off whilst leaving the other eggs a couple of days longer.
That's no problem as long as you are quick in removing them. Generally speaking, to avoid that issue I prefer to use separate incubators to hatch bantams and large breeds.
But then, I'm lucky enough to have more than one incubator.
This is not usually recommended. Why?
To understand this more fully, think about natural incubation.
A mother hen will sit on her clutch and take time out for feeding. A mother goose, on the other hand, will spend time each day in water, returning to her nest and sitting with her feathers still damp.
So, from my own experience of hatching chicken, turkey and goose eggs I would advise by all means hatch different breeds of chicken together, but incubate different types of fowl at different times, or in different incubators.
That gives them all the best chance of a successful hatch.
You do need to think carefully about space, both to place your incubator and more especially for your chicks when they hatch.
They grow unbelievably quickly and will be flying within a week to ten days of hatch. For more about that, see this article.
An incubator is a machine - an artificial way of keeping eggs at the right temperature and humidity until they hatch. There are several different types, from the home made to manual, semi-automatic and fully automated.
Candling is holding a strong light to eggs to see whether or not they're fertile, and to see how well they're developing through the incubating period.
It's a fascinating process. If you want to know how to do it and what to look for, have a look at this section on candling.
Setting is just another word for putting eggs into an incubator or under a broody hen.
Traditionally chicks which hatch under a waxing moon - that is when the moon is growing - will be bigger and healthier than those hatching when the moon is waning or growing smaller.
So, according to some old-time farmers, they should be set 21 days before there's a new moon.
Of course, there's no scientific basis for this ...
I've successfully incubated eggs when they were just over three weeks old, but that's very unusual.
It's generally better to get them into an incubator as soon as possible after they've been laid, having given them a chance to be 'rested' for a few hours first.
There's more information about how to choose the right eggs for incubation at this page.
The temperature needs to be consistent at 37.5ºC (99ºF) in an incubator which has a fan, higher (38 - 39ºC, 102ºF) in a still air incubator.
If it drops below that for a while it's not the end of the world - the chicks are just likely to hatch a little later.
If you're unlucky enough to have an electricity cut while you're
incubating just keep the incubator closed, wrap it in something warm - a
blanket or quilt is good - and hope the power comes back fairly
quickly. If it does, the chances are your chicks will be fine.
On the other hand if the temperature rises it's much more serious - the embryos won't be able to survive a raised temperature.
The humidity level is critical to a successful hatch.
It needs to be consistent at 45% until 'lockdown' at day 18, when it should be raised to 65%.
Too low and the chicks will have trouble hatching. Too high and there's a real danger they'll drown or not 'fluff out' properly after hatch.
Getting humidity levels right is the hardest part of incubating, in my experience. It's the only time I've ever lost a chick after hatching - the humidity levels were too high.
Despite hatching without a problem, she wasn't able to dry out and died from cold before I was able to get to her.
Three days before hatch is due, the eggs are no longer turned, the incubator remains closed and humidity levels are raised.
This allows the chick to get into the right position for hatch, and it makes sure there's enough moisture in the air to keep the inner membrane moist as the chick starts to peck its way out of the egg.
It's important because if the membrane is too dry the chick won't be able to peck through it and the chick stands a chance of dying.
For more detail about lockdown, see this article.
Various things will influence hatch times - the age of the eggs, the health of the mother chicken, fluctuations in the incubator temperature ... Sometimes chicks hatch a little before 21 days, sometimes it can be several days after.
Don't give up on your chicks until 26 days have passed since they were set.
There are so many books and magazines out there - not to mention websites and blogs - that it's difficult to know which is reliable. Sometimes their information is very thin, sometimes it's downright inaccurate. I know - I have most of them!
The one that's my all-time favourite and my personal incubating and hatching bible is this one - Gail Damerow's 'Hatching and Brooding Your Own Chicks'.
It covers not only chickens but turkeys, ducks, geese and guinea-fowl too. It's thorough, easy to read and has some great illustrations.
Read my full review, here - or If you'd like to buy it now, here's a link. (This is an affiliate link, which means that if you buy after clicking, I receive a small commission at no extra cost to you).
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