Want to Hatch Eggs at Home?

Learn what it takes to incubate eggs yourself.

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newly hatched chick

Newly Hatched Chick

The newest member of a backyard chicken flock.

The newest member of a backyard chicken flock.

Most of the time, when people find out I raise backyard chickens, there is excitement at the idea of having fresh eggs always at hand. Occasionally, though, I’ll meet someone who is uncomfortable with cracking an egg not found in a grocery store. I was surprised by how often I hear the concern that cracking open a farm-fresh egg may reveal a developing chick. For those of you not already sold on fresh eggs, let me put your mind at ease. For a chick to grow, the requirements are specific and non-negotiable.

This first one may sound basic, but is often overlooked by the fresh-egg-o-phobe. No rooster, no chicks. Contrary to the many unusual theories I’ve heard regarding how a rooster fertilizes an egg, he completes the task by conventional means. Even if an egg is fertilized, it is indistinguishable from an unfertilized egg unless very specific conditions are met. And I do mean specific.

For the 21 days necessary to hatch a chick, unless a temperature between 99.5 and 101.5 degrees is maintained at a humidity of around 60 percent (increasing in the last few days), an egg is just an egg. Many breeds of chickens have lost the instinct to brood, which is to say, sit on their eggs long enough to hatch them. For those of you worried about breakfast, you’re in good shape. Looking to increase the size of my flock by hatching takes a little more work. And an incubator.

A basic incubator runs about 45 bucks. While a traditional thermometer is included, I’d tack on another 15 or 20 for a digital hygrometer, which will accurately measure both temperature and humidity. Finally, developing eggs need to be turned a couple of times a day. An automatic egg turner costs almost as much as the incubator itself, but unless you’re certain you’ll be around to do the turning, it’s worth the investment. So now we’re in for about 100 bucks. And we don’t even have the eggs yet, which can be ordered online, purchased from local hatcheries, or donated by hobbyists with rooster-resident coops.

I recognize that the more I talk about incubating eggs, the less practical it sounds (compared to the alternatives). Even after you procure the equipment and get your eggs started, there is still no guarantee how many will hatch or how many of those will be hens. All of that aside, nothing beats day 21. Sometimes the eggs will begin to peep even before the chicks begin to peck their way out of their shells (called pipping), a process that takes hours. I’ve helped students set up incubators in their classrooms and found students arriving before school or staying late to watch them emerge. It is mesmerizing. I can’t speak to what parents say when those students declare they are bringing home day-old chicks. I take that back. Sometimes they say “no.” But, I know of more than one coop that was built as the result of a class project or ill-conceived Easter gift. Sometimes a class project becomes a lifelong hobby.

I hatched a few new chicks this week. The eggs came from a coop with at least a dozen different breeds, so I’m not even sure what I’ve got. But that’s all part of the fun.

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