Want to hatch your own chickens but aren’t sure how to do it? This was me a few years back. I’ve learned a lot since hatching hundreds of chickens and want to share it for those doing the same. In addition to my own experience, I began to sell and trade hatching eggs in spring of 2016 and I’ve received a lot of questions. These concerns and questions have been integrated into this informative guide: Incubating Chicken Eggs for Beginners. If you still have questions after reading this article or feel I have left something out or could elaborate please comment at the bottom of the article. To purchase hatching eggs, see this page. To learn about chicken breeding and how to collect your own eggs to hatch, read here.
In This Article:
- Purchasing and setting up equipment
- When to put your eggs in
- Marking eggs
- Turning eggs daily
- Candling and development marking
- Preparing for hatch day
- Brooder box essentials
Purchasing and Setting up Equipment
- Get a quality incubator
- Start it two-days prior
- Mark them on each side
- Keep them moist
- Turn eggs daily
- Mark either side
Buy a REAL incubator for incubating chicken eggs, not one of those cheap plastic dome things. I use a classic styrofoam Hova-Bator Incubator that I bought on Amazon three years ago for $66.95. It works great, assembles easy, is simple to clean, and does the job for about three dozen chicken eggs at a time. Set it up at LEAST one full day before setting eggs in. The temperature will need some time to get to the optimal range of 100.5-98.5°f. I prefer to use two methods to check the temperature for safety and have found the digital readouts handy BUT had one that read a full degree off—not cool!
Make sure the water tray under the mesh egg mat is ALWAYS full by adding water routinely, once daily. If you run out of water in the incubator the chicks will begin to stick to the inner lining and when hatch comes they will get STUCK in their shell, unable to turn around to chip their way out. This only happens if the water is out for a few days prior, but it does happen. Keep them well watered.
An essential part of successfully incubating chicken eggs is turning them. Eggs need to be rolled around every day a few times to reduce the chance of the embryo sticking to the inner membrane. We doodle a heart on one side and a smiley face on the other to tell which way up they are. In nature this tells the egg that mama bird stopped caring for it or is doing a poor job, the egg will stop developing correctly and likely go bad before hatching. Hens turn their eggs and change around which one is in the, middle to share the heat source across all eggs to ensure they get as equal warmth as possible.
Instead of buying a egg roller tray I made one myself. They are more expensive than the incubator! I made mine out of clothes hangers and wire and it only took half an hour. It’s not automatic, but literally takes a second to turn all the eggs once it’s made. Don’t get fooled into buying some special candling tool to look inside your eggs either. Use a strong flashlight and a toilet paper roll. The most common mistake of the hobbyist chicken movement is all the gadgets and stuff out there to make it seem so complicated incubating chicken eggs for beginners is simple and fun—so don’t be deterred or fall into the consumer trap folks!
When to put your eggs in . . .
If you bought hatching eggs online, give them 8-12 hours to settle and rest prior to laying them in your pre-heated and stable incubator. If they are from a local farmer and you’ve driven them home with minimal bumping, just allow for them to come up to room temperature and to settle for an hour or so. In both cases, I recommend waiting to use your egg turner or to manually turn until the next day.
If your hatching eggs are from your own hens, they can be collected and put in once you have a full batch. The last thing you want is chicks hatching every other day from one your favorite hen—chicks will not do well being spaced a day or two apart and knock younger ones down, compete for food and otherwise cause MAYHEM. For more about that, read here. This is a very common question when discussing incubating chicken eggs for beginners who have fertile eggs at home—and the answer is WAIT for at least a dozen.
Candling and Development Marking
- Use a pencil to mark eggs
- Grade system for development marking
- Don’t keep incubator open too long
- Refill water tray
After the eggs have been in there over a week they can be peered through with a flashlight and checked for veins. This process is called candling.Darker eggs, like copper marans are just about impossible to see into—either use a super bright light in extremely dark conditions with trained, well-adjusted eyes, or simply wait to be surprised. Candling is not necessary, but fun to do and my kids really enjoy it. Also, you could spot a bad egg this way and stop your incubator from stinking up before it even happens. After a week of development a dot about the size of a pea connected to a few veins should be visible on one side of the egg.
Marking Your Eggs
Check a few to see what the average development stage is. After looking at them all once, look again and grade them from “A” to “C”. An “A” grade has “average” development much like all the other eggs and nothing looks odd. “B” grade stands for “behind” and might be harder to see, not developing as fast as the others or have less pronounced veins. For eggs that look like they have absolutely no veins or spot, put a C for “check again”.
I also mark the breed notes, date collected and date put in for if I’ve put a few batches in together.
Another week passes and it’s time to re-check. Candling everyday is excessive, increases the chance of dropping an egg and may drop the temperature of single eggs and the incubators temperature and humidity level. If you have a lot of eggs it might be best to check a handful every other day if your have a case of first-timer chick parent jitters. For a dozen, check every few days at most. It doesn’t say anywhere that I have found that bright flashing to the embryo does any damage, but it is certainly not natural. I do worry overdoing it may have adverse effects but haven’t seen any issues first hand. Take it easy on those developing eyes in there. I know incubating chicken eggs for beginners is EXTREMELY excising—just candle them in moderation.
Look at all the “A” grades first and see if they all match. Ones that are behind can get a demotion to “A-“, and if they are ahead, give them an “A+”. Do the same next for the “B” grades, and you may even promote some to an “A” status, or demote others to a “C”. Check the “C” eggs last after you have good grasp of what the others all look like. Put an “X” on any that still fail to meet development markers. Keep them another few days, then toss them. They still make a good treat for critters in the woods. Once you notice embryo movement, circle your grade. Circled “A+” and “A” eggs will likely hatch first and should be grouped together for hatching day.
Prepare for Hatch Day
- Stop turning eggs
- Don’t “help” hatch
- Keep incubator closed
- Remove once fluffy in batches
- Reduce drafts for wet chicks
Three days before hatch, STOP rolling the eggs so the little chicks know which way “UP” is and can position themselves to peck the way out. This might be the biggest email question I receive about incubating chicken eggs for beginners. If you have an auto turner, this is the time to remove it and lay them flat on one side. Mark the up side in case you bump some. Chicks will take a really long time to hatch and take breaks to rest after pecking the first little chip out.
After every new chip or two it will rest as it makes the way around the shell. It can take 24-hours for some to chip all the way around and cut the shell in half to espace.
I like to lay the eggs on a damp washcloth laid out on the incubator’s floor early on hatching day. In a few cases the mesh on the floor has caught an excited hopping hatchlings toe and broken it. Hatchlings climb, hobble and flop all over the place, stopping to rest on other unhatched eggs. When I take the time to pull the turner out I set the eggs all on a towel to the side. Upon placing them back in I place them in little groups according to the grade they were given. Make ABSOLUTELY sure they are laid down the same way they were picked up.
Don’t help your chick escape it’s shell. The yolk sac and extensive is attached until the chick is entirely out and separating the two can KILL the little chick. Don’t do it as much as it pains you to watch it hatch for hours—this is normal. Keep them warm by keeping the incubator on and closed. The kind I got has two windows and the entire indie is easy to view.
You have waited 21 days and are SO PUMPED to be a first time chicken parent—I know the feeling. You’ve been nesting, like any other parent. Their brooder is im-peck-able—chicken pun intended here.. BUT wait, is there something wrong? Don’t freak out! It’s going to be okay. Just breathe and read these common problems faced in incubating chicken eggs for beginners and their simple solutions.
The only instances for you to “help hatch” are:
Problem: If the shell is completely chipped al the way around and the chick is struggling to pop it in half.
Solution: Very gently use a wetted cloth to dampen the seam as it may dried to it’s feathers.
Problem: An egg piped the day before but only chipped a little and appears stuck for more than a few hours.
Solution: As before, dampen the seam and chip back a TEENY bit to check for active blood vessels. If the inner shell is entirely clan without blood and no blood comes from the newly hand-chipped section continue slowly with caution.
Problem: En egg has taken more than 24 hours to hatch.
Solution: If it has chips and active movement leave it completely alone. If it has chips but is inactive and has been for some time pick it up and locate the beak. If the beak wiggles every so often but does not chip it may have a stuck seam as above. If the beak does not move at all touch it with your fingernail to see it your chick has died. This happens sometimes if the humidity is off or the incubator gets too cold. If there are NO CHIPS in the shell place it to year ear and listen for knocking. If none, smell it. If smelly gently dispose of it. If you aren’t sure wait a few days—once I lost the power for a half-day. To keep the incubator warm I laid a down blanket over it. My chicks took anywhere from 19 to 26 days to hatch!
Still scared and confused for your little ones? Email me: CluckGobbleQuack@Gmail.com Put Incubation issue as your subject line for my attention.
Once they hatch out and begin to flop around they still need to be kept in the incubator until they are fluffy. Incubating chicken eggs all comes down to this final exciting time and I know it’s hard to wait. This is a good time to set up their brooder box and prepare for their new few weeks. Try to wait until several are ready at a time to lift the lid. If the room is under 60° toss a blanket over your head and the incubator while you open it to reduce heat loss and drafting. Open is slowly and close it slowly to keep the hot air in one place. Crack the lid open only as much as you need to.
Brooder Box Essentials:
- Warmth: lamp/seedling mat
- Soft bedding with good grip
- Safe water dish
- High contrast first-day food mat
- Egg carton feeder
- Away from drafts, cats and little kids
The box should be big enough so the floor will be covered with 1/3 chicks. I have used an old wooden soda crate for smaller hatches and clear plastic storage bins for bigger hatches. To make the transition easy for the birds and keep the draft low, I cover both the incubator and the box with a lightweight cold frame that has a flip-up lid. As soon as the chicks begin to hatch I clamp my heat lamp on the side of the bin and pre-heat it. Make sure to keep combustibles like; newspaper, cardboard and plastics, away from the heat lamp AND little kids’ fingers.
I choose to line my brooder boxes with old cloth diapers that I change daily—we have an abundance of them! Any old rags will do and should be kept clear of poop. They can be flipped over the make more use of them. Old towels can be -re-folded a number of times in different ways to make them last a week. After that shavings or sawdust can be used. Why do this bedding swap? They can trip easy, get leg issues and even eat the shavings. To clean for later use, shake them outside and soak the cloth rags in a bucket of warm water before tossing them in the washing.
Newspaper and paper bags are slippery and make it hard for the tiny birds to move around and makes thier poop stick to their tiny feet. Clamp a heat lamp to the side and set a seedling germination mat under the bottom. Use a digital thermometer to check the temperature a few times a day. They will need to stay near 90°f the first week, then scale it back to 80° the second week, and to 70° the week after.
Little chicks drown easy; I’ve lost two to drowning. Use a very small amount of water in a plastic jar lid with a rock in the center to keep it from flipping. Dip their beaks into it to teach them to drink. This can be replaced with a bigger chick waterer after their first week. I also take it out at night.
For food, a cardboard egg carton broken down into a six-pack works well with a rock in one center hole to keep it in one spot and from flipping over—they will jump all over it. It should be different color than the chick starter feed. I set a dark cloth down on the first few days with a few bits of starter on it for them to peck at. Chicks will instinctively peck at the lighter colored bits on the dark cloth. Once the food source is established, they will eat from the carton. The same cloth can be laid into the carton and stuffed down to fit into the carton’s egg-holes until they get the hang of it.
Don’t let very young children handle the chicks too much, or without supervision. Kids enjoy incubating chicken eggs, but should not be left alone with the incubator, brooder or the little birds. For some strange reason little kids tend to squeeze the fluffy peeping birds. This is a photo of my son holding his first chick. Keep some kind of a top over the box to keep house cats from tossing the chicks around and making your hard work into a few moments of feline amusement. I use a big cookie cooling rack with an old iron on top to weigh it down.