Raising Chickens

Incubating Chicken Eggs for Beginners

Want to hatch your own chickens but aren’t sure how to begin incubating chicken eggs? This was me a few years ago and I’ve learned a lot since hatching four batches of chickens.

In This Article:

  • Marking eggs
  • Purchasing and setting up equipment
  • 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 two full days before setting eggs in. The temperature will need some time to get to the optimal range of 101-98°f. 

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. 

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

Manual Egg Turner: inside incubator

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. It’s not necessary, but fun to do and 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 with light shells (there is no seeing through some of the darker Easter egger green shells!) a black dot and a few veins should be visible. 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. A “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”.

Another week passes and it’s time to re-check. 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

A few days before hatch, STOP rolling the eggs so the little chicks know which way “UP” is and can figure out how to being pecking the way out. 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, then after every new chip or two it will rest as it makes the way around the shell.

Lay the eggs on a damp wash cloth laid out on the incubator’s floor early on hatching day. On this final stretch of incubating chicken eggs, place them in little groups according to the grade they were given. Take the rack and water tray right out. Make ABSOLUTELY sure they are laid down the same way they were picked up. They try to walk and flop all over the place, stopping to rest on other unhatched eggs. This gives them more room to roam and they are further away from the direct heat that some get too close to when climb over other eggs.

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.

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 food mat
  • Egg carton feeder
  • Away from drafts, cats and little kids

Incubator and brooder bin under a coldframe greenhouseThe 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. Solk them in a bucket of warm water shake them out and toss 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.

Incubating chickens

Don’t let very young children handle the chicks too much, or without supervision. Kids enjoy incubating chicken eggs, but should not be lift alone with the incubator, brooder or the little birds. For some strange reason little kids tend to squeeze the fluffy peeping birds. 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.

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