Eight years ago, we moved to our acreage and immediately bought a flock of hens. We learned that chickens make the best pets if you have the outdoor room for them.
Through the years, we’ve ventured into selling eggs and showing chickens at the county fair. This fall, we struck out on a new adventure — the most fun yet, though not without a bit of a learning curve — hatching our own eggs at home!
We borrowed a homemade egg incubator, wooden with a glass top. There is a front door to get to the eggs, which sit on a wire tray above a pan of water. The water keeps the eggs at the right humidity. The incubator is heated by two light bulbs, and the temperature can be adjusted by toggling a peg on the back.
Being homemade, this incubator cannot turn the eggs like commercial models automatically do. The eggs need to be turned every 12 hours to keep the chicks developing as they should, rotated 180 degrees every morning and evening on a set schedule, no matter what other activities going on or the desire to sleep in. Luckily, chicken eggs only take 21 days to hatch, so it’s only a few weeks where turning the eggs ruled our family schedule.
You can buy a commercial incubator to take care of this for you, but your kids also miss out on an important interactive opportunity to become invested in the project, build up their anticipation and excitement, and further develop their responsibility skills.
We started with 22 eggs. After 10 days, we candled the eggs to see if there were any not developing. We borrowed a homemade candler made with a light bulb fitted into the bottom of an old coffee can. The lid of the can, opposite the lit-up light bulb, had a hole cut into it so that an egg could set in the hole without dropping through. That way, when used in a dark room, the inside of the egg lights up so you can see what’s inside. While candling, we were looking for a dark mass. Empty eggs or eggs that looked very different inside weren’t developing correctly or at all, for whatever reason, and likely wouldn’t hatch.
After candling, we were down to 16 eggs. Not too bad, I thought. We disposed the other eggs and put the good eggs back in the incubator, continuing to turn them until day 21. Then, we started hearing chirping from some of the eggs!
The chicks still had a lot of work left to do. First, they pipped a tiny hole in the shell with their beaks. Then, over many hours, they pipped a crack the egg and eventually pushed the egg open. The first chick out has the hardest job, because once it’s out and cheeping, it eggs the rest on and they get out sooner.
Wet and tired, we left the chicks in the incubator to dry and rest. Chicks absorb what’s left of the yolk before they hatch completely, so they don’t need to eat for a couple days. This is why mail-order chicks still arrive alive at your post office, even if mailed from several states away and squished together in a box without feed.
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Not all the eggs hatched. Just as some embryos don’t develop normally in the egg, not all chicks survive hatching. And most chicks don’t survive if you try to help them out of the egg because they need to go through the process in order to finish developing for life outside the shell.
We had 10 eggs hatch perfectly. The other eggs either didn’t even crack, or the chicks had trouble while hatching — probably mal-positioned inside the egg — and didn’t make it out. After a day, we took the chicks out of the incubator and moved them to a homemade brooder — a circle of cardboard under heat lamps — where they continue to grow, happy and healthy.
We learned a lot about hatching our own eggs, and we definitely look forward to trying it again. I think it’d be a great project for any homeschooling family, as well as school classrooms or — like us — a fun family activity.