- What could be better for Easter or as a Spring treat than hatching your own ducklings or chicks from your backyard flock? If you’re ready for a fresh batch of babies, head out to the coop and start collecting. These tips will ensure you have the best start to your incubating adventure.
Eggs are astonishingly beautiful things. Endowed with an appealing texture, smooth rounded shape, pearly color—and containing within, a miracle. Inside, near the surface of the yolk, sits a group of cells so tiny that only a trained eye can see. But given warmth and time, that spot gains all the nourishment it needs from the contents of the egg, to become a living, breathing, cheeping bundle of adorableness.
When your silkie hen, who is herself a tiny bundle of adorableness, presents you with her very first egg, naturally you handle it with great respect as you promptly crack it open and serve it for breakfast. Because duh, that’s what eggs are for.
Unless of course you have children, in which case you label the darn thing and set it on a stand, because Mommy, please don’t kill it!!
Of course, if it were up to my four-year-old, every single egg ever laid would be rescued from the doom of the refrigerator and laid neatly in a bucket of leaves to incubate. The bucket would be placed outside the back door and later re-discovered to contain exploded rotten eggs floating in a sludge of rainwater and slimy, half-decomposed leaves.
I don’t, strictly speaking, recommend Everett’s method.
You can improve upon Everett’s hatch rates by choosing a broody hen or a good quality electric incubator over a bucket of leaves—and carefully selecting only the best eggs for hatching. Here’s how to get those best eggs:
- Check for fertility. Start with eggs from a hen who has been laying at least two weeks, and then crack a few open to check for fertility.
- Prepare the laying area with fresh bedding (or a sandbox for quail). Given a good nesting area, chickens and quail will keep their eggs pretty clean. Ducks, on the other hand, like things dirty and that includes their eggs, so good luck with that. You can, however, encourage laying in the cleanest areas by planting golf balls there. Unless you have children, in which case the golf balls will disappear and later show up at the bottom of the stairs in the middle of the night so you can step on them and bruise your tailbone on the way down, not that this has ever happened to me.
- Collect eggs early in the day, especially in the heat of summer, to prevent incubation from beginning before you are ready.
- DO NOT WASH eggs intended for incubation. I’ve tested this personally in my own incubators and my results confirm what many others have said: Un-washed eggs have better hatch rates than washed. This is true even with duck eggs that have some soiling on the shell.
- Choose eggs with these characteristics:
- Reasonably clean. Some soil on duck eggs is acceptable, but avoid any with large amounts of wet muck on them. Filthy eggs can carry large bacteria loads that will affect the entire batch of eggs.
- Average size. Small eggs produce weak offspring, and large eggs may be double –yolked and unviable (rare instances of twins born out of double-yolked eggs have been documented, but usually they die in the shell).
- Good, strong, basic egg shape. The shape of an egg has evolved over millenia to make it easy for the little one to escape when it’s ready. A strange-shaped egg might develop just fine, but the baby is likely to die trying to get out.
- Strong, smooth shell. Look for even coloration, and a smooth texture. Small amounts of calcium deposit on the shell are acceptable. Shine a bright light (a flashlight will do) through the shell in a dark room to look for weak spots, excessive porousness, or tiny stress cracks.
- No obvious internal anomalies. While you’re candling for weak spots in the shell, look inside as well for any noticeable anomalies, and avoid them. In particular, look at the location of the air cell. It should appear as roughly dime-sized bright spot near the tip of the large end of the egg. If the air cell is noticeably large than most, irregular in shape, or appears in the wrong location, put the egg in the fridge and have it for breakfast. It’s heartbreaking to end up with a full-grown baby that drowns before hatching because of a poorly formed or incorrectly located air cell.
- Mark each good hatching egg in pencil (or crayon) with the date and any additional information you want to track (which breeding pen, hen, or species of animal, etc.), and place it in an egg carton in a cool room with a steady temperature and no direct sunlight.
- Prop the egg carton at a 45-degree angle, and change the direction of the angle daily. This prevents the yolk from sticking to the side and causing problems during incubation.
- Keep eggs at room temperature or slightly below, turning daily, for up to ten days before incubating. Eggs older than 10 days can be used, but hatchability will gradually decline so fresh eggs are best.
Eggs chosen and stored this way will give you a good shot at great hatch rates, and put you on the road to learning the esoteric secrets of poultry math. And eggs that don’t make the cut? Put them in the fridge and for heaven’s sake don’t let the kids see you do it.
NOTE: If you don’t have a male bird of the appropriate species, you can skip all of these steps. Just go ahead and put any eggs you find in the incubator, in any order at any time and at any temperature. Wait a few weeks, and don’t be surprised if a dragon hatches instead of a bird–magic is unpredictable. You’ve been warned.
PS: If you are feeling kinda dumb because you didn’t know that you need either a male bird or magic in order to get baby birds, take heart. We live in a world where everyone carries around tiny touch-pad devices that provide access to most of the world’s knowledge (plus thousands of videos of kittens), but almost no one has access to healthy eggs from free range birds. It’s no wonder people get confused about what’s real and what’s not. For anyone who doesn’t understand this PS, please contact me when your dragon hatches out. I always wanted a baby dragon.