Hatching chicks can be magical, but it can also be tricky and frustrating, says Sarah McKenzie
It pays to be realistic, says Sarah McKenzie
Spring is nearly upon us and signs of new life are emerging all around us. It is just the time to think about hatching our own chicks. They will sit in our hands and cheep happily, they will be so tame and follow us about…
To an extent this can be true. But while hatching your own eggs is a fabulous experience, it not always as easy as nature would have us believe.
It’s a wonderful sight to watch Mother Hen clucking around with her chicks, keeping them warm, feeding them and looking out for danger. But I have also known hens to diligently sit on their own eggs for the required 21 days, then
kill every chick they hatch. It may be unthinkable… but it does happen.
So what if we take Mother Hen out of the equation and hatch artificially? Well, then you’re going to require some kit. Along with an incubator you will also need a brooder box. The idea that you can keep a chick warm in the bottom of the Rayburn or in an airing cupboard is a sweet one, but they will need food and water and will also make a mess. Do you want that on your clean laundry?
Brooder boxes can be adapted from many things: an indoor guinea pig cage or a large plastic box, but they need to be vermin proof and allow a heat source.
The safest heat source is an ‘Electric Hen’, basically a warm shelf the chicks dive under, as they would their mum. Some people prefer a red lamp that requires hanging over the broody box. To check the chicks have adequate heat, you need to observe them. Chicks that are cold will cheep and cluster together while ones that are too hot will spread out to the edges of the box. An even scattering of chicks is just right.
So you’ve got the the kit and the eggs are gently being turned in the incubator at least three times daily at a constant body temperature. At day 7, it’s best to ‘candle’ them to check for fertility. You hold the egg to the beam of light and check for signs of life. A cluster of spider-like red veins should be visible. This means the egg is fertile and the chick is growing inside its shell. Any infertile eggs should be thrown away at this point.
How many eggs does one hatch? Now here’s the tricky thing. In six months time your chicks could have grown into productive hens and be laying delicious eggs. Or you could be unfortunate and have all cockerels. If so, what do you do with them? Raise them for the table, dispatch them at first crow, keep them all and hope they don’t fight, or try and give them away?
When you think about hatching your own chicks, you also have to be realistic. The other thing to remember is that there is no guarantee how many eggs will hatch. There are so many things that can go wrong. You may suffer a power cut at just the wrong time, your eggs may be infertile, the humidity level may be incorrect, and so on.
Always hatch more than you need, just in case only one chick pops out at day 21. And never forget there’s a 50/50 chance it will be a male! I don’t mean to sound all doom and gloom. When it goes right it’s a great experience. But you may just consider it makes more sense to have all the hard work done for you – to go to a good breeder, get a few hybrids, guarantee yourself lots of eggs without the wait and have no cockerels to deal with.
If you decide to go down the hatching route, you are in for some magical moments. Every time a chick uncurls itself from its shell I’m in awe. A whole life made in an egg in just 21 days – its amazing! But just go into it with your eyes wide open!
Sarah McKenzie runs Sussex Garden Poultry at Pulborough: www.stophamgardenpoultry.co.uk
If you go down the hatching route, you are in for some magical moments.
Hatching from an incubator