Monday, February 20, 2012

Incubating incubators

I just loaded the incubator for the spring hatch, and 24 of the 41 spaces now contain potential future incubators!
These are the eggs we filled the incubator with.  Sorry it is a bit blurry....operator error!  The main reason for this hatch is the small white to pinkish eggs that are smaller than the rest.  These are from Icelandic hens. 

I saw an ad on craigslist a couple of weeks ago for hatching eggs from a flock of Icelandic chickens.  Curious by nature, I did a quick internet search and came up with surprisingly little information.  What I did read was rather intriguing, however. 

These birds are very genetically pure, due to regulations in their country of origin.  They are rather new to this country, and seem to be greatly enjoyed by their owners.  The flocks are colorful, as they are not bred for color.  The features that made me say, "I want those!!!" were their ability to forage for their food, and their tendency to broodiness.

Broodiness, the instinct a hen has....or used to sit on a pile of eggs and stay  there for three weeks until they hatch....has been bred out of modern hens in this country.  Once a hen goes broody, she stops laying eggs.  All the eggs she sits on need to hatch at about the same time for the safety of the chicks.  They are very active right from the start, and she cannot keep the new hatchlings safe while still sitting on unhatched eggs.  She will sit for a couple of days, maybe, but then will abandon unhatched eggs in favor of the young chicks.  This works out fine, since hens will share a nest, and the broody hen will sit on everyone and anyone's eggs.  She will consider them all her own. 

I've managed to get a few hens to go broody over the years.  The chicks hatched and raised by a hen are far hardier and far better foragers than those that I incubate or buy as day-old chicks and raise under a heat lamp.  If they survive the first few days, then tend to survive to adulthood, too.  They grow into beautiful, productive members of our flock, producing eggs and meat for us with far less input.  A broody is very valuable here.
I lost my two lovely broody hens to hawks and a young eagle last year, and no other hen has stepped up to the plate and volunteered to raise a brood for me.  So to find genetics nearby that would give me as close to 100% broody potential as one could ever hope for.....I was thrilled.

I ran right out and bought 25 eggs.  My friend Haley gave me 4 Maran eggs from her new pair, and my one Light Brahma hen graced the goats' stall with an egg a day for a week, muddying only one.  Those ten eggs were added to the 41 needed to fill the incubator, and the rest of the spaces were filled with blue eggs from my mixed breed Americauna cross hens, bred by the Light Brahma rooster.

I broke one Icelandic egg while transferring them.  Sigh.

My father set up the incubator at my folks' place, where the temperature is much more consistent then the woodstove allows here.  My cheap little styrofoam incubator doesn't like big fluctuations in outside air temperature and can't keep up.  The eggs need a constant 99.5 F in order to develop properly....for 21 days, plus the time needed to hatch.
That thermometer is my newest one that I use for cheesemaking....and for the pot of soaking water for plucking is my most accurate thermometer.  We tested it by putting it in a glass of ice water....32 F exactly....then in boiling water....212 F exactly!  The stem goes into the foam perfectly, and Dad carefully pushed it close to the eggs while I checked to be sure the egg didn't get poked by the sharp probe.  I think it will work out much better than the little thermometer sold for incubators, stapled to cardboard.  Hatching is messy and the thermometer is always ruined.  This one is up off the floor of the incubator, so it will be just fine.

The other bit of trickiness with a cheap incubator is the moisture level.  The underside of a hen is warm and a bit humid, so the eggs need humidity.  There are wells in the bottom of the incubator to hold water.  That little green funnel with the straw is what Dad rigged up to get water into the channels easily without opening the cover, letting precious heat out.  And to also get the water past the eggs without wetting them directly.  The wells for the water have overflow drains, so you will also notice that the incubator is set on a plastic tote lid, to catch this overflow.  The water needs refilling every day or every other day, especially in the dry winter weather.
In a week we will candle the eggs to see if they are developing, and toss any that are not.  Live eggs become chicks at 99.5 degrees in three weeks.....dead eggs explode.  Nasty.  Beyond nasty.

But it is all worth the time, effort, and risk of a stink bomb to have some hens that will do all the work of raising chicks for me.  If I have a few reliable broody hens, I can buy or trade for eggs of other species, too, and these hard working mama hens will gladly raise ducks for me....and geese, and turkeys, and guinea fowl, and anything else I might sneak under her at night.  Another big plus....I hope to never buy chicks again.  Ever.

Have you hugged your broody hen today?


  1. I am sending you hatching love. I have 27 duck eggs in, they are on day 9. I am candling them tomorrow. I hope all of those Icelandics hatch. I have been looking into them as well.

  2. Stories like this always make me want to have chickens and ducks. I'd do it in a heartbeat if fencing miraculously appeared! (Fencing being beyond my financial and physical abilities.)

  3. I am SO hoping for a good hatch! I'd love to end up with a half dozen Icelandic hens. More would be nice, but a half dozen will do the job I have in mind!

  4. Darius, keep an eye on craigslist or freecycle. I've seen free fencing on occasion...ya never know! I know some people build a small pen for their flock and then let them out in the yard when the are there to supervise and keep them safe. You can train them to go back into the pen with special treats, or just let them out an hour or two before dark...darkness makes chickens go back inside. Or....have you considered a small chicken tractor? A moveable house with an attached pen? You can move a few hens around your yard with one...moving it to a fresh patch of grass each day. I have a big one in my pasture for the youngsters, to keep them safe from hawks.

  5. I have a broody Jersey Giant hen. But no rooster. DH can't stand crowing... Just last night I was thinking about the logistics of having a hen with chicks in a confined area with 17 other adult birds. Far too many predators to let them free range here. Oh, I am envious of your Icelandic eggs...

  6. I wouldn't confine a broody with other hens....she would be too vulnerable in close quarters. Can you find a spot for her or fence off a small section of your coop? You could then get fertile eggs from someone else and put them under her! I'm going to see if my Light Brahma hen will go putting golf balls in her favorite spot. Broody hens love golf balls. Then if she sits reliably, you can switch out the golf balls for eggs under the cover of darkness.

  7. So far, every broody hen we've had has done fine in the flock, but they've never had a hatch (no rooster). I just leave them to do their thing, take the eggs each night they've collected from the other hens and wait until the broodiness wears off.

    Our coop is much too small to section in any way. That's why I mull over alternative ways of dealing with a hen and chicks. So far, I've not come up with a solution. Or it would mean building an entirely separate area and trying to make it predator safe. That's not a project DH is able to undertake now. He's still got at least 6 more pressing projects ahead of him: farm stand, smoker, plucker, roofing outbuildings, etc.

    But maybe some day..... In the meantime, I live vicariously through others who are hatching, and mull over ideas.