How to hatch eggs at home: Grow your own baby chickens with an incubator, under a hen, or without either! Here’s how.
There are three ways to hatch chicken eggs at home: you can use an incubator, you can hatch the eggs under a hen, or you can create an incubator-like environment for the eggs to hatch in. I’m going to explain how to do each, as well as the benefits and risks to each method.
“Growing” your own chickens is all about creating the necessary environment for the chick to develop within the egg. A good mother hen can provide everything that an egg needs to develop into a chick, but not all hens are good moms. Some hens are good at hatching their eggs, some are good at caring for the baby chicks, some are bad at both, and the truly happy broody hen will be good at both.
When you hatch in an incubator or in a DIY setup, you’re trying to recreate the environment that a mother hen provides for the developing egg.
With both hen-hatched and incubator-hatched eggs, a lazy caregiver can ruin an entire clutch of eggs. Sometimes mother hens or “mother” humans forget to turn the eggs, or leave them cold and unattended for a long stretch of time. And you need fertile eggs to get chicks so if your hen doesn’t have a rooster- or like him- then you may be out of luck.
Fortunately, hatching eggs only requires 21 days of careful attention. I imagine chickens would have died out if they needed to wait 9 months for their chicks to hatch!
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Egg Hatching FAQ
The incubation period for chicken eggs is 21 days. While it takes 21 days for a chicken egg to hatch, other types of birds may take more or less time. Eggs will only hatch if the egg is viable. Viable means that the egg was fertilized by a male chicken (a rooster).
First, the egg needs to be fertilized. This means you need a rooster. Hatching eggs need to be fresh, unrefrigerated, and unwashed.
Naturally clean eggs are a better option so make sure you keep your coop clean, particularly the nesting boxes. Do not clean eggs that you plan to hatch; if they’re excessively dirty, don’t use them. If you collect eggs immediately, the eggs are usually clean.
Eggs should be handled by humans as little as possible. While you can buy hatching eggs that come in the mail, it’s better to choose fertilized eggs from your own chickens; they’ll be more likely to hatch.
If the eggs haven’t hatched by 21 days, they’re most likely not viable. The baby may have stopped development at some point during the process, died, or the egg was not fertilized. Candling eggs at 7 and 14 days allows you to identify which eggs should be tossed.
Chickens start laying eggs around 18 weeks old, but often young hens and roosters don’t produce fertilized eggs. You can attempt to hatch them, but you may have a much lower hatch rate.
Often local farmers will have hatching eggs for sale, but you can also order hatching eggs from hatcheries online. Find a hatchery with good reviews close to you so the eggs have the shortest distance to travel.
Chickens turn their eggs all day long. When using an incubator, however, you are trading off the lost humidity and heat whenever you open the incubator. As such, you don’t want to turn the eggs too often.
While some incubators have turning mechanisms, many people opt to turn the eggs themselves. If you do, make sure to turn the eggs 4-5 time per day with 6-8 hours between turning the eggs.
Eggs are best placed in the incubator within one week of when the hen laid them. If you eggs were transported or out in the cold, it’s better to wait for the eggs to return to room temperature before placing them in the incubator. Large temperature differences, like going from very cold to hot, can cause the eggs to crack.
A good motherly hen is much more successful at hatching chicks than an incubator. A hen will not, however, sit on eggs unless she is “broody.” This means that she is actively trying to sit on eggs. Hens will stay on their nest almost 24/7 once they decide to hatch chicks, leaving the nest only to briefly eat and drink.
Incubators take the guess work out of hatching chicks and you won’t need to keep a rooster. Incubator hatched chicks bond with the humans caring for them rather than the mother hen, so they tend to make friendly pets once they’re turned out in the coop and chicken run.
It’s important to candle your eggs at Day 7 and 14 to make sure the chick is developing appropriately. By those points, you should be able to see the developing chick and even movement. If there’s no sign of life at 7 weeks, recheck the egg at 14 weeks. Some people dispose at 7 weeks, but this is personal preference.
If you have a “bad” egg, toss it. If you continue to incubate it or let your hen sit on it, it will explode. The smell is quite unpleasant and it could contaminate your incubator. Hens will often clean up the mess, but the smell usually takes a day or two to dissipate.
The developing chick will stick to the shell if left in one spot for too long. This causes issues with development and may kill the chick.
No. See: “What happens if the egg is bad.”
The benefit to hatching your own eggs is that you can expand your flock without setting up a quarantine zone or worrying about transferring diseases to your current flock. Hatching eggs can be educational and save you money.
Eggs hatched in an incubator are generally raised by humans and bond to their caregivers; this makes the birds friendlier.
When hatching eggs, you’re pretty likely to get a 50/50 mix of roosters and hens. This has its drawbacks, but sometimes store bought chicks tend to be majority roosters. I anticipate experienced chicken keepers often properly identify the females and purchase those when the chicks are first put “on the shelf,” leaving the males for the layman who isn’t as knowledgeable. If you buy the heavily discounted older chicks, you’re likely to discover those chicks are all roosters.
Hatching eggs can be time consuming, although hatching under a hen or in a quality incubator will save time.
Exploding eggs is one of my least favorite parts of hatching eggs, but it’s also disappointing when eggs don’t end up being viable, or if you have to deal with a dead or improperly developed chick.
With egg hatching, you are likely to get a 50/50 mix of roosters and hens so you need to plan for what you will do with those roosters. Will you eat them? Will you give them away? Will you create a separate rooster “herd”?
If you can provide a space where the eggs have the correct temperature and humidity settings, and if you are able to turn the eggs 4-5x per day, you could catch an egg without a store bought incubator. Maintaining the humidity would be the trickiest part and you’d need to get a hygrometer to keep track.
Store bought eggs are unlikely to be fertilized so it is unlikely you will get chicks from them.
Possibly. Your chance of successfully hatching a fertilized egg that has been refrigerated is probably lower than an egg that has been kept at room temperature. However, keep in mind that cleaned eggs and eggs older than one week old, aren’t as likely to be viable.
Different bird eggs are hatched under different specifications. If you want to hatch a duck egg, or another type of bird eggs, make sure to check what kind of environment they need to be in to develop.
How to Use Your Hen to Hatch Eggs
Hatching eggs is a big commitment for your hens- they’ll need to sit on the clutch of eggs for 21 days, leaving only briefly to get food and water. Broody chickens will be responsible for turning their eggs regularly and keeping the eggs warm. And once they start sitting on the eggs, they start the process of the embryo’s development.
It’s a lot easier to hatch eggs if you wait until your hen is “broody.” A broody hen will prepare a nest, lays eggs consistently in the same clean spot each day, and once she is satisfied with the number of eggs, she will sit on them for 21 days. During those 21 days, she will hopefully attend to the eggs; you’ll see her turn them, get up only rarely, and cover the eggs when she leaves the nest.
Hen-raised chicks aren’t perhaps as friendly as incubator-raised chicks, but it’s easier to let nature take its course. The mother hen can provide everything her eggs and her chicks need. My favorite part of letting my birds raise their chicks is that there’s no risk from heat lamps after the chicks are born… the mother hen is able to keep the chicks perfectly warm under her feathers.
If you have a rooster with your hens, you don’t really need to do anything to encourage them to go broody; you simply have to be patient and wait. Providing a nest box, providing clean straw for the box, and leaving the eggs in the nest, rather than gathering them, helps encourage the hen to go broody.
Once your hen is sitting on eggs, it may be helpful to keep a nearby water and feed source so she doesn’t need to travel far to feed. The hen will do most of the work for you.
Young hens aren’t always adept at sitting on eggs or mothering. Once you’ve gone through a season of broody hens, you’ll notice some of your moms are a bit more committed to hatching their eggs than others. Some get bored and wander off. Some do a great job hatching the eggs, then don’t really mother them well. Last year, I had a duck who did a beautiful job hatching her eggs, but another duck took over raising them.
I had another bird lay on her eggs for longer than the 21 days, but she would leave for long periods each day. The eggs didn’t hatch because she didn’t keep them warm enough or care for them properly. If you notice a particular hen doesn’t care for her eggs or chicks well, it’s wise to discourage broody behavior. Most people allow a hen to try two or three times, but if the behavior continues, they simply make sure they take the hen’s eggs each day.
If an egg isn’t developing, hens will often kick the egg out of the nest. But not all hens will ditch bad eggs. Eventually bad eggs will “explode” so if you want to dispose of them, handle them carefully. They’re just as likely to burst in your hand. The odor is quite unpleasant. If they explode in the nest, they can impact whether or not the other eggs hatch, and be a source of contamination. The hen will, however, clean up the mess.
Some people will pull the eggs from under the hen to candle them at 7 and 14 days, similar to using an incubator. I don’t like interfering with the mama hen so I keep an eye out for eggs that start smelling or that turn blueish/black. That’s a pretty good indication that you should toss the egg.
Often it’s best to leave the hen to her job because interfering with her process may agitate the hen and cause her to leave the nest.
Chickens generally lay around 12 eggs before sitting to hatch them. They will not sit until they’re ready to sit for the full 21 days. Larger birds can hatch more eggs; my Muscovy duck hatched a ridiculous number of ducklings last year.
If you don’t have a rooster, but you have a hen that is broody, some people order hatching eggs from a local farmer or online hatchery. They slip the “good eggs” under to replace the bad ones. This may allow the hen to raise her own chicks without ever needing to own a rooster. Some hens may kick these eggs out of the nest, however.
How to Hatch Eggs In an Incubator
Hatching eggs in an incubator, particularly a quality incubator, is easy and educational. Hand raised chicks bond with their caregivers, making friendly pets. Incubator hatching is a 21 day process, however, where you or the incubator, needs to function as the mother hen. For many, that is a big commitment.
Step 1: Order or collect your hatching eggs. Do not clean them. Write an X on one side of the egg and an O on the other. This allows you to track egg turning easier. Keep eggs at room temperature until the incubator is ready.
Step 2: Prepare the incubator and set it for 99.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Most incubators come automatically set for this temperature. For the first 18 days, your incubator humidity needs to be set at 40-50% humidity. The incubator needs to maintain a constant temperature for the incubation process to be effective; so don’t place it near windows or areas that get a cold draft.
Our incubator has automatic egg turner and a tray that the eggs sit on. There are water channels under the tray where you add more or less water depending on your desired humidity. The eggs are above the channels so they’re exposed to the humidity, but do not get wet. Some people add food coloring to the incubator water so they can see when it’s empty, but this may dye your incubator tray.
Step 3: Once your incubator has heated up and is at the correct humidity, add your eggs with the same side up (All X’s or All O’s). Mark the time on your hatching printable.
Step 4: For the next 18 days, turn your eggs either by hand or via an incubator turner 4-5x a day (every 6-8 hours). Track the time and whether the X or O side is up on your printable. Keep an eye on the temperature and humidity in your incubator
Step 5: On Day 7 and Day 14, you want to briefly remove the eggs to candle them. Shine a flashlight on the egg in a dark, warm room (we don’t want the eggs to get cold). Speckled eggs, eggs with no veins, or if the egg has a red line usually indicate that the egg is not viable. You should see blood vessels when you candle your eggs, particularly by Day 14.
By Day 14, you should be able to see a black dot and veins in the eggs, as well as possible chick movement.
Here’s a video showing what a fertile egg looks like at different stages:
Look out for blood rings as well which are an indicator that the embroyo inside the egg has died.
Step 6: On Day 18, remove the turning device and space the eggs out. Increase the humidity to 65-70% according to the instructions for your incubator; my incubator simply states to add more water to the water channels.
This is also a good time to get your brooder setup and ready for chicks.
DO NOT open the incubator from Day 18-21. Prepare your brooder and wait for the chicks to hatch. This process is not quick; chicks can take up to 24 hours to hatch. Do not try to rush the process.
The incubator should only be opened once all of the viable eggs hatch and the chicks have dried.
Step 7: Sanitize your incubator per the instructions on your incubator’s manual. Mine states to use a 1:10 bleach/water solution.
How to Hatch Eggs without an Incubator
The third method is to create an incubator-like environment to hatch chicks in- essentially, a homemade incubator. I’ve seen some YouTube videos on hatching eggs in a greenhouse-like setup, but I can’t see that working in many climates. I think for those who plan to purchase hatching eggs, it would be an expensive thing to mess up. If you want to experiment with your fertilized chicken eggs, well, it’s free at least.
I think you’ll need a few things to succeed:
- Hygrometer to track humidity and temperature.
- A heat source (preferably one that won’t burn down the house)
- An enclosed container to keep the eggs in…. that thick, hard foam you get as a packing materials for electronic items might work well.
- A way to create the humidity. You can probably just put a bowl of water next to the eggs in a closed container.
- The time to manually turn the eggs.
Moving the Chicks to a Brooder
After the egg hatches, you should leave the chick to dry. Once the chicks are dry, move them to a brooder. The incubator shouldn’t be open prior to that or the chicks may get chilled.
The brooder should have flat paper towels for ‘bedding’ initially, until chicks learn to eat and how to differentiate feed vs. shavings.
Chicks need a warm brooder to survive. While many people use heat lamps to warm their chicks, they can be a fire hazard and many farms have burned down due to their use. Here’s some good info on heat lamp safety.
Other options for keeping the brooder warm include using a heated pad or a brooder plate (more commonly used). I won’t get into the details of raising chicks in the brooder here, but hopefully this helps you get your brooder setup properly.
Free Hatching Printable!
I like to keep track of things in an organized way so I put together this super cute hatching printable. I put the time I turned the eggs in the box, as well as which side was up (O or X).
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