Learning how to hatch chicks at home in an incubator is such a fun project! The first time we hatched chicks in an incubator was four years ago. I was so amazed at how easy it was, the hardest part was waiting the 21 days for the fertile eggs to hatch!
It is so fascinating to incubate fertile eggs from our chickens and watch the baby chicks peck their way out of the shells 21 days later.
We’ve hatched chicks with a broody hen before and while that can be a lot easier with proper broody hen care, you miss out on the magical experience of getting to watch the chicks hatch.
The Best Incubator for Chicken Eggs
The most important thing you need to hatch chicks in an incubator, other than the fertile eggs, is a good incubator.
Before buying one a few years ago, I researched a variety of incubators taking into account the features and price that would fit in our budget.
Features of the best egg incubators:
When purchasing an incubator, I highly recommend spending a little extra money for the following features:
-Built in temperature gauge
-Built in humidity gauge, also called a hygrometer
-Automatic Egg Turner
-Ample space to hatch a couple dozen eggs (believe me, hatching chicks in an incubator is addicting and you’ll regret buying one of the cute little incubators that only holds a few eggs- bigger is better!)
Our Favorite Egg Incubator
We own two incubators, this is the first one we bought and my favorite that we own. It has a digital built in temperature gauge and humidity gauge which makes is so easy to monitor proper temperature and humidity levels in the incubator.
If those two levels fluctuate too much, it can negatively impact your hatch rate or even prevent any hatch at all.
The automatic egg turner is not a must have but it really is a time saver and makes it so much easier since you don’t have to hand turn eggs every day.
Our Least Favorite Egg Incubator
The second incubator we bought was this one. It was a last minute purchase from the local farm store and the only one they had in stock.
At the time, we were planning to hatch our second round of fertile eggs for my kids’ chick selling project when we had more customers on our chick waitlist than we had room for eggs in the first incubator.
I factored out the costs and decided it was worth it to buy another incubator. Unfortunately this one did not have the automatic egg turner.
This wasn’t a deal breaker, it just meant more work everyday having to hand turn every single egg in the incubator 2-5 times in 24 hours.
That might not sound like a big deal, but when you have to do it for 18 days straight for a couple dozen eggs it gets old fast!
Selecting Fertile Chicken Eggs For Incubation
If you have a rooster in with your flock of chickens, you’ll likely have your own selection of fertile eggs to hatch in the incubator.
Read our post on how to tell if a chicken egg is fertile to help make sure you have fertilized eggs for the incubator!
If you don’t have your own flock producing fertile eggs, then you may be able to find fertile eggs in your local community.
Folks often sell fertile eggs on Craigslist, Facebook and NextDoor. If you can’t find anyone local selling fertile eggs or you want a very specific breed, you can buy fertile eggs from hatcheries that will ship the eggs.
It’s important to have chicken eggs that are free of cracks or imperfections which are weak spots in the shell.
The egg should also be nicely shaped and average size. It is best to not incubate eggs that are soiled with manure since this can contaminate the hatch.
Where to Set up the Incubator to Hatch Chicks
Set up the incubator in your house where the temperature is steady, it is out of direct sunlight and not in a drafty area like near a door.
It also needs to be near a power outlet to plug the incubator in. We place our incubator on a shelf in the corner of our living room so we can monitor it everyday.
I know some folks who set up their incubator in a drafty old house that was always a bit on the cool side. It was difficult to keep their incubator at a steady warm enough temperature. Unfortunately this impacted their hatch rate.
How to Clean Fertile Eggs for Incubation
Sanitation is very important when hatching chicks in an incubator. Bacteria breeds in warm, moist places making the inside of the incubator the perfect breeding ground.
I handle all the fertile eggs with plastic gloves when I’m placing them in the incubator, when I need to turn them or take them out for candling. My dedication to keeping a clean incubator has paid off since we’ve had a 95% hatch rate!
Before placing the eggs in the incubator, I gently wipe them all down with a dry paper towel to remove any bedding or poop. If an egg is really messy with poop, I don’t take a chance and won’t use that one in the incubator.
There are conflicting view points when it comes to dry cleaning fertile hatching eggs or using water to wash fertile eggs. Here’s an article explaining how to wash fertile eggs for incubation if you want to give it a try.
How long does it take for chicken eggs to hatch in the incubator?
Chicken eggs take about 21 days to hatch once incubation is started. Once you place the fertile eggs in the incubator, make a note on your calendar what day you started the incubator.
Count out 21 days from the start of incubation and mark this date on your calendar so you will know when to expect the hatch so you can be prepared to watch and have the brooder ready.
I always err on the side of caution and let any unhatched eggs in the incubator another day or two past the twenty one days in case there are some that developed a little slower.
It’s important to not try to rush the process by increasing the temperature in the incubator since this can cause issues with the development of the chicks.
What is the ideal temperature and humidity for hatching chicken eggs?
The incubator must be kept at a steady 99-100 degree Fahrenheit temperature and humidity level of 45-55%.
Three days prior to the hatch date is the “lockdown” timeframe where you don’t want to open the incubator at all to preserve the steady temperature and humidity levels needed for the hatch.
The last three days the humidity level should be kept around 65-70%.
How to Turn Eggs by Hand in an Incubator
If you don’t have an automatic egg turner in your incubator, you will need to carefully turn the eggs by hand.
Since we have one incubator without an automatic turner, I use a pencil to put an X on one side of the fertile eggs going into that incubator. That helps to keep track of which eggs are turned each time.
To turn the eggs, I use a plastic glove to keep the process sterile and not introduce any germs or bacteria into the incubator.
Chicken eggs need to be turned starting day 2 through day 18. Do not turn the eggs the last three days! Eggs need to be turned about three to five times per day.
How to Incubate Chicken Eggs and Monitor Growth
We bought this helpful book, Chicken Life Cycles, that explains the life cycle of a chicken with pictures included.
It is a great resource for kids and even myself since I really had no idea what exactly went on inside an egg from day one to hatch day.
It is truly a fascinating process! This book explains the stages of growth which is helpful when candling the eggs to determine if they are growing or not.
We initially tried using a regular flashlight to candle fertile eggs from the incubator but it didn’t work very well. I invested in an egg candling flashlight and it works so well!
Seven days after putting the eggs in the incubator, we candle them to see if any of the eggs are not growing and need to be removed.
If they aren’t removed, you take a chance of them spoiling and possibly exploding all over the inside of the incubator which can be a giant, stinky mess that could harm the other eggs-yuck!
How to candle an egg in the incubator to check for fertility
To candle an egg, hold the flashlight on the round end of the egg where the air sac is inside. The flashlight will make the egg glow so you can see inside.
A fertile egg that is starting to grow will have a dark spot (the embryo) and a distinct spiderweb look inside the shell seven days after starting incubation. The darker the egg shell, the harder it is to see this!
If the egg is blank inside on day 7, I mark the egg and check it again on day 10. If there is still no growth then I remove the egg since it is not fertilized.
We candle the eggs again around day 14 to continue to monitor and verify growth of the chicks inside the egg.
By day 14 sometimes you can even see a head or little beak through the egg shell when candling!
If you see a red ring around the inside of the egg this means that something happened and the chick is no longer developing these eggs need to be removed from the incubator since they are no longer viable.
If you’re curious to learn more about every stage of chicken embryo development ,this is a great post from The Chicken Chick showing detailed pictures.
Watching Chicks Hatch in an Incubator
There is something so magical about watching life form and be born! A day or two before the chicks are supposed to hatch, we start to hear some peeping coming from inside the incubator.
The first time we heard it we thought some chicks hatched early, only to discover that we could hear them peeping from inside their eggs!
When the chicks are ready to hatch, they will start pecking the shell from the inside with their little egg tooth on their beak (this falls of later).
Sometimes the chick will peck through right away and come bursting out of the shell all slimy and awkward looking. Other times it takes the chick a little longer to peck through with some breaks for rest in there. It’s hard work pecking out of the shell!
Usually once they hatch, the chick will lay on the floor of the incubator taking a rest before getting up and walking around.
The first time we saw them do that we were so afraid they were dead or dying! But we quickly realized they just needed a rest from the hard work.
One thing I’ve read you should never do (and this is SO hard to not do!) is help a chick out of the shell. Often if the chick is unable to hatch out of the shell itself there is something wrong with it and it won’t be strong enough to be viable.
I gave in one time after watching a chick struggle to hatch for a while. I reached in and gently tugged the shell apart, allowing the chick to finally hatch.
After it took a much needed rest, it got up like the other chicks but it was obviously in distress and not acting like the other recently hatched chicks. Sadly it died within the hour.
What to do when chicks start to hatch in an incubator
When the incubator starts to get a little crowded with chicks, empty shells and hatching chicks, I quickly move dried off chicks to the brooder (here’s our easy, cheap chick brooder post in case you missed it!).
This gives the last remaining chicks a chance to hatch without being bonked around by the chicks running all over- it really does get a little chaotic in there!
If there are any eggs left that did not hatch on day 21, I usually wait one more day to make sure they are not viable.
One year we had a couple eggs that ended up hatching on day 22, well after most of the other eggs had hatched. I’m not sure why this happened but I’m glad I didn’t pull the plug on the incubator at the end of the day on the 21st!
What to Do After Eggs Hatch in the Incubator
When the hatch is all done, I clean out all the shells and mess left in the incubator. It is really important to clean the incubator out well and sanitize it.
Incubators should come with a user manual that will give specific instructions about how to sanitize it based on the type of materials it is made of.
I find it is helpful to sit the clean incubator in the sun for a day to let it air out and sun bleach some of the stains.
Then I pack it away in the box and store it in the shed until the next time we are ready to hatch chicks in the incubator.