The natural progression from buying hens, or rescuing them from a short life of toil and inhumane treatment, is to think of hatching some yourself. Given my obsession, it is understandable that I should think this is the next logical step. None of our hybrid hens had been broody in over three years, ever since Letty died, in fact, so we would have to do it the artificial way. Naturally, I discussed it with Paul, and he was rather doubtful about the whole enterprise, but supported me. I researched available incubators and took advice from Twitter friends – thanks @ChickenStreet and @oshea76 for the useful pointers. I was particularly impressed with @oshea76’s homemade incubator/brooder, and would have like to try my hand at building that, but in the end I decided that I needed an automatic incubator as I was still at work and would not be around to turn the eggs 5 or 6 times a day as required for hens eggs.
Having decided on the type of incubator, I had to decide on a make; both Brinsea and RCom had been recommended, but I eventually plumped for a Brinsea Mini Advance starter pack, which gave me an electric hen and a candler as well as a 7-egg incubator. Next, the breed of chicken I wanted to raise; this was very easy – Cream Legbar. I had tried on more than one occasion to buy point of lay birds of this breed, but they are not easy to come by, probably because they lay such beautiful blue and pale olive eggs. Again, Twitter came to the rescue, and put me in touch with @chez_ally, who breeds Cream Legbar and Barnvelder. She had fertile eggs available, so I placed an order for the incubator and the eggs, and sat back to wait for the joyous arrival.
The incubator arrived and was tested; the downstairs spare room, hitherto filled with junk, was cleared and cleaned, and a table set up ready for the incubator; a thermometer was placed in the room and the convector heater was brought down and set up so that it would maintain the room temperature at a reasonably constant 20C. The eggs arrived by post a few days later, beautifully packed in a polystyrene eggbox within a larger box filled with packing. They looked perfect! We left them in their box for 24 hours to recover from the journey, and switched on the incubator to heat up. The next day, I carefully wrote a number in pencil on the side of each egg and arranged them in the incubator; so far so good, now we waited . . . and waited . . . and waited. I had not realised how long 21 days could seem when waiting for a momentous event! I checked the incubator every day, topped up the water as directed in the instructions, and made sure that they were turning OK. On day 8, we candled the eggs, and found that all six had developed a large red mass at one end, some had obvious blood vessels, a couple had slightly smaller red masses than the others. This was very encouraging!
Paul built a large brooding box out of plywood ready for the happy day, and I varnished it inside and out to make it easier to clean. I also took advice on what to put as bedding for the chicks from Twitter friends. Some obviously used wood shavings, but @scrummycupcake suggested towels, as it was easier for the chicks to stand on, and could be rotated with clean ones every day or so. I liked this idea, and resolved to use it.
On day 16, we candled the eggs again. Only four showed a red mass almost filling the egg; the eggs that had previously been found to have smaller development on day 8 had not progressed and it was fairly certain that they had died. Sadly I removed eggs numbered 2 and 5, in case they exploded and infected the remaining eggs. When I cracked them, I found only yolk and a small white dot on the side; the red mass I had seen when candling was the yolk itself, nothing more.
On day 17 I increased the humidity, by filling the second section of the water pot. I wonder if I should have bought an accurate humidity gauge, as the incubator does not show this, only the temperature. Too late now! I have since learned that it is best to run the incubator dry until day 19, as humidity problems are a serious bar to successful hatching. I was certainly alarmed at the amount of moisture building up inside the incubator, and had to mop it up once or twice, so I shall definitely be trying the dry method next time.
There had been much speculation on Twitter about early hatching this spring; several experienced breeders found that eggs were hatching on day 19 or day 20, probably due to the higher ambient temperature – we were experiencing a very unusual heatwave in April 2011. So from day 19 onwards, I watched the eggs more frequently, popping into the room several times a day to see if I could detect any sign of movement, or any tiny sound from the eggs. Nothing. Again, I consulted Twitter, and @scrummycupcake recommended shining a bright torch at the eggs, so I rushed into the “nursery” and tried that. Nothing. I was beginning to wonder if I had got the dates wrong – surely there should be some sign by now?
Day 20 dawned, and I checked again, and again nothing. I reread the instructions that came with the incubator, and realised that I had forgotten to remove the egg turning plate on day 19 and put a piece of kitchen towel onto the base to help the chicks to stand more easily, so I got the towel and went back into the room, removed the incubator cover and took out the eggs. I removed the turning plate, and just as I picked up one of the eggs (egg number 3) to replace it in the incubator, it said “cheep”! A small crack had appeared in the top, and it was talking to me! So I said cheep back! Me, a grown woman, talking to a small blue egg! I rapidly returned all four eggs to the incubator and drew up a chair to watch. Nothing. The egg continued to cheep, but no progress was made on the broken shell, and none of the other eggs seemed inclined to start. I reluctantly went about my chores for the day, but could not resist checking on the incubator almost hourly, the egg continued to cheep periodically and I talked encouragingly to it, but it was not until 3pm that Paul noticed egg number 1 had also cracked near the top and was also cheeping. Frequent checks did not help, and no other eggs seemed to be eager to leave their shells. We cooked and ate our evening meal, and as I was taking the plates back to the kitchen, I popped into the hatchery to check, and there was a damp little bundle of bewilderment staring at me from inside the incubator! Egg number 3 had finally made it into the world! I spent the rest of the evening in the hatchery, talking to the chick and encouraging egg number 1 which was still only showing a small slit in the shell. By the time I went to bed, the chick had fluffed up quite well, and was staggering around in the incubator falling over the other eggs, and suddenly dozing off propped against an egg, which made me laugh! She was definitely a girl.
Day 21, and we found another damp chick in the incubator; egg number 1 had hatched probably only at 5am or 6am, but was already looking like another girl, although her head was slightly paler than the first chick (now named Amy after our 4-year old niece). I went out to open up the hens and give them their breakfast, and when I came back not half an hour later chick number three had appeared! The egg it hatched from had not even had a break in it that I could see when I had last checked. The first two chicks were now quite active, and rambled around in the incubator, kicking the last remaining egg, falling into the broken shells, and trampling over the newly emerged chick; I became rather worried for the hatchling, but did not dare risk removing Amy to the brooder yet as she was still not fully fluffed, so contented myself with removing the broken egg shells to give them more room. It still amused me that they could doze off at the drop of a hat, wherever they stood, even draped over the remaining intact egg.
I busied myself about the house for the rest of the morning, checking back every 30 minutes or so; it was nerve-racking waiting for egg number 4 to emerge. A small crack had appeared in egg number four, but no further movement, and I could not hear any cheeping other than the chatter of the hatched chicks. I made myself lunch and took it into the room to watch, and there was a larger crack in egg number 4. I set up the movie camera and was able to capture the point at which chick number four entered the world. After such a long struggle, she pushed her head out, and Amy started to peck her toes and eat the membrane! Once chick number four was fully out, she flopped about a bit, and the others trampled over her and her empty egg, and again I flapped like a Mother Hen! The new hatchling looked so small and vulnerable beside the others. The brooder was ready and the Electric Hen was up to temperature, so I decided to take Amy out of the incubator, even though she was less than 24 hours old. She was already banging her head against the ceiling of the incubator, and the newest hatchling needed a chance to recover from her ordeal. Amy was not very happy about the situation, and cheeped a lot because she could not see the others any more, just hear them, but I felt it was for the best. By evening, things had calmed down, and since chick number two was now also 18 hours old, I took her out of the incubator and put her in the brooder to keep Amy company overnight. The incubator was much more comfortable now, with only two chicks in it. The next morning, I transferred the two remaining chicks to the brooder, and watched their progress as they explored their new home. They all now have names: Amy for the first born, Blossom (number 2), Luke (the boy chick, named by our niece Amy), and Baby the last chick to hatch.
Our very first hatch had been a great success, despite our total lack of knowledge and experience. We learned some valuable lessons along the way: 1) don’t put water into the incubator until day 19; 2) don’t panic if nothing much happens until the very last minute; 3) candle after 8 days, and at least twice more (we would have caught the dud eggs earlier if we had candled after 12 days); 4) have everything ready well in advance, switched on and waiting in case you do have to extract a chick a bit early; 5) do enjoy the whole experience, and don’t worry too much along the way!
The chicks are two weeks old now. They have wing feathers and proper little tails, and they can fly and perch. If I sit with them after I have cleaned them in the morning, I get thoroughly hopped over; yesterday, they tired themselves out flapping and running around, and all sat on my leg and dozed off.