Our farm is home to rare breeds of poultry, including Dorking chickens, Ancona ducks and Narragansett turkeys. Having offspring each year is essential to our mission of helping to save these rare breeds, but hatching and caring for chicks presents different challenges each year. We purchased an incubator four years ago to give us more control in getting consistent hatches; it has done well with both chickens and ducks. However, this springtime has shown us that we have a lot more to learn when hatching out turkey eggs—and that sometimes having chickens as a back-up still works best. Here are some of the pros and cons we’re finding with an incubator versus a broody hen:
• You can plug in an incubator anytime, but a bird will begin to brood only when she is ready. Last springtime was a warm one, and there were two Narragansett turkey hens that were willing to sit and brood in March. Heritage breed turkeys take a long time to grow, and beginning in March worked out perfectly to having turkeys for our friends’ Thanksgiving tables. Although turkeys had begun laying eggs in this year’s cooler spring, no hens were yet broody. Being “broody,” or being willing to sit like a “Buddha” on eggs for four weeks, is essential for a successful hatch. That is why we collected eggs in the root cellar, at 55 degrees F., until we collected 15 eggs to put in the incubator.
• You can “candle” eggs when they’re in the incubator—and that’s a lot of fun! Our candling set-up is merely a box over a desk lamp with a small florescent light inside. I cut an oblong hole in the box, barely the size of an egg, to hold the egg against and get a shadowy picture of what’s inside. Eggs are candled the first week to see if vessels are developing, and later to check the size of the air-sac. I’ve discovered that holding the egg with one hand, while cupping the other hand around the egg, allows me to see the actual movement of the embryo. I think this is as thrilling as a fetal ultrasound! After one week there is the marble-size blob. After two weeks the blob is bi-lobed and moving. After that it’s possible to see a wing or a head move. It takes less than 30 seconds to look at each egg, and leaving the incubator open that long is equivalent to the mother hen leaving the nest for food and water. I love getting in on the miracle of this new life!
• Mother hens have proven more reliable than our incubator this year. We just completed our second incubator hatch of turkeys, and neither could be considered a success. Four poults survived the first hatch and there are only two healthy babies from the second.
There were technical difficulties with the incubator both times that may have been factors - the turning-bar for the eggs wasn’t working for two days on the first hatch and the electricity actually went out during the second brood. You would have enjoyed watching us running those precious eggs out to the chicken house for the broody hens to sit on! The embryos were still alive when tucked back in the incubator and candled later that day. Such drama on the farm!
But the broody hens have also been our heroines other times these past two years. We had so many broody chickens, but no broody turkeys, early last springtime that I put seven eggs under two of the broody hens for the “fun of it.” Because chicken eggs only require three weeks of incubation, I didn’t think they would sit the four weeks that turkey eggs require. But the chickens not only sat, they hatched out 100 percent!
This year we no longer trusted the incubator when we began a second round of hatching. Therefore, when 15 eggs went into the incubator, we also put 12 eggs under four broody hens in the chicken house. The chickns net result wasn’t as good as the previous year because there were other hens who wanted to brood (see below), but eight of ten live poults came from the chickens, while only two poults survived the second incubator hatch. The eggs under the chickens actually began hatching two days before the full four weeks—and the incubator eggs didn’t begin hatching until two days after their due-date. I suspect that some of the poults’ nutritional-reserve may be depleted when they hatch so late and perhaps that’s why some didn’t survive after leaving the incubator.
• Successful brooding usually requires a separate brood house. The problem with letting a broody bird sit on her eggs in the hen-house is that other hens either want to contribute eggs or some hens also become broody and want to sit in the same nest. The original broody-girl quickly has too many eggs to keep covered, or eggs become broken as other hens jostle for position.
It’s best to have a separate place for brooding that’s safe from predators. If you want to move a hen when she’s sitting on eggs, do it in the dark and do it quietly. We have moved hens that have hidden under bushes or behind the woodpile into the “brood house” and they have continued sitting. Once the eggs hatch, we put mother and babies outdoors in a ‘baby chicken tractor” for continued protection from cats and other predators until they are large enough to go to the chicken house with their mother. The other hens accept the new chicks and respect that they are the mother’s to care for.
• The incubator can waste a lot of eggs—but so can the hens. Before this year, when hatching chicken or duck eggs (the latter require four weeks of incubation just like turkeys), we’ve had 80 percent to 90 percent hatch rate with the incubator. Although the hatch-rate for the turkey eggs was dismal this year, we’ve had a couple momma hens who were notorious for sitting on nine to 15 eggs, then waltzing off with five or six babies and leaving unhatched chicks—sometimes still cheeping in their shells! Perhaps this is Nature’s birth-control or her way to choose the strongest genetics.
It will probably take more years of watching eggs in the incubator and under hens to better understand what factors are contributing to each hatch. In the meantime, I will try to enjoy the new life without suffering so much with each chick that doesn’t survive!
Mary Lou Shaw homesteads with her husband on a 13 acre farm near Washington Courthouse, Ohio, where they grow most of the food that they eat. Mary Lou’s book, Growing Local Food, is available through MOTHER EARTH NEWS.