An incubator is an artificial method for the hatching of eggs. In essence, an incubator allows you to hatch eggs without having hens. Incubators mimic the conditions and experiences of a brooding hen for fertilized eggs, including appropriate temperature, humidity, and ventilation levels. To successfully hatch eggs in an incubator, you need to properly calibrate the incubator and keep the settings stable throughout the incubation period.
Preparing to Use the Incubator
1. Find or purchase an incubator. You will need the directions to the particular type and model you plan to use. The directions given here are for a basic incubator that is affordable for most hobbyists.
2. Clean the incubator. Carefully wipe or vacuum off any visible dust or debris from all the surfaces of the incubator. Then wipe down all surfaces with a clean cloth or sponge dipped in a diluted bleach solution (mix 20 drops of household bleach in 1 quart of water.) Use gloves to protect your hands from the bleach and wring the cloth or sponge out before wiping down the incubator. Allow the incubator to air dry thoroughly before plugging it in for use.
3. Place the incubator in an area with little to no temperature fluctuation. Ideal room conditions are 70-75 degrees Fahrenheit. Avoid placing the incubator near a window, air vent, or any other area that experiences air flow or drafts.
4. Plug the incubator's cord into an electric outlet. Make sure you don't plug the cord into an outlet where it could easily detach, or where children might be able to unplug it. Check as well that that particular outlet is working.
5. Add warm water to the incubator's humidity pan. Consult the directions for the incubator to confirm the correct amount of water to add.
6. Calibrate the incubator's temperature. You must calibrate the incubator to ensure the temperate is correct and stable at least 24 hours prior to incubating any eggs.
7. Wait 24 hours to re-check the temperature again. The temperature should still be within the target range. Do not add eggs if the temperature has fluctuated outside of the target range as the eggs will not hatch properly.
8. Obtain fertile eggs for hatching. You will want to incubate the eggs within 7 to 10 days after they have been laid. Viability decreases as the eggs age. Don't attempt to incubate eggs you bought from a supermarket. The eggs sold in stores are infertile and will not hatch.
Incubating the Eggs
1. Wash your hands before touching the eggs for placement in the incubator. You should always wash your hands whenever handling the eggs or incubator after you have disinfected it. This will keep any bacteria from potentially transferring to the eggs or their environment.
2. Warm the fertile eggs to room temperature. Allowing the eggs to warm up will decrease the amount and duration of temperature fluctuation in the incubator after you've added the eggs.
3. Mark each side of the eggs with a pencil. Lightly draw the symbol of your choice on one side and then a different symbol on the other side. Marking the eggs in this manner will help you remember the egg turning sequence.
4. Place the eggs carefully into the incubator. Make sure the eggs are lying on their sides. The larger end of each egg should be slightly higher than the pointy end. This is important as the embryos can become misaligned if the pointy end is higher and may have difficult pipping, or breaking through the shell, when it comes time to hatch.
5. Allow the incubator's temperature to drop after adding the eggs. The temperature will temporarily lower after you've introduced the eggs into the incubator, but it should readjust if you've calibrated the incubator correctly.
6. Record the day and how many eggs you've incubated on a calendar.
7. Turn the eggs at least three times daily. Rotating the eggs and changing their position helps mitigate the effects of any temperature fluctuations. The rotation also helps mimic the behavior of a brooding hen.
8. Adjust the humidity levels in the incubator. Humidity should be around 45 to 50 percent throughout incubation, except during the last three days when you will want to raise it to 65 percent. You may need higher or lower humidity levels depending on the type of eggs you wish to hatch. Consult your hatchery or the available literature on hatching your particular species of bird.
9. Ensure the incubator has adequate ventilation. There should be openings on the sides and top of the incubator to allow air flow. Check to make sure these are at least partially opened. You will need to increase the amount of ventilation once the chicks begin to hatch.
Candling the Eggs
1. Candle the eggs after 7 to 10 days.
2. Find a tin can or a box that can fit over a light bulb.
3. Turn on the light bulb. Take one of the incubated eggs and hold it over the hole. You should see a cloudy mass if the embryo is developing. The embryo will increase in size as you near the hatch date.
4. Remove any eggs that do not show a developing embryo from the incubator. These are eggs are not viable and will not hatch.
Hatching the eggs
1. Prepare for the hatch. Stop turning and rotating eggs three days prior to the estimated hatch date. Most viable eggs will hatch within a 24-hour period.
2. Place cheesecloth under the egg tray prior to hatching. The cheesecloth will help catch bits of eggshell and other matter during and after the eggs hatch.
3. Increase the humidity level in the incubator. You want the humidity level to be at 65%. Add more water or a sponge to the water pan to increase the humidity.
4. Leave the incubator closed until after the chicks hatch. Do not open once the chicks are three days from hatching.
5. Remove dry chicks to a prepared area.
6. Remove empty shells from incubator and clean it. Once the incubator is clean, you can start the process all over again!