The My Pet Chicken Guide to Incubation & Hatching

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Table of Contents >> Chapter 4

Chapter 4: Choosing between an incubator and a hen

Hen Considerations
Once you have determined that you're flexible and determined enough to try hatching eggs, you must decide whether you would like to hatch them in an incubator or instead hatch them under a broody hen.

Why a Hen?
Reasons to have a broody hen hatch eggs for you include first of all that it's simply wonderful to see a momma hen with her babies--it's fun to see them ride on her back and peek out from beneath her wings. It's adorable the way she will teach them what is good to eat, and how to scratch and forage for food. It is the most natural way for baby chicks to be raised. Plus, it's practical: when a hen is incubating eggs, you needn't worry about the power going out and ruining the eggs in your incubator. There are no concerns about the temperature and humidity being right. You needn't worry about a heat lamp in the brooder, because the momma will keep them warm. It is, all around, a fabulous remedy to many of the things hatchers often worry about.

She Needs to be "Broody"
Your hen may not be broody when you need her to be, and there is no way to "make" her go broody. Timing is everything. Broodiness is a hormonal condition. In fact, the hormone that relates to ovulation in humans (as well as to breastmilk production) is the same one that causes a hen to become broody: it is an increase in prolactin that causes incubation behavior. We have our own theories about how to increase prolactin levels in a hen based on studies of other animals--but no one has done any research on hens, yet. (Any takers?) That said, studies of other animals have shown that high levels of calcium are associated with high prolactin levels; one wonders if the reverse is true: whether an increased intake of calcium will cause higher prolactin levels (and thus incubation behavior). Anecdotally, my little Silkie hen, so inclined to broodiness, goes broody nearly every time I refill the oyster shell in the coop!

You'll Need to Invest in Special Equipment
Another reason you may decide hatching under a broody hen is not for you is that it is really no way to save money on the equipment you will need for a brooder. You will still need some special equipment, even for a broody hen. It is not the best idea to let her hatch her babies right in the coop with the rest of the flock. The reason is that often she chooses the "favorite" nest to go broody in. This is probably not such a big deal, except that she may have other hens crowding in and laying eggs on top of her. The crowding can cause your precious eggs to break, and having new eggs added to the clutch later in incubation can mean that toward the end, she may be sitting on too many eggs to effectively cover and incubate them, so some could die. Sometimes eggs can get broken or knocked out of the nest by accident, even if there is no competition for nest space with other hens. In the case of a broody hen, the success or failure of incubation is out of your hands, and depends on your hen.

For all these reasons, we recommend providing your broody hen with a safe "broody coop" where she can sit on her eggs in peace and hatch her babies without being accosted. Plus, if the chicks hatch in the main coop with the rest of the flock, the other birds may well attack the newcomers! While mother will try to protect them, the best scenario is simply to prevent this from happening in the first place by giving them a safe place until they are larger and mother has recovered a bit. These coops are our favorite broody coops, but if you don't want to buy one, if you're handy, you can probably put one together for use based on a similar design. It works well for very small broodies like Silkies, but it is too small for a larger bird to turn around in easily.

One Dozen Maximum
The last reason you may not want to have a broody hen hatch your eggs is that a hen can only reliably hatch a few eggs at a time. Bantams can't easily hatch more than six or seven large eggs at a time. (They will be able to cover more eggs if they are smaller.) Large fowl birds may be able to hatch 10 or 12 at the very most, depending on the size of the bird and the size of the eggs. When you choose to hatch under a hen, you are limited as to the number of eggs you can set. If you are hatching in quantity--and especially when you are hatching shipped eggs--you may want to try incubating two dozen or more at once, since incubation success with shipped eggs is less than for fertile eggs that have been laid on site. When that is the case, a single broody hen will just not do.

The Best Breed for your Needs
If you are decided on a hen, however, you will want to know how to choose the best or your hatching needs. Some breeds will never go broody, so if you are waiting for your favorite to get in the mood for hatching, it may be a very long wait! Our favorite broody breed for hatching eggs is the Silkie, but other popular favorites include:

There are plenty of other breeds that will go broody, but keep in mind that just because a hen goes broody, it is no guarantee she will be a good mother. For instance, some hens will go broody, but will not stay on the nest consistently, so few if any eggs will hatch. Some hens are so startled when the eggs finally hatch, that mother hen may attack the new chicks, not knowing what to do with these invaders, where before she had nice, round, warm (quiet) eggs! It is not a good scenario. Some hens will go out on their own, leaving the little chicks behind. Then, they may be "done" raising the chicks quite early, when the babies still may benefit from a mother's protection. If you have a choice, make sure to pick a good broody breed. If you find you have a hen that is a good brooder AND mother, thank your lucky stars, and be sure to let her hatch your eggs at every opportunity.

You can see a longer list of broody breeds when you use our chicken breed selection tool.

Other breeds may hatch eggs well, too, but at My Pet Chicken Silkie are our first choice to brood and hatch eggs, since Silkies are not only dedicated, but are also so friendly and fun. Broody silkies have even been known to adopt older chicks: mothering is just what they do.

Incubator Considerations
If a hen will not work for you for whatever reason, you may want an incubator. Be sure to have your chosen incubator on hand before ordering eggs. The last thing you want is to have your eggs ready to set in three days, but have to wait ten more for your incubator to arrive! Good planning is key.

Choosing to use an incubator is a different proposition than choosing a broody hen altogether. With an incubator, you should be prepared for the anxiety of waiting twenty-one days for your babies, coupled with the fact that YOU and ONLY you are absolutely responsible for whether or not they hatch! Worse, many people just won't "get" why you may be so anxious! Three weeks certainly doesn't seem like a long time to wait... not until you're the broody mom hatching your eggs. Once you begin incubation, chances are good that you will be anxious for three full weeks!

If you need help making your decision, give our free Which Chicken tool a whirl!

When I'm incubating, I quake everytime we have a storm, because if the power goes out, it can adversely affect how many eggs hatch! If it goes out for very long, it can even kill the babies in the shell. I have contacted my power company and requested to be put on a special notification list to be called about any scheduled outages. (Storm outages are not within their power to predict!) My experience with our local company has not been good, though: they still haven't called me about their scheduled outages, and they are quite unapologetic about it. The truth is that most people will regard the eggs you are doting over as just eggs, and they do not realize how much they are valued and how much they are worth. They may not understand how rare they are, or what you went through to get them. They don't understand waiting lists or rare breeds. After all, you can buy (unfertilized) eggs in the local grocery store for a dollar or two. They think: "What's the big deal with losing a few eggs?" We even heard one story of a relative staying over who "kindly" unplugged her hostess' incubator overnight in order to save electricity. All the eggs were ruined, and the guest didn't understand why her hostess was so devastated.

For that reason, we have a few tips for making sure your eggs will make it through the entire incubation cycle:

  • If your power company keeps a list of people to be notified about scheduled outages, request to be on it. (It can't hurt--perhaps your power company will be more responsible than mine!)
  • Make sure anyone who has the opportunity to interact with your incubator is informed about how important it is not to lift the lid, much less turn off the power.
  • If you have young children, make sure they understand what's at stake. If they're too young to understand that, then be sure to put your incubator out of reach. Many young children have been known to try cracking the eggs early so they can see the baby chicks they have been told are hiding inside!
  • If you have dogs, cats or other pets, make sure your incubator is in a place it won't be bothered. It's no fun to discover that your puppy now knows just how delicious eggs are at the expense of all your fertile eggs!
  • In general, it's best to keep your incubator on a sturdy surface that won't be knocked or stepped on, and in a place that has relatively stable temperatures, out of the way of drafts and direct sunlight.
Chapter 3: Where to find hatching eggs Chapter 5: Choosing an Incubator & Incubation Tips