7 Rules for a Successful School Hatching Project
Hatching eggs at school can be a rewarding and enlightening school project! In fact, the owner of My Pet Chicken was first charmed by chickens during a hatching project at her grade school when she was little. After that project, she was a changed person! In her six year old heart, she knew for a fact that she would keep chickens herself when she grew up, and even help others to adopt chickens. I can picture her as a little girl making such a solemn vow, raising her tiny fist into the air to declare: "When I grow up, never will children of this country have to be deprived of chickens again--I swear it!" Cue the melodramatic music!
Well, years later, you can see from our website how her vow turned out! So, at My Pet Chicken, we have a definite soft spot for schools who want to organize hatching projects.
That said, though, hatching baby chicks at school is not something to be taken lightly! There are many things you will want to consider BEFORE starting your project, and if you've never organized such a thing before you may not even know where to begin. Let us help you! We can go over the top seven rules for organizing a successful hatching project, so you can make informed responsible decisions when you are ready to go.
Rule 1: Find homes for all the baby chicks you may hatch before you purchase eggs or even an incubator!
Firstly and most importantly, if you don't plan to raise keep all the chicks you hatch for your personal flock, be sure you have identified good homes for ALL chicks you may hatch--and do this before you make any purchase at all. Why? Because you don't want to realize last minute that you can't find homes for those chicks. Contact breeders, farmers or 4H-ers in your local area to see if you can identify people who would be willing to adopt. Whatever you do, keep in mind that the Humane Society usually cannot accept chicks... and even when they can, it is not an ideal situation at all. Here is an explanation of why that is, from a Humane Society in Missouri:
Incubating chicks is often more challenging than humans expect. Chicks that are not incubated properly die or are born deformed. The surviving chicks don't fare well after they are dismissed from the classroom. As a poorly-thought, insulting alternative, the incubation kits' materials instruct teachers and parents to give the abandoned chicks to a local animal shelter for "disposal" as the proper procedure; they believe it is the animal shelter's job to accept and either care for or kill the baby birds. Most shelters are either under-funded divisions of city health departments or volunteer-driven, non-profit organizations; both types of shelters are already inundated with homeless dogs, cats, puppies and kittens. Many shelters will accept the orphaned chicks rather than allow them to suffer, but - with no resources to raise the chicks - will euthanize them. Thus, the classroom's disposable "life" project becomes the animal lovers' responsibility and heartbreak.
This Missouri Humane Society has legitimate concerns, and they are eloquent about explaining them. My Pet Chicken doesn't agree that all hatching projects are bad by definition--the Humane Society doubtless only hears from people who were not responsible about finding homes, but we have seen too many successes to be convinced that they are all bad by default! That said, it is imperative that you are prepared ahead of time to have homes for the chicks where they will receive proper care.
Because My Pet Chicken caters to backyard hobbyists, when we sell eggs for hatching projects, in the vast majority of cases the teacher him or herself is a chicken hobbyist, so the birds usually go to the teacher's home flock. This is ideal, of course! The teacher gets to choose the breeds s/he wants to add to the home flock, and is involved in every step. Plus, the teacher gets to share something really special with students--something that My Pet Chicken's owner can attest that kids may never forget!
But we get questions, too, from teachers who are interested in a hatching project, but who don't know what to even consider when making plans. If you don't intend to keep the chicks you hatch out for your own flock, you must identify a responsible individual to take the birds afterwards. If you can't find homes for the birds you hatch, though, the bottom line is that proceeding with a project in those circumstances is cruel and irresponsible, and it could even model that irresponsibility to the students. That is why we have written this article.
Rule 2: Not everyone who keeps chickens will be willing to adopt yours!
There are many ways to find someone to adopt chickens, including local farmers, posting ads at a local feed store, contacting your local 4H club, placing ads in the local paper, or even simply contacting a friend you know who keeps chickens.
But just because you know someone or several someones who keep chickens--or just because someone responded to your ad--that doesn't mean you have a sure place to home the baby chicks you hatch! A theoretical "I might be able to adopt those" is not a firm commitment--it is just a promise to consider. Be sure to talk everything through first and make firm plans. When it comes down to the nitty gritty, your chicken friend may not have the space to add all the birds you hatched, or may not want the expense of additional feed. It may be that your friend decided to order baby chicks this year and now they don't have room for the ones you would like to rehome. It may be that they thought it through, but can't work out good logistics for the introductions.
What introductions, you may wonder? Well, if you have never had chickens before, you may be unaware of how very difficult it can be on young chickens who must be introduced into a new flock. Without adequate time and proper preparation for introductions, a new bird may be pecked and injured--sometimes pecked to death! If you don't know chickens, you may not realize you can't just plop the birds down at their new home without risking something tragic! They will be regarded as "invaders" by the flock they're trying to join. You can read a little about introducing new birds to an established flock here, so you can better understand what the baby chick you mean to raise and give away will be in for, and why it will be so important to coordinate this at every step with your adopters :
How do I introduce new chickens into my old flock?
It can take a month or more to make proper introductions--birds are very resistant to change!--and for that reason your chicken friend may not be willing to introduce new birds, even when they're free, and even when he or she showed a little early interest. It will usually require a special work to set up to quarantine for the new birds, and he or she may not have that equipment or be willing to spend money to arrange it.
Remember, too, that some people won't want to adopt and make introductions until the birds are large enough to be introduced, at six weeks or so... and by that time, many breeds will be close to fully grown. Make sure you have room to keep the birds if you must wait that long--make sure you have thought through every eventuality!
Rule 3: Coordinate breeds to hatch with your adopters
Any adopters you identify may have specific preferences as to the breed of chicken they adopt, because some breeds will be easier to introduce than others. When you have identified potential adopters, be sure to consult them on how many and what breed they would prefer to add to their flocks.
Introducing birds can especially be a problem when introducing certain fancy breeds like Polish or Faverolles because they may look so different than the birds from the main flock. If you are adopting to a large farm, they may not be interested in fat, friendly dual purpose hens, because they may exclusively keep high production breeds like Red Stars or Leghorns. Alternatively, some people, especially 4Hers, may ONLY be interested in adopting fancy breeds that they can exhibit at a poultry show. Your backyard chicken friends may be interested only in chocolate layers, or they may only keep bantams. They may have a fondness for a specific breed or color. You will be able to find adopters more easily if you offer to get the breeds your potential adopters are interested in!
That is why you'll want to consult your adopters before you purchase about what breeds they expect to be able to introduce without problems. You want the babies that you and your students tamed and lovingly hand raised to go to good homes.
If it is legal to keep chickens in your area and any students and their families might want to adopt, remember that chickens are flock animals, so each would have to adopt several (not just one!) and understand that roosters are a probability! If they are new to chickens, be sure to share this free Chicken Care ebook with them so they and their families can be properly prepared to care for chicks and chickens
Rule 4: Even when you've made arrangements for every chick to be adopted, Mother Nature can throw you a curve ball
Once your adoption arrangements have been made, but before you proceed with a purchase, you should understand that when you hatch babies at home or school, you won't have an expert to sex the chicks you hatch, so they will be a mix of males and females. Typically, they hatch out in ratios of about 50% males and 50% females, but that is not a guaranteed ratio! You can read about that at the link below. While this applies to ordering straight run *chicks*, the same math will apply when you hatch birds of your own:
How many of each sex am I guaranteed to get?
Remember, you will not be able to tell the sex of the birds you hatch until they are 13 or 14 weeks old. You can read about that here:
How can I tell if my juvenile bird is a rooster?
You will also never know for sure how many of your eggs will hatch. If you are getting eggs locally, AND if you do everything right, the hatch rate will probably average around 80%. With shipped eggs, the hatch rate typically averages 25% to 50%--and again, that's if you do everything just right! Even when your technique is right on, you may get a very bad hatch rate--or even a zero rate!--if your eggs saw especially rough shipping. Read more about that in our
free guide to incubation and hatching.
But because you can't control exactly how many will hatch and you won't know how many will be which sex, you will not be able to promise your adopter an exact number of hens, roosters or even an exact number of birds. We think this is Mother Nature's way of reminding us to be flexible... or maybe she's just a prankster. Either way, you will want to be prepared.
Rule 5: Include your students in the entire process--not just the hatching part!
These concerns about the ultimate well being of your birds is why raising chicks with the intent to rehome them is not an ideal situation. However if you take those responsibilities seriously, it can be a great teaching moment, especially if you include your students in the process of searching for homes. This doesn't mean your students need to adopt the chicks themselves. What it does mean is that they must learn about the responsibility to rehome any baby chicks you bring into the world, and learn about it from the get-go.
Hatching baby chicks doesn't have to be just an exercise in biology. It can also be an exercise in problem solving, thinking ahead, taking responsibility, accepting disappointment and making hard choices. After all, if you cannot identify good homes for your birds, it will be a great disappointment to your kids! But that is a teaching moment, too, and they can learn to be proud of making the right choice not to hatch chicks that will not have good homes. If you have to make that decision with your students, be sure to offer praise to the kids for being caring enough to make such a hard, disappointing decision. What a mature thing!
For that reason, discuss your rehoming concerns with your students as you go! Ask questions like these:
- I think we could learn a lot from hatching baby chicks this spring, but what will we do with the baby chicks we hatch since they need such special care?
- How can we find out about the special care the baby chicks will need?
- Where should we look to find good homes for any chicks we hatch?
- We've checked with farm A and B, but they aren't interested. What's our next step?
- We've identified some potential homes for our birds, so what do we need to find out from those adopters now?
- How big do we expect our chicks to be be the time our adopters are ready to take them? Do we have room to keep them that long?
- Who can calculate how much space we need for our brooder if we want about 2 square feet for each chick?
- How do we measure the temperature in the brooder?
- Who will volunteer to help clean the chick brooder?
- Why will it be important to wash our hands after handling the chicks?
- Can anyone tell us why deciding not to hatch chicks was the right decision to make?
... and so on.
After all, a hatching project doesn't begin at incubation, it begins long before when you start taking responsible steps to care for the living creatures you are hatching--they are totally dependent on you to provide them care. Just like you wouldn't have a "birth project" with a pregnant dog without making responsible arrangements to find homes for any puppies born, you don't want to start a hatching project without making arrangements to find the chicks a good home. If you can teach your kids to make such responsible decisions during the process, it's still a successful hatching project in our book, even if you don't get to incubate a single solitary egg.
Rule 6: Find the best fertile eggs for your needs!
Once you have identified good homes, you will need to purchase eggs, and you will want the best ones for your needs! This doesn't mean you need to buy the most expensive, rarest eggs around! In fact, in most cases--so long as your adopters are happy with them--you can hatch very common breeds that you can find locally, or even mixed breeds from a local farm flock. Generally speaking, we encourage those planning classroom projects to try to find eggs locally, if possible, so the hatch rate will be better. As we have mentioned, shipped eggs (from any source) have a reduced hatch rate due to the stresses of shipping: hot trucks, icy warehouses, pressure changes in flight, bumpy roads, turbulence and so on.
For that reason, when organizing a hatching projects at school, you will generally want to incubate more eggs of a less expensive breed so you can afford more eggs for the same cost and the risk for disappointment is lower.
That said, if you can't find acceptable eggs locally, My Pet Chicken has a special selection of less expensive fertile eggs for educational projects.
As you see, this inexpensive selection available for educational projects only consists of a hatchery choice assortment of a few friendly and popular dual purpose varieties that usually get along well with other birds in a mixed flock. If you want to order specific breeds from us, we don't offer an educational discount for our rare breed eggs, but do look around at other breeders. It may be you can locate someone who does offer such a discount!
Rule 7: Prepare your students--and yourself!--for the trials and tribulations of hatching
When you have a classroom full of kids, it can be very disappointing to get a bad hatch rate, so you will want to be sure to prepare them to understand both the best case scenario and the worst case scenario. If something goes wrong--if the temperature is off even by a degree, if the eggs aren't turned properly, if there is a power outage, if the lid of the incubator is lifted too often, if the eggs are handled by dirty hands, or even if the eggs just got shaken too much during shipping--your hatch rate will drop. It's possible to get a zero hatch rate, even when you are very experienced with hatching eggs--that has happened to me before!
Be sure to let your kids know about how delicate an operation incubation can be. Some kids are (understandably!) so excited they want to lift the incubator lid and handle the eggs. Unless you tell them, they may not understand that letting out heat and humidity so frequently can cause the developing chicks to die, and they may not understand how sensitive some incubator thermostats can be. A very small adjustment made by a well meaning child may send temperatures skyrocketing to 120 or more, way too hot. So, make sure everyone knows the rules of incubation, too.
If you do get a bad hatch rate, this can be a teaching moment, too... you can open the eggs to look to see what may have gone wrong as we direct in our troubleshooting guide.
This is an opportunity for the kids and you to play detective. Was it too hot, too cold, too dry or too wet? Did an overnight power outage cause a problem when many chicks died at day 13? To repeat, a hatching project can be a success, even if you don't get a single chick to hatch if your kids learn about responsibility and critical thinking.
Hatching chickens for advanced students
For most grade school projects, the kids won't generally care what breed is hatching--the only people that will care about that are their adopters. However, there can be additional educational value for older kids, in hatching a variety of breeds with different comb types, leg color, number of toes and so on... or in hatching a "blue" breed and testing the classic experiment by Mendel to see how many blue/black/splash hatch out. Most classroom hatching projects don't really touch on these differences, but for older kids it can be an interesting and rewarding project. So long as you are responsible in providing for the future of the chicks you hatch out, there are lots of wonderful things to learn from chickens.
And don't forget -- read our free hatching & incubation ebook!
Our free guide to incubation and hatching is full of tons of useful, how-to information. Even if you've hatched eggs before, it's worth a look over--you may learn something new!
We do wish you luck in getting this project arranged for your school. When you do, make sure to keep your eye out for the next little girl or boy making that solemn vow to grow up and always keep chickens! That will be someone with whom to stay in contact. After all, in a few years he or she will be able to provide some of the best eggs you will ever taste!