This video is of an Orpington chick hatching - it was filmed using time lapsed photography of a 2 sec clip every 30 secs, hence the jerkiness at the end but it's still worth watching and listening to!  This was one of 4 and was returned to her surrogate mother soon after hatching so as to keep warm and to bond with her.

Hatching eggs, in particular the hatching of chicken eggs can be a very exciting experience - especially if you have young children.

Advantages and disadvantages of hatching eggs

One way of extending your flock of chickens is to hatch your own eggs. Here are some things to think about.

Advantages

It is very rewarding and exciting to wait and watch the eggs hatch and the chicks develop.

It is a fun educational activity if you have young children.

If you have a broody hen it is a cheap way of extending your flock. If you do not have a cockerel to fertilise the eggs your hens lay you can buy ready fertilised eggs from most Poultry breeders. You can even order fertilised eggs online and get them sent in the post. Fertilised eggs cost about £1 to £3 per egg depending on the breed, although some breeders may be happy to give you some eggs. You will have to add about £6 postage for about 6 eggs if you order online.

Disadvantages

If you do not have a broody hen then you will need to have an incubator to hatch the eggs and then a box with a heat lamp to rear them for the first 6 to 8 weeks. Incubators cost anything from about £70 upwards depending on size.

You cannot guarantee the sex of the chickens. The likelihood is that half of the chicks will be male and half female, so you will have to be prepared to keep, find a home or kill the cockerels.

You will have to wait for about 5 to 6 months (depending on breed) after the eggs have hatched for the hens to start laying eggs. Whereas if you buy hens instead you can buy them at point of lay.

Should I use a broody hen or an incubator to hatch the eggs?

If you have a broody hen then you are likely to be more successful at hatching the eggs and it’s far easier than using an incubator. A broody hen has a maternal instinct and knows exactly what to do with her eggs. She keeps them at the right temperature and turns them a couple of times a day. However she can only sit on about 6 to 12 eggs at a time depending on her size, and you also have to wait for a hen to become broody. You will also have to provide a separate house and run for her to sit on her eggs and then raise her brood.

The main advantages of using an incubator are that you can incubate and potentially hatch more eggs at one time, and you are not limited to waiting for a hen to go broody. However you have to get the temperature and humidity in the incubator right and you need to turn the eggs twice a day (unless your incubator is very high tech and does this for you)!

Hatching eggs using a broody hen

You will know when your hen has gone broody. She will sit “flattened out” in the nest box in a trance like state, will stop laying and will object to being moved. She will have a bare patch of skin on her underside that will feel very warm. Some chickens will go broody much easier than others – many breeds – especially hybrids – have been bred to lay optimum numbers of eggs and rarely go broody. Good “broody” hens are Silkies, Pekin Bantams, and Orpingtons.

Ideally you need to prepare a separate area for you broody hen to incubate the eggs that is clean, safe, dark, draft-free, and away from the rest of the flock. The hen needs to be able to leave the nest to eat, drink etc. It should also be large enough for the hen to look after the chicks for a month or so after hatching.

Your hen will sit on any eggs – they do not have to be her own. Good broody hens can hatch duck, goose and other poultry eggs quite successfully.

Make sure you leave her with plenty of food and water – and the rest is up to her! Its best to leave her be and handle her and the eggs as little as possible if at all. She knows what to do!

Hatching eggs using an incubator

There are many types of incubators on the market which vary mainly according to how many eggs they will hold and whether they turn the eggs or not. As with anything, you pay for what you get. The incubator should control the temperature and relative humidity within the necessary limits to hatch chicks. You should follow the instructions that come with the incubator carefully. See the following website for tips on how to use and incubator to hatch eggs

Hatching time!

Chicken eggs will hatch after 21 days natural or artificial incubation. If you listen carefully you will be able to hear the chicks chirping from inside the egg. The first you will see is a tiny little hole in the egg where the chick has pecked through (called the pip). If you are using a broody hen she will cluck to her chicks to encourage them to break out of their shells. The whole hatching process may take several hours, and the chick will stop to rest, and absorb the yolk from the egg and the portions of the membrane containing a blood supply. The chick will soon use its beak to make the hole larger and will slowly turn its body around, cutting the egg. This will create an opening large enough to allow the chick to emerge from the egg. It will crawl out slowly and usually lie on its side completely wet. It will take a while for the chick to dry out.  If you are using a hen to hatch the eggs she will continue to lay on top of the chicks to keep them warm and protect them. Incubator chicks can stay in the incubator for a day or two and then they need to be moved to a separate area and kept warm under a heat lamp or similar.

Rearing chicks

If you used a broody hen to hatch the eggs, then all you will need to do is to provide her with chick crumbs, food for herself, water and shelter against wind, rain, and sun. A small arc type coop is ideal for this as it also provides a protected run for mother and chicks. Water needs to be in a container that the chicks cannot drown in. They can be transferred to a larger house and/or run when they are about eight weeks.

Incubated chicks need a heat lamp to keep them warm, preferably one with a ceramic bulb so that they have heat and not light. The heat lamp should be placed in a draught-free place and at one end of the box or area your chicks are to be kept in so they can move away from the lamp if necessary to regulate their own temperature. The chicks can be transferred from the incubator when they have dried and fluffed up. They need to be provided with a container with chick food that cannot easily be tipped over, and a container with water that they cannot drown in.

Sexing your chicks

It is not easy to sex chickens and you may not confidently be able to sex your chicks until they are 12 weeks old or more. Commercial hatcheries use cross breeding to be able to determine the sex at a day old as the males and females will be different colours – however for pure breeds this is not possible.

One method that has been suggested is to observe the chicks' behaviour when startled. Startle the chicks by waving a soft object over their heads and watch their reactions. The cockerels will instinctively stand erect with their heads upright and will emit a peculiar warning chirruping sound. The hens will tend to crouch down low and remain silent.

When a bit older the following clues may be used to determine sex. Cockerels will be larger than hens and their combs tend to be larger and pinkish compared to the hens smaller and more yellowish combs. Cockerels tend to “strut their stuff” and therefore stand up erect and alert whereas hens tend to hold themselves lower to the floor. Cockerels legs are longer and sturdier than hens, while a hen chick’s feathers tend to be more advanced than a cockerel chick.

Of course when your chick starts crowing you will know for definite!