So you've decided to take the plunge and start raising a brood of urban chicken. Play this right and you'll have a nearly inexhaustible supply of fresh eggs. First, you'll need to manufacture a hen or two of your own. Here's how to get a chicken from an egg -- without sitting on it for three weeks.
The embryos of Gallinaceous birds like chickens, quail and pheasants develop in hard calcium-coated eggs, external to their mother. These eggs are incapable of generating sufficient internal temperatures to develop the embryo and therefore must be incubated by hens for a period of 21 days in order to hatch. In the absence of a broody hen, you'll need to use a mechanical incubator instead.
Incubators are, very simply, hot boxes. These enclosures are designed to maintain a specific, optimal temperature and humidity range over the course of a hatching. There are two primary types of incubator: forced air and still air. Still-air incubators don't use a fan to circulate the warm air while forced-air types, you guessed it, blow the air around. Both types are found in a variety of sizes with numerous options like auto-turning, electronic thermostats and hydrometers. The Brinsea Mini Advance, for example, is a popular forced-air choice. It holds up to seven eggs and features auto-turning, temperature and humidity alarms, and a countdown-to-hatch timer. For larger broods, the 1588 Genesis Hova-Bator from GQF Manufacturing can support up to 50 eggs in a self-regulating, still-air styrofoam box.
Once you've acquired an incubator, disinfect it with a 10 per cent bleach solution, then scrub it with sudsy water and rinse until you can no longer smell the bleach. This is especially important if the incubator is secondhand, as bacteria left over from the last hatching could foul this batch. After the incubator is dry, do a 24-hour test run to make sure the temperature and humidity are stable. The temperature should range between 37C-39C with an optimum temperature of 38C. Forced-air incubators will be a on the cooler side (37.5C-38C) on account of the circulating air. Never allow the temperature to rise above 39C for more than a few hours as it will cook the chicks in their own shells.
Humidity levels are very important, providing the growing embryo with sufficient moisture -- levels should remain at 50 per cent humidity for days 1-18, then increase to 70-80 per cent for days 18-21. The humidity also plays an important role during hatching. The small air bubble within the shell that forms during development provides the hatching chick an important supply of oxygen while it pips (breaks out of its shell). If humidity levels are kept too high during incubation, the chick may not reach the air pocket and drown in its own fluids, if humidity levels are too low, the chick may be dehydrated upon pipping and lack the strength to extricate itself from its shell. If a chick can't free itself after a half day, you are free to help it along by pulling the top of the shell off.
For the first 18 days of incubation, the eggs must be turned a minimum of three times a day to prevent the embryo from sticking to the shell membrane and deforming or failing. Brooding hens will do this instinctively but if your incubator does not include an auto-turn feature, you'll need to do it manually. Mark one side of the egg with an X, the other side with an O. Use a lead pencil, not a marker, and keep logs of both when you turned the brood and what side was up upon turning. For the last three days of incubation (days 18 to 21) do not turn the eggs, just let them sit there.
There's no sense in wasting your efforts on incubating infertile eggs but how do you tell a viable embryo from tomorrow's omelette? Through the process of candling -- holding the egg up to a light source to determine if an embryo is forming. Any white-shelled egg can be candled between days 5 and 17. You'll need a small cardboard box with an egg-shaped hole cut in it. Place the egg in the cutout and the box over a light bulb. If you see the shadow of a cloudy spot or solid mass inside, you've likely got a live embryo. If the inside is clear after a week of incubating, then you win nothing.
On the 21st day, the eggs should begin hatching roughly in unison over the course of 24 hours. Don't be in a rush to yank the baby chicks out of the incubator the second they're free of their shells. The yolk from their eggs has been absorbed into their bodies and will continue to nourish them until they've fluffed out and gotten their acts together. Chicks can go upwards of 48 hours without eating or drinking, but after 24 hours, once they've gained a bit of stature and become active, move them over into a breeder box -- transition housing between the incubator and the hen house -- with a steady supply of mash and water.
You can build your own breeder box out of a medium-size cardboard box (60cm x 90cm x 30cm). Just add an 8cm base of litter -- pine-wood shavings, untreated cat litter or rice hulls -- not newspaper -- a feeder, water and heater. The temperature should be roughly 32C in the box. Chicks can't digest whole grains yet, so feed them dry chick mash, which can be purchased from your local farming supply centre. Mash is powdered chicken feed designed for chicks. It's made up of the same stuff as adult feed is but hasn't been glomped into pellets for easier digestion.
When moving each chick from the incubator to the brooder, gently take each and dunk its beak in the water, making sure they drink. This teaches them where the water supply is and what it does. Also, baby chicks exhibit an odd compulsion to drown themselves during the first week of life -- reputedly because they just left a fluid-filled environment and are attempting to recreate it. They'll quickly grow out of this phase in a week or two but be sure to fill their water dish with marbles or small pebbles to prevent them from jumping in.
Over the next four weeks, the chicks will begin replacing their fluff with feathers, getting bigger and more inquisitive daily. Eventually, your brood will have grown strong enough to venture into the wilds of your back yard and their very own coop.