One of the things that has caught our attention since planting our roots in the country is the wealth of folk wisdom embedded in the English language. So many pithy phrases have their roots in rural slang, adages that would have been uttered by the Farmy version of Captain Obvious; not meant to be instructional, but reflective of common sense. Many of them are specific to farm life, and of these, many are specific to chickens. Don’t count your chickens before they hatch and Don’t put all your eggs in one basket come to mind frequently these days.
So how does this incubating business work?
Quite simply, it’s the mechanical mimicry of what a good, broody hen would do instinctively. “Broody” means this hen has retained her motherly instincts; many breeds of chicken, commercial or otherwise, have lost these instincts through genetic selection. On average, a hen can expect to lay an egg every 1-1.5 days – more frequently in her first year, with seasonal breaks in subsequent years to molt and then slow down significantly in response to winter’s diminished daylight. The Hen’s diurnal clock is acutely attuned to the amount of daylight throughout the year. Spring’s lengthening days are often inspiration for a girl to start feathering her nest. Literally.
You must understand that all of this egg-laying and even nest-feathering broodiness happens regardless of whether a rooster is present. Therefore, you need not have a rooster to harvest eggs to eat. Eggs are the result of ovulation, not fertilization. “Aha!” says anyone who has or knows someone with a uterus, but it’s a tenet of that formerly-common sense that’s been widely lost. Spread the word – this shouldn’t be a secret.
But you must have a rooster if you want chicks. Of course. While we’re on the topic of reviving lost farm wisdom, let’s call him by his name – cock. He, and the male member alike, had always been referred to as such, until the prudish Victorians got their feathers ruffled* and replaced the poultry term with one that less offended their delicate sensibilities. (the word for male member need never be uttered, so they left that alone, I’ll guess) I just gleaned this juicy tidbit from my new, favorite, dangerous-with-coffee book (The Small-Scale Poultry Flock by Harvey Ussery). But I digress. Back to the cock. In order to propagate his species, he must fertilize each egg before it gets to the stage where a shell is formed. All of this happens in the hen’s oviduct, so copulation is required. On a good spring day, it seems as if the cock does nothing but copulate, with no regard for his surroundings. He appears to be just as content to sow his seed right out my back door as he is right out the coop door; privacy plays no role in chicken sex. (thank goodness there are no Victorians around) A single visit by a cock can fertilize quite a few eggs within the same hen and remain viable for a surprising amount of time – up to 10 days in a healthy, fertile hen says my chicken book. Wowee.
*ruffled feathers are a sign of illness or distress in a chicken
At some point in all of this mating and egg-laying and growing daylight, the hen’s instincts kick in and she starts building a nest. Each day she lays a new egg in it, until there are enough eggs to trigger her to start setting – about a dozen or so. The interesting part is that all of the eggs, though fertile, have remained dormant until this point when she retreats from normal coop life to sit on the eggs. Heat is what triggers the embryo to start development, so the egg laid on Day 1 will be at the very same stage developmentally as the egg laid on Day 12. Which means all will hatch on the same day, about 21 days later. Therefore, to incubate our own eggs, we need heat. About 100°, says Momma Hen. She also takes care to remind us that, as a hot body always transpiring moisture to her very porous eggs, humidity is pretty important as well. As fake hens, we must carefully moderate the moisture level.
She sets on that nest day and night for those three weeks, breaking only to take a quick drink or bite and to regularly turn each egg. She does this with her beak mostly, and it is another crucial part of the incubating process. Rotation keeps the yolk centered in the white and prevents it from getting stuck on the side of the shell. Therefore – are you with me here – to bring these fertile eggs to fruition, we’d better be rotating them regularly. Four times a day, says Momma Hen’s diary, but she’s not paying attention. She’s just doing what feels right.
So. Fancy-breed chicken eggs (and some gifted turkey eggs too!) are in place within the incubator. The lid is sealed up. The heater is on, the fan distributing the balmy air evenly. A plastic pop bottle was stolen from a friend’s recycle pile, filled with water, and connected by hose to the incubator, bringing in the needed moisture. The automatic turning grid/device appears to be working. I am checking the temp and humidity levels with the urgency of a mother hen, clucking quietly and hoping for the best. But I sure as hell am not counting them or making any forecasts of what will hatch. No, Ma’am.