There is much information on the net and various social media about the best methods for hatching Silkies and we have found much of it to be incorrect and/or confusing.
The methods and practices described in this article have ensured us a successful hatch of viable eggs every time. I will provide my tried and true processes from selecting a seller to hatch and some tid – bits of useful information and common myths as we go along.
Before you even think about purchasing eggs to hatch there are preparations to consider which may include:
- What is your goal for the hatch? Are the chicks to be pets or providers?
- How will they be housed from brooder to coop? and where?
- Am I prepared for multiple roosters ?
- How many chicks will I need for my intentions?
- What will I do with the chicks I do not want to keep?
- Do I have an adequate incubator ready to go?
- Where will I purchase my eggs ?
What do you hope for in a hatch of chicks?
Determining your purpose for a clutch of chicks is of primary importance. If your goal is to keep chickens for the production of eggs for the family table, the Silkie is likely not your breed. They lay small to medium sized perfectly edible eggs for sure, but they do not lay regularly and are prone to go ‘ broody ‘, which means they will attempt to ‘ set ‘ a clutch of eggs themselves and will nest even when there are no eggs to sit on. She will behave on the nest in these times as if she is tending a brood and will not eat or drink regularly, dropping weight as she leaves the nest only once a day.
The upside to this is they will usually naturally hatch and raise any fowl you put under her. I have had Silkies hatch and raise turkey poults and ducks. The downside is if you plan on regularly provided eggs for eating or for sales, you’re going to be downright disappointed by this ongoing and frequent behavior.
Aside from the often annoying behavior of broodiness, the Silkie is also the most frail and finicky of chicken breeds. She will stop laying at the first sign of significant weather change or environmental stress. Any changes to her flock or coop , any severe rise or fall in temps, sustained heavy rains, muddy quarters etcetera can cause not only a halt in laying of eggs, but also can trigger spontaneous molt and / or upper respiratory distress.
If pets are desired from your chicks, you are in good status to choose Silkies. The outgoing and respectful personality of even the Silkie roosters are renowned as being optimal pets.
Housing and Care considerations:
The Silkie is not an easy keeper. She is not an ideal candidate for free-range keeping as she has no instinct or defensive abilities for predators.
Her coop must not only be sound, but warm and dry with adequate room and ventilation. Silkies are prone to upper respiratory infections, mites and lice in their fluffy feathers, worms from ill-kept habitats, heat illness and difficulty keeping adequately warmed in winter.
Mud is an enemy of the Silkie, Her coop should be well roofed and there should be a covered area for rainy day exercise.
You must tighten the coop and run from top to bottom against predators. A snake can decimate an entire flock in one visit and a hawk will enter a run with an ill attached roof. We use aviary netting on the larger runs which can be purchased online and hardware cloth on the smaller tractor style coops. A snake can get through normal sized chicken wire. To be safe, one must invest in the sturdier product with the smaller opening of the hardware cloth. It is also beneficial to leave a ‘ flap’ of wire at the bottom all the way around to discourage digging by predators such as racoons and possums. We also reinforce that with a rail of landscape timber laid over the wire all around the coop.
Brooder option are myriad and range from the simple cardboard set up , which I do not recommend based on fire hazard and inability to keep well clean to complex designs which require expensive lumber and carpentry. We use troughs turned into brooders with placement of a screened lid using scrap wood and hardware cloth. They are sturdy, can be washed and sterilized and protective from predators. They also retain heat very well even if used in a non-environmentally controlled environment in winter. We have used them with day old chicks and two heat lamps above on a back covered porch. The beauty of our method is that we use old, out of service cow troughs refitted and secured for this purpose–troughs which would otherwise had been thrown out. If you can find them used, all the better. True farmers and homesteaders are very firm believers in ‘ use what you have’ and repurposing.
Plug any holes effectively and tape over any sharp outcroppings on the outside for your own protection. We used Gorilla tape on the one shown to cover the drain hole, which does not affect the interior integrity, but poses a hazard to humans working with the brooder. There are many options for brooders online with simple plans for inexpensive construction.
Keep the brooder clean and dry. I recommend pine shavings as bedding and using a platform such as a small saucer to raise the feeder and waterer above the bedding. Good indication that the chicks are comfortable is their relaxed appearance, scattered about the brooder with their bodies ‘ sunning’ beneath the heat lamp. A low cheeping and trilling indicates contentment. Chicks clumped together with ruffled presentation is a sign they are too cold. Chicks ‘ panting’ and huddled dispersed against the far wall away from the heat source indicates that they are too hot.
Silkie chicks mature and feather much slower than sturdier breeds. Often requiring supplemental heat for up to 8 weeks–well after they have fully feathered. The Silkie goes through spurts of growth for several months where they shoot up lanky and tall looking , then recover their fat covering over the breast for a time before shooting up again. They do not generally reach maturity for at least 10 months as opposed to 5 – 8 months for most other breeds.
If you purchase a dozen hatching eggs you should expect, under ideal circumstance, a hatch of 5-8. Ideal circumstances being in part:
- Carefully cultivated eggs from healthy chickens in a clean and well kept environment
- Carefully packed and respectfully transported eggs
- Environmental stability of the eggs
- Properly handled and prepared eggs pre-setting
- A sound and effective incubator carefully monitored and properly prepared
- A stable incubation period with proper , stable temperature and humidity
- Proper procedures during the hatch by the buyer
Many things can go wrong with eggs regardless to whether they are shipped or handled personally. They can be subjected to extreme temperature fluctuations and gross mishandling in transit. Most eggs shipped across country undergo travel through several means of transportation including cargo holds of airplanes. Cargo holds get terribly cold during winter months. Postal workers can be overworked, rushed , overburdened and simply human and downright reckless in their handling of packages clearly marked as ‘fragile’.
It is imperative that you purchase eggs from a seller who uses all the care available to ensure the greatest odds of your eggs arriving safely and still viable. We use several layers of cushioning in perfectly suited boxes that are labeled with bright, eye-catching stickers on all sides that the contents are very fragile and that caution is appreciated. Many other breeders do as well. If they are unclear as to their shipping practices, you should ask.
Since shipped eggs are less than ideal means of garnering them, one should reasonably expect a hatch of half. Often, if practices of incubation are sound, a more productive hatch is accomplished. No seller guarantees a hatch rate due to the many factors which can influence the process from the seller’s farm to the time of hatch. It is often the case that a buyer does not understand the process, the proper practices or the circumstances of shipped eggs and blames the seller for a poor hatch.
One of the most common misunderstandings is what constitutes a ‘ fertile ‘ egg. A fertile egg is simply an egg laid by a hen which has been bred by a rooster. That’s it. Even if set by it’s ‘ mother’ , there is no guarantee an egg will hatch. Even the most experienced chicken breeder cannot tell if an unincubated egg is fertile just by looking at it, even if one cracks the shell to check the albumen and yolk.
The white ‘ string ‘ that people claim is an indication of fertility is simply the chalaza, a protein strand which secures the yolk to the side of the shell. Even store bought , unfertilized eggs have the chalaza.
Another misconception is that one can open an egg that hasn’t developed and tell if it was fertile. If an egg has not developed at all, this is not possible as the germinal disc which is the beginning of the developmental possibility of an egg begins to degrade if the egg is not viable upon being subjected to the heat and humidity of the incubator. If it has partially developed then it is obviously fertile, but has become unviable and therefore, not the fault of a seller.
A third myth is that a fertile egg will have a spot of blood at the joining of the albumen and yolk or on the yolk itself. Again, this is a common biological matter wherein tiny blood vessels in oviduct of the hen rupture during formation of the egg and have nothing to do with fertility status.
One realistic ‘ tell ‘ is the aforementioned germinal disc; a tiny white spot on the yolk itself that is not stringy like the chalaza, but is a pinpoint white perfectly orb -like spot. This always occurs when an egg is fertilized as it is the beginning of the possibility of a sound gestation. Clearly, the problem with relying on this method of assuring fertilization is that the germinal disc either develops into a zygote : a pre-embryotic stage of division and vessel building or it begins to break down with the application of the heat and humidity of the incubator or hen setting. Therefore, unless you break each prior to incubating, you cannot view the germinal disc and that would obviously destroy the egg. They cannot be viewed with a candling as it would be nearly impossible to tell the germinal disc from the chalaza which always lies near it on the yolks inside the egg.
A ‘ viable ‘ egg is an egg that has been fertilized and properly maintained through the handling and subsequent incubation process. As explained, many factors from the health and cleanliness of the hen to the handling and transportation environments and setting practices can influence the viability of an egg. All eggs leave a responsible breeder as sound and fertile eggs fully capable of hatching if the circumstances are right.
What to do with unwanted hatchlings:
Let’s face it, there are a lot of roosters hatched by farmers and homesteaders that are unwanted and unwelcomed in many areas. There are many areas and neighborhoods which allow a homeowner or renter to keep a few quiet hens, but have ordinances against loud roosters which crow all hours , despite the cartoon’s portrayal of the greeting of the sun.
Silkie roosters kept as pets can be lovely. However, if your goal is to have eggs from your hens to eat you may not enjoy them being fertilized, sending your Silkie into constant broodiness. Roosters will also tear up the flesh of hens and often leave large patches of missing feathers on your fluffy hens by repeatedly mounting them. If your goal is not to sell or hatch fertile eggs, I’d forego roosters. If you want to keep a rooster for breeding to grow your own flock, I’d keep him separate.
If you hatch a few roosters you do not want, the most humane thing to do is to offer them for free to anyone who wants to take them over. Since Silkies are not considered a ‘ meat’ chicken, it’s little use to grow them out for the table. * An interesting side note: In some countries Silkie chicken is considered a delicacy due to it’s tender black skinned meat.
Selecting a seller:
If you have a friend or local acquaintance who raises Silkies, this is your most secure option for procuring viable eggs. If you know of a local , licensed and scrupulously maintained farm that offers Silkies , that option is just as well.
It is important that one is secure in the knowledge that the flocks are healthy and well cared for. Most farmers and breeders do not ‘ free-range’ Silkie chickens as the incidence of predatory loss is strong with the breed. Silkies have that fluffy crest that obscures their eyesight and they are neither fast , nor effective at defending themselves against attack. So, seeking out a free-range keeper is not always the best option, as most won’t be when it comes to this bird.
A licensed farm with current NPIP ( National Poultry Improvement Plan ) is the best option for buying eggs. The NPIP program not only comes out bi-annually to test for AI ( Avian Influenza) and Salmonella, but also inspect the living conditions, feed storage, overall condition and health of the bird and require that the fowl be sound examples of the breed. They have specific rules for keeping fowl which does not allow for breed mixing or close contact with other breeds.
It is also required by federal law that a person shipping eggs of any kind be licensed and provide a copy of their status in the shipment, though few honor that law, being caught shipping without NPIP certification can result in huge fines and/or jail time.
Having an NPIP licensed seller not only ensures one receives eggs that will produce a disease -free chick, it ensures one will receive an egg that produces a fine example of the breed. Farmers must pay not only for the licensing but for the testing and adhere to the safety and health protocols that being overseen by the government program requires. It is the sign of a ‘ serious’ breeder who keeps birds correctly and a business which is tightly and scrupulously run who is NPIP certified.
Incubators do not have to be expensive to be effective. We hatch regularly in standard household use styrofoam incubators. When I first started hatching chicks for sale from the farm, my husband bought me a huge brand new super controlled cabinet incubator. It worked great, but was huge and very noisy and ultimately, unnecessary. I found that the eggs I set in the household styrofoam bator weere just as likely to hatch as those in the three thousand dollar cabinet bator, if proper procedures were observed.
There are two things which are pinnacle to a successful hatch of any breed in any incubator:
The incubator MUST have a circulating fan. The still-air machines simply do not work effectively. The circulating air machines evenly distribute the warm air and humidity around the eggs regularly, keeping the eggs in a state of ‘ homeostasis’ or stability. If your machine came without a fan. you can purchase a simple, inexpensive fan kit online which is easily installed and connects simply to the heating element wiring which already exists.
Secondly, you must have a thermometer/hygrometer to monitor temperature and humidity levels. These can also be purchased online at various sites and retailers for little money.
Optional is the auto-turner rack. These are not necessary, but useful in many ways. With a rack you do not need to manually turn your eggs twice a day which not only can be mistimed or forgotten, it destabilizes the environment of the incubator regularly . Not turning the eggs regularly and gently could result in the chick embryo or yolk sace which feed the embryo sticking to the side of egg, stunting development or depriving the chick of nutrition so that it dies in the shell. If you can use a rack that regularly turns your eggs I recommend it.
You can find incubators used and in good condition on auction sites and social media markets. There is absolutely nothing wrong with using them if they are thoroughly cleaned and sanitized. I buy them as I see them at good prices just to have on hand , even for replacement parts.
Tips for the best hatch rate: Arrival to Brooder
- While waiting for your eggs to arrive, I always recommend going ahead with your incubator preparations. Make certain the unit is clean and as sterile an environment as possible. I wipe mine down with a weak bleach and water solution, then allow it to sun dry. It is imperative to use plain, unscented bleach. Many of the heavily processed, thicker and scented bleaches these days are infused with chemicals that linger like perfumes and/ or stick to the objects they contact, making them toxic to animals and detrimental to the incubator environment.
- Get your incubator going while waiting. Let it come to and maintain the desired temperature for at least 24 hours. If it is struggling to maintain a temp of 99.5-100.5, recommended for Silkie hatches, make adjustments slowly and with patience until you reach stability. If it is an automatic temperature devise, you will need only to be careful of humidity levels.
- When your eggs arrive, carefully unpack them and sit them upright ( small side down) in an egg carton for at least 12 hours to allow them to settle and come to room temperature before placement. It is notable that the only difference in eating eggs and hatching eggs is that we begin the incubation process. Just as we wouldn’t send our intended food from one extreme of temperature to another rapidly for fear of spoilage, it is likewise unsafe for an egg intended for hatching. Give them a minute. They have likely had long travels through multiple temperature ranges and environments. Let them accustom themselves to their permanent environment first.
- When the incubator and eggs have settled to stability, set your eggs in the incubator, then DO NOT open for any reason whatsoever for five days.
- Observe the ‘ dry incubation method’ for Silkie incubation as outlined below.
The dry incubation method:
There are multiple sources and material regarding hatching of eggs that suggest a humidity level of 50% or even as high as 75% ! This is fatal to many breeds of fowl including the Silkie.
Silkies incubate best in a dry environment: No applied humidity source. If your incubator has an external humidifier–disconnect it. Do not add water at any stage of development. A developing embryo will be stunted and die in the shell with too much moisture. Excess moisture encourages growth of all manner of bacteria and fungi which is fatal to the embryo. A pipping or hatching Silkie chick will literally drown in a humid incubator. DO NOT ADD MOISTURE TO A SILKIE HATCH,
The humidity level in a Silkie incubator should be ambient: what is naturally drawn from the environmental air around the unit. Even in dry climates, our homes are naturally more humid simply based on our cooling units and water sources present and used regularly in our homes. The most arid zones are still slightly humid based on a process called ‘ evapotranspiration’ which is the continual exchange from plants and man-made apparatus supplying moisture to the air around us.
Your humidity level in your Silkie incubation should never be above 20% if plausible. In very humid areas one might struggle to maintain a low humidity environment but if you make use of the vents on the bator by keeping them open and use an internal circulating fan as prescribed, it won’t get too much higher. There is sometimes a need at the end of the incubation process, right when the chicks begin to ‘pip’ that one must apply some moisture due to arid climate , indoor heating, etc. I recommend placing a clean, rinsed and wrung NEW sponge placed under a venting hole so that one can apply DROPS of water at a time until the humidity level is between 15 and 30%. NO HIGHER ! This act requires attentive ‘babysitting’ of the levels and should be avoided if possible.
Through the hatching process:
Your eggs are set and your temperature and humidity are stable. Once this is accomplished it is imperative that one does not open the incubator at any time , for any reason, unless one has to manually turn eggs. As mentioned before , it is best to use an auto-turner which removes the necessity of destabilizing the environment of the incubator. EVERY TIME YOU OPEN THE INCUBATOR YOU RISK SPOILING THE HATCH !
Silkie eggs do NOT require a ‘ cooling off ‘ period every day. This is a MYTH based on the fact that the mother hen leaves her nest once or twice daily to relieve herself, eat and drink. What this concept never takes into account is that she leaves the eggs for only a couple of moments and when she returns and settles on the eggs, INSTANT homeostasis :relatively stable equilibrium between interdependent elements, especially as maintained by physiological processes occurs. An incubator can take HOURS to recuperate a stable environment and if the external atmosphere has changed, it can struggle to do so.
Checking for development:
A check for embryonic development and supportive tissues should be done at day 5 or 6. For this process, I remove all of the eggs as quickly and carefully as possible with two bowls or basket lined with tea towels nearby to place the eggs in as I remove them and alternately as I examine them. I also keep a small bag or box at hand for discards.
You will use the ‘ candling method ‘ for this function, which is to apply a small flashlight to the small point of the in hand upright egg . There are flashlights available online at many outlets for this purpose which are fitted with a ‘cup’ to set tight against the end of the egg for crisper viewing and also some pretty pricey tools that magnify the internal parts of the egg such as an Ovascope , but any old flashlight will do if you cup your hand around the lamp end and settle the egg against the beam. You will see clear signs of life at this point if the egg is viable : Veins across the albumen and shell, a small embryonic development, etcetera. These objects within the egg should be bright against the light: yellow/red in coloration. If the visible object is dark or black, the egg has stunted and the developing embryo has died, if there is no development at all the egg is not viable and should be removed.
Failure to remove undeveloped or ‘ dead cell’ eggs will result in the contamination of the entire hatch and a poor result. As an egg deteriorates due to death of development or non-development , the heat and humidity of the incubator creates the perfect conditions for rapid deterioration which includes bacterial growth and build up of decomposition gasses. There’s nothing less pleasant than finding a rotting egg has exploded in your incubator. The smell is UnGodly and the results are tragic to the hatch.
I remove and check the eggs a second time at day 12-14. I have found that with most incubators and egg settings, losses will occur within the first 5 days and in the beginning of the final stage of development.
The same observations outlined above should be used, but it is easier to determine a ‘good egg’ from a bad one at this later stage.
Preparing eggs for hatch stage:
Sometime on day 18, we remove the eggs from the auto-turner and place them on the bottom screen of the incubator. While doing this, I wipe the inside down with a damp cloth and shake off the screen of dust particles if necessary. Yes, shells can produce dust and the circulating fan can and will draw it in throughout the incubation process from the surrounding environment.
Once the eggs are removed from the turner and set on the bottom of the incubator, DO NOT OPEN the unit again for any reason at any time. I have found that 75% of hatch stage losses are directly related to someone not observing this critical rule. Altering the environment of the incubator at this stage is asking for disaster.
If your incubator does not maintain a humidity around 15% this is the point you would place the sponge as described in the humidity section, beneath a vent hole. DO NOT use this method if humidity is at least 15%.
Pipping: breaking a hole through the shell in preparation of hatching
Silkie chicks are known to ‘ pip’ early; as soon as day 16. If an egg is seen as ‘ pipped’ prior to removal from turning devise, working as quickly as possible and skipping the wipe down of the incubator, remove all eggs from turner and place on bottom screen.
This is the most critical stage for the fragile Silkie. A Silkie chick will pip and ‘ rest’ up to twice as long as most breeds. During the period between pipping and hatching, the Silkie chick is drawing the remaining egg yolk sac up into it’s belly, which at this point is still open. The remainder of this sac provides the chick with a burst of energy for the task of opening the egg shell and nutritional supplementation for the first few days of life outside the egg. The abdominal wall closes around the umbilicus as the chick finishes this process. This also provides and clean and reasonably dry environment inside the egg for the chick to hatch.
PLEASE , do not feel that because a chick has gone long between pipping and hatching, it needs your assistance. Silkie can chicks can pip and rest for up to 48 hours; normal interval for other breeds being 12-18 hours. Interference at this stage by attempting to ‘ help’ a chick hatch by peeling back the egg will result in a chick with an unclosed abdominal wall, an unabsorbed yolk sac and the possibility of the internal organs being pulled outside the body all of which ensure the bird a short and miserable life for the bird.
You may hear the chick peeping and making odd sounds throughout this process. He is not in distress. He is a normal baby animal making normal baby sounds.
Once the yolk sac has been drawn up and the body closed over, the chick will have a brief rest period wherein it may be absolutely silent, then it will begin to work it’s way around the shell breaking it loose from the internal linings so that it may fully hatch. This is usually followed by another rest period before the chick begin to push against the sides of the egg to break free.
Again, leave the chick be . Do not attempt to help free him from the egg. Even though the yolk sac is generally absorbed at this point, the abdomen is sometimes not fully closed before the chick begins this process. Just like any baby, some are more eager than others . As mentioned earlier in the section on humidity, if you have a terribly arid home environment and your humidity in your incubator is less than 15% , you may add drops of water through the vent hole a tiny bit at a time as described previously. This may aid in moisturizing the shell membranes against sticking to the chick.
That being said, it is better to have to remove a shell bit later than to open your incubator during hatching. If you did not place your sponge beforehand, please let it go. A stuck bit of shell will not kill a chick, destabilization of the incubator may kill your entire hatch.
The final stage of hatching:
During the final stage, the chick will break free of the shell and lay out to dry. He will be fine in the unit until the entire hatch is over and all viable chicks have emerged. The yolk sac he has taken in secures his hydration and nutrition for a couple of days. This is why major hatcheries are able to ship day old chicks all the way across the country, they do not need to be fed those first couple of days.
Do not open the unit until all of the chicks are dry and warmed thoroughly. At the first sign of hatching, one should prepare the brooder. Transfer all of the hatch at once. If you have set staggered eggs–days apart, you should have clearly marked the shells so that you are aware when a clutch is complete.
Placing in the brooder:
Cleanliness , easy access to crumble and water and warmth are the focus of the day.
We place the shallow water and feed containers made specifically for small chicks on top of upturned saucers, pushed down into bedding to ensure they remain clean and easily accessible. We use shredded , soft pine shavings for bedding as it holds heat and is easily cleaned. DO NOT use newspaper for chicks ! It is the primary cause of ‘ splay leg’ as it does not provide ample traction for a chick to stand. Newsprint is also toxic and chicks peck at everything.
When you place your chicks, introduce them one at a time to the food and water by gently placing their beak tip in the shallow tray . If the tray is wide or deep enough for them to get into, place large marbles or smooth rocks in the water. Do not use open dishes.
Once settled, your chicks should be laid across the brooder ‘ sunning ‘ themselves beneath the heat lamp making happy noises –contented cheeps and trilling song.
If your chicks all clump to one side and seem distressed, chirping loudly and not making use of the heat source, they are too hot–adjust the height of the source.
If they are all crowded together close to the source and pussy in appearance, they are too cold.
Keeping them clean, warm and happy is your task for the next several weeks. Silkies mature slower than most breeds who generally are considered ‘started’ and no longer in need of provisional heat at 4 – 6 weeks. Silkie chicks can require up to 8 weeks to thrive without pampering.
Happy Hatching !