I just went off on a tangent about what incubator I wanted for eggs. Yes, I know this has nothing to do with anything – I haven’t had chickens since we had the girls — but since my whole life is one big non sequitur it actually makes total sense I’d use this moment to dive off this cliff. It gave me the excuse to go trolling across the interwebs looking for the best bang for our buck in my hobby delights, even if it’s a ways off before we invest in my bird obsession again.
That said, here’s a bit of disclaimer about getting into poultry and fowl: A lot people get into this out of some charming sense of being one with life’s processes. It’s actually a boatload of torment nobody sees coming. Only after the money is spent and the setup is complete do people realize that these creatures are often no more than terrible moving lawn ornaments that evolved from asshole dinosaurs. They are feathered drones capable of destroying gardens, running away, and getting killed tragically by the other forces of nature which are hungry and cruelly absent of conscious by the need to survive but also won’t even eat all they kill. That’s right – if raccoons, foxes, mink, weasels, skunks, possums, coyotes, or the neighbor’s dog gets into your coop they will most likely kill all your birds. They might eat a bird or two – but mostly just leave a massacre.
For those that can get beyond all that, if you live in the snowy version of hell like we do, unless you’re decent at picking out hardy breeds and anal-retentive about environment control, your egg layers may forsake you throughout the winter. Or they might all just drop over dead. Novices often blunder through this process, alarmed and upset their investment is actual work.
Some people get attached to their fat Jumbo Cornish X Rock crosses, a robust genetic combination that produces large roasters. You’ll like them because they are fat, lazy, and don’t go far — but then, suddenly, they can’t walk anymore and you need to swiftly dispatch them otherwise the meat gets tough and their legs break under their own weight. Some people get wise to this and buy other meat birds – and if they haven’t figured out how to just get slaughter done and let the birds go a few weeks over because summer gets busy, the whole flock turns into tough-as-leather chickens the size of turkeys that are unpalatable unless you have razors for teeth. On top of that, nobody who has ever had a bad chicken slaughter experience will ever help you.
And if you have ever slaughtered chickens you know what a shit-show it can turn into. It also smells revolting to the unseasoned novice. You have to find unsuspecting victims to participate in the process because NOBODY wants to hand pluck these things.
If the hobby continues, by some maligned form of self-hate conjoined with an insane love for raising these creatures, there are ‘traumatic loss’ experiences that define the limits of your sanity when raising these birds. Examples range over the vast expanse of emotional, financial, and physical loss. For me, my first really traumatic memory is the notable massacre of my 175 button quail by my mother’s adorable bantam chicks, who crushed and ripped apart my bumble-bee sized army of wee quails by scaling the brooder separator one day. I was, officially, hysterical. Then the nightmares of raising 75 pheasants which wound up dying of fright as they aged (they’d literally walk around and just … have a heart attack) and then, once outside, by a crafty fox that destroyed the rest of the flock and only took one bird home to feed her kits. Another incident was the mink or weasel attack of 2003 that left an entire population of chickens and ducks with their throats ripped out but nobody ate up was infuriating. And then the time when my favorite Cayuga duck turned into a tale of woe. The duck was known as Gimpy for his funny waddle, which he attained after being nursed back to health over a 2 weeks span. That experience had entitled him to sleeping next to my bed in a laundry basket full of paper towels, being hand fed every 4 hours electrolyte solutions and grain-mash. Gimpy was happily released to the flock and was doing quite well… before he became a chew toy for our Blue Heeler. His funny waddle set the dog off, and he chased Gimpy down, bit off his head in one whole chunk and swallowed it. When I found Gimpy’s body I cried – and then the dog threw the duck’s head up at my feet while I stood crying in my parents’ gravel driveway threatening to the dog. Last, but not least, was the horror of the resurrecting chicken – a bantam whose face had been ripped off by a raccoon we’d just shot. I was forced to dispatch the bird using a set of fencing pliers because it would not stop screaming in agony.
Still want to raise birds?
I know. It’s an incurable disorder.
Ironically, all the tragedies of raising these birds make us better at it. You become far more cunning than the death-dealers nature provides, you are swift to react when something goes awry, you don’t fret when a bird dies in bizarre, uncontrolled circumstances and you are never afraid to sell off birds, swap, trade or otherwise partake in the good stuff that does happen. When you can you do things better every time. You become quick on slaughter days and you realize real compassion is letting these birds have a wee life worth living for the time you can help sustain that. Predators become your prey by the time you have the coop situation figured out. In turn, your birds help sustain you — nutritionally, emotionally and mentally with the food, joys and challenges they provide, respectively.
For me that is no truer than when hatching eggs. The process itself, when it goes well, is most rewarding. Plus, it is cheaper if you’re good at it but being good at it means you need the right equipment.
Hatching a large variety of birds in the same incubator, with a good hatch rate can be most difficult. Anybody doing this for a sustainable food supply and hobby must accomplish this task so you can do so without losing your wallet on dead eggs or feeling burnt out on disappointments. Nothing screws that all up more than when your incubator turns into a freaking death-oven like some bizarre bird-version of mass murder, but on accident. Cheap incubators only really go to hell when you apply Murphy’s Law and have an expensive hatch of eggs after some possible decent hatches. Tried and true cheap ones just wind up goofing up because the flakey circuitry decides to malfunction, or god-forbid you wind up with a power surge. I know, I’ve been there, when the thermometer hits back to that apparent default temperature of 104.4°F and refuses to come down. While there are a huge push in new Chinese brand incubators that are super cheap as the market for backyard chickens becomes a thing in Vogue — it’s sort of like throwing a hundred bucks down the drain. Plus, with the new safety issues, these Chinese rip-offs now come with the neat capacity to CATCH YOUR HOUSE ON FIRE, while killing your clutch.
Top that off with the fact turning eggs is a total damn drag but worse is finding an incubator that can accommodate the variety of normal egg sizes. Chicken, quail, ducks, geese, partridge, and peafowl are all things I want to look into, and hence the whole kerfuffle for people who are serious enthusiasts needs something sturdier than Tractor Supply’s finer Styrofoam death-ovens.
I say all that but if you’re just starting eggs — go cheap before you make any sort of financial commitment. Best thing to do is to buy day old chicks and know what you’re getting into before you start this journey. Then start experimenting with small clutches in a cheap incubator. Then, if you still like it, work up to a bigger incubator, bigger clutches, and moving on up. And by then, there is no hope — your soul [and wallet] will be gone to the birds…