Hatching duck eggs is an awe-inspiring experience. Since domestic duck breeds rarely go broody (i.e. sit on fertile eggs until they hatch), using an incubator is generally your best bet. Various types of incubators work slightly differently, so it’s important to read the instruction manual for your particular model, but I wanted to share some general tips for a successful hatch to get you started raising baby ducklings. I much prefer hatching my own ducklings to buying ducks because I find the ducks I hatch are far more friendly as adults.
Choosing and Handling Fertile Eggs
Using your own fertile eggs is best when you’re considering hatching duck eggs since you know that the ducks are healthy and the eggs are fresh. If you don’t have a drake, or want to hatch some breeds you don’t currently raise, be sure to order your hatching eggs from a reputable breeder or hatchery – or pick them up at a local farm. Shipped eggs are often jostled or subjected to temperature fluctuations and often have a far lower hatch rate than other eggs.
If you are using your own eggs, pick some of average size that are perfectly shaped, preferably not covered with mud or manure. Don’t wash them, instead carefully scrape off any muck with your fingernail or a rough sponge.
Store the eggs pointed end down at a 45-degree angle in a cool location – around 60 degrees is optimal – until you’ve collected enough to fill your incubator. Rotate the eggs side to side several times a day to keep the yolk centered in the white.
Most problems with eggs not hatching can be attributed to old eggs with low fertility, rough handling, eggs stored at an improper temperature, improper turning, uneven incubator temperature or humidity, or nutritional deficiencies in the breeding stock. Hatchability declines each day after an egg is laid. Fertile eggs will stay viable for about seven days after being laid. After that, fertility starts to decline, so try not to delay too long.
Setting Your Eggs
When you are ready to put the eggs in the incubator, whether using your own eggs or shipped eggs, “candle” each egg to check for hairline cracks. You can use a regular flashlight and just cup your hand around the beam to shine it through the shell. Discard any cracked eggs. You can seal minor cracks with softened beeswax to prevent bacteria and air from entering the egg through the crack and killing the embryo. If you see a reddish ring inside the egg, that ‘blood ring’ indicates bacteria has gotten inside the egg and it should be discarded. Contaminated eggs can explode and contaminate other eggs.
It’s very important to wash your hands both prior to and after handling the eggs. Eggshells are extremely porous and bacteria is easily transmitted from your hands through the pores to the developing embryo throughout the incubation. Note: At this point, a fertile hatching duck egg looks exactly like a non-fertile egg, so there’s no way to tell which might hatch. You’re simply making sure the eggs aren’t cracked or contaminated.
Hatching Duck Eggs
Duck eggs should be incubated at a temperature between 99.3 and 99.6 (but again, check the setting for your particular model) for 28 days. The humidity level in the incubator is extremely important as well and needs to be monitored. Depending on the type of incubator you are using, the humidity can be controlled by filling small water reservoirs, or wetting a clean kitchen sponge and setting it inside the incubator. Humidity should be checked using a hygrometer, available from your feed store or online if your incubator doesn’t come equipped with one, and kept constant according to your incubator instruction manual.
As the embryo develops, moisture is lost through the pores in the eggshell, and the air sac in the egg gets larger. It’s crucial that the air sac be the correct size to allow the embryo room to grow and air to breathe before it hatches. If the humidity is too high in the incubator, the air sac will be too small and the duckling will have trouble breathing and breaking out of the shell. Conversely, low humidity will result in a larger air space, a smaller, weaker duckling and hatching problems.
Weighing each egg throughout the incubation process is the most accurate way to achieve the proper humidity levels for a successful hatch. Optimally you want each egg to lose 13% of its weight from hatch to day 25 of the incubation period. More detailed explanations of relative humidity and egg weight loss is beyond the scope of this article, but fairly detailed explanations can be found both on the Brinsea website and Metzer Farms.
If you are manually turning your eggs, you will want to turn them a minimum of five times a day – and always an odd number of times – turning 180 degrees side to side each time – so the egg spends every other night on the opposite side. This prevents the developing embryo from sticking to the shell and membrane.
Five days into the incubation, you should be able to see some veins when you candle the eggs. The air sac at the blunt end of each egg should have started to expand as well. By day 10, candling will show significant expansion of the air sac in the blunt end of the egg with more veins and dark spots. Any eggs not showing any development by day 10 can usually be safely removed as they are most likely infertile or otherwise not going to hatch.
Starting on day 10, the eggs will benefit from daily misting and cooling. Once a day, remove the lid of the incubator and leave it off for 30-60 minutes. The eggs should be left so they feel neither warm nor cold to the touch. Then mist each egg with lukewarm water and replace the incubator lid. The misting helps keep the humidity levels high and the membrane moist which assists the duckling in hatching. The misting also cools the egg surface temperature slightly as the water evaporates. Studies have shown this can greatly improve hatching duck egg rates, as it mimics a mother duck leaving the nest each day to find something to eat and maybe take a short swim, returning wet to her nest.
Continue turning, cooling and misting the eggs as described until three days before the eggs are due to hatch. At that point, one last candling should be done and any eggs not showing development should be discarded so only viable embryos remain. The incubator shouldn’t be opened from this point on. Opening the incubator causes the humidity level to drop drastically which can hamper the hatching duck eggs and inadvertently turning the eggs can cause them not the hatch. The ducklings are in ‘hatch position’ and disorienting them at this point can cause them to be unable to successfully break the shell and hatch.
Hopefully, if all goes well, on day 28 you will begin to see ‘pips’ (small holes or cracks) appear in the eggshells. After making that initial hole, the duckling will often take a lengthy break to rest up for the final breakout. This break can last for hours – up to 12 hours is quite common – and you shouldn’t be tempted to help a duckling at this stage. The duckling will then begin to make its way out of the shell, ‘zipping’ off the top of the egg and emerging from the shell.
The entire process of hatching duck eggs can take 48 hours or longer, so resist the urge to assist unless the duckling is nearly out but seems twisted or wrapped up in the membrane or is ‘shrink wrapped’ in a dried membrane. In that case, a bit of assistance in moistening the membrane with some warm water can be beneficial. Leave the ducklings in the incubator until they are rested, dried and active.
What to Feed Baby Ducks
You may wonder what to feed baby ducks. Like baby chicks, baby ducklings don’t need to eat or drink for the first 48 hours. They survive on the nutrients in the egg yolk they absorb just prior to hatching. Once they are dried off and rested and have been moved to their heated brooder, baby ducklings can eat unmedicated chick feed with a bit of Brewer’s Yeast sprinkled over the top for the niacin they need for strong legs and bones.
So now that you know the basics of hatching duck eggs, why not give it a try yourself?