Sunday, June 10, 2012

How to Incubate Shipped Duck Eggs

I have wanted Ancona ducks since I read about their virtues in Carol Deppe's book, The Resilient Gardener. They are friendly, forage well, destroy garden pests and are good for both eggs and as a meat bird. They are also ridiculously gorgeous.

Ancona ducks come in a wide variety of patterns and colors
Image from 

Anconas are patterned like Holstein cows or pinto horses; no two ducks are alike and they can have spots that are black, brown, lavender, or blue in color.

There's just one problem - Ancona ducks are a critically endangered breed. There are very few hatcheries that sell them and those that do have a variety of issues (huge minimum orders, poor quality birds, and/or sold-out for 2012).

All of this persuaded me that there was no better way to get my own Anconas than to incubate eggs shipped  from an Ancona breeder across the country.

First, a little incubator terminology

An incubator is simply a device that holds fertilized eggs at the optimal temperature for embryo growth. You can make your own incubator on the cheap, or or buy one of the many models out there at a variety of price points.

There are two basic types of incubators, still and forced air. Forced air incubators have a fan so that air is circulated and the temperature is more or less equal throughout the incubator. Both types work well, you just need to adjust your incubation procedures based on your model's performance.

I was in a bit of a rush when I ordered my incubator. I had already ordered my eggs and I needed to get an incubator, pronto. I settled on a forced-air Hova-bator.

The bottom of the incubator

The Hova-bator's exterior is actually made of styrofoam. I guess that's why all those homemade incubators made from coolers work so well! The bottom is lined with a plastic tray that has channels to hold water. You control the humidity by adding water to the tray. Over the top is a wire rack. You can place your eggs directly on the wire and this is where the ducklings will be born. 

Automatic Egg Turner

Or if you are lazy and forgetful like me, you can buy an automatic egg turner. It plugs in and gently rotates the eggs once every 4 hours. If you don't have an automatic turner, you need to turn your eggs by hand three times a day.  This particular turner holds 42 eggs. 

I set the the incubator and got it to the correct humidity and temperature well before I put the eggs in.

The incubator was very easy to put together and came with easy to follow, full-color instructions. I set up the incubator in our basement storage room. The same characteristics that make it an ideal place for long-term food storage - steady temperature, lack of direct sunlight - are perfect for incubating eggs. 

Pre-heating the incubator

According to Dave Holderread, one of the foremost authorities on waterfowl and author of Storey's Guide to Raising Ducks, you should start your incubator at least 48 hours before you set your eggs. That way you can make sure you dial in on the correct temperature and humidity. For ducks, you want to start off at a temperature between 99.25 and 99.5 degrees F and about 55% humidity if you have a forced air incubator. If you have a still air incubator, your numbers will be different; check your manual. 

Some of my hatching eggs resting after their long trip

Challenges with Shipped Eggs

I located an Ancona breeder and bought 10 hatching eggs from her. I honestly don't need any more than five ducks, but shipped eggs can have a lower hatch rate due to the traumas of a cross-country journey. The lady I bought my eggs from was extremely generous and shipped 15 eggs. If I have an amazing hatch rate, I'm going to have to re-home some of the little cuties!

If you look in the right places, you can find hatching eggs of all sorts of rare breeds. Search for hatching eggs on Ebay or on the Buy-Sell-Trade section of the Backyard Chickens forum.

The seller individually wrapped each egg in bubble wrap and then packed them carefully in a Priority Mail box. As I took each egg out of the box, I candled each one to make sure there were no cracks and that the air cells were not detached in shipping. That sounds hard but it wasn't. I simply used a small penlight to shine a beam of light into each egg. I gently rotated the eggs to make sure the air cell was attached to its proper place at the large end of the egg.

Shipped eggs should be rested at least 6-12 hours before they are placed in the incubator. I received my eggs at 2:30 PM on Thursday and they were put into my warmed incubator at 1:30 AM Friday morning. I was up late working on our duck house project and couldn't wait any longer!

I have a thermometer and a thermometer/hygrometer to monitor conditions

Starting the Incubation

Place the eggs in the incubator with the small side down. If you are not using an automatic turner, simply put the eggs on the wire bottom and try to arrange them so the large end is slightly raised.

You should have a way to monitor the temperature and humidity from outside the incubator. My Hova-Bator came with a little thermometer to place on top of the eggs. I bought an additional thermometer/hygrometer. The thermometers don't read exactly same temperatures, so I just average the two.

If you do not have an automatic turner, you're going to need to rotate your eggs three times a day. Make a mark on each egg in pencil and that will help make sure you are rotating your eggs completely. The rotation is necessary to ensure the yolk doesn't stick to the shell.

The Waiting Game 

Ducks take about 28 days to hatch; chickens only take 21 days. For the first 25 days, the eggs need to be rotated and the temperature and humidity needs to be maintained. You should candle the eggs on day 7, 12, 19, and 24. This is a good link that shows what proper egg development looks like on each day of the incubation. Discard infertile or dead eggs as you discover them lest you find a nasty exploded egg inside your 'bator one day!

Holderread recommends spraying the eggs with lukewarm water on days 6-24. Supposedly this helps the eggs dry out the perfect amount for the ducklings to hatch properly.

On day 26, remove the automatic turner and stop rotating the eggs. Make sure you place the eggs with the large end up or the duckling may not be able to hatch out. Bump up the humidity as high as it can go without clouding the glass on your incubator. You are now on "lockdown" and you should not open the incubator until the hatch is over.

Once the ducklings have hatched, you can decrease the humidity, allow them to dry off, and whisk them away to the brooder.


It's only day four of our incubation process and I'm already watching over those eggs like a protective parent. Even though I'm not really supposed to be candling the eggs yet, I went ahead and looked at three of them. I think I saw the beginnings of veins in two of the three eggs. Good signs!


1) Storey's Guide to Raising Ducks  by Dave Holderread

Have you ever incubated your own poultry? Have any advice for me? 



  1. Excited to see them the babies are ADORABLE! We went to the feed store and they have chickens and turkeys. I said oh they are cheaper then buying from the hatchery...Well anyway we came home with 22 new chicks! 10 Buff Orphington and 12 Ameraucana(Americana)-we couldn't just leave the other 2 babies.

    I am not sure if you have heard of these but I found them to be a HUGE blessing! I am not enjoying cleaning out the chicken water a couple of times a day! We have used these and a 5 gallon bucket for our ducks and they have been wonderful!
    We did have a fatality as one night it fell as it wasn't secured but eventually we want to put them into a pvc pipe and run it outside for them.

    ~Mrs. W

    1. Mrs. W - Enjoy your new babies. It is pretty much impossible to come home from the feed store empty handed when they have babies in, isn't it? Thanks for the tip. I'm in the process of figuring out the best solution for feeding and watering chickens, ducks, and turkeys all at once, so this is timely.

  2. I would love to hear how your hatch went with your ducks eggs. I realize this is an old post but I too was looking to order Ancona duck eggs and I was looking for info on incubating them. I just hatched a bunch of shipped chicken eggs and wantedto try ancona ducks. I was going to order mine from a farm in Georgia. Where did you get yours from?

    1. Nine of the 15 eggs hatched. It was a good experience. :) I bought my eggs from someone in Massachusetts. I've gone duck-crazy and now breed my own.

  3. That's great, and thanks for answering my questions. Do you sell hatching eggs? Do you have pictures of your ducks? What color Ancona do you raise? I have read different opinions on humidity, do you think 55% for the first 25 days is about right then up it to 75%.

    thanks Stacey

    1. I have blue, black, and chocolate Anconas and I'm breeding to get lavender and lilac, too. I agree with those humidity numbers. You can also keep an eye on the air cell to make sure it is drying out appropriately.

      Here is a Waterfowl Breeder's directory: You won't go wrong buying hatching eggs from most of those folks.