|Ancona ducks come in a wide variety of patterns and colors|
Image from http://boondockers.sharepoint.com
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|
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?