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Before You Incubate Eggs, Read This: Half Contain Male Chicks

 Teachers often ask us about incubating eggs at school to teach students about biology, chickens, farming, and food. We asked Chicago chicken keepers if they would like to get their hens from classroom hatching projects. Reflections: 

  1. BIOLOGICAL REALITY IS: about half of the eggs will hatch out male chicks – and there’s no way to know which before they hatch (except a new method that measures estrogen levels inside the shell.) Right after hatching, sex-linked varieties can be distinguished (boys from girls) by color of certain feathers, for instance. Otherwise, telling females from males is difficult until they are months older and start to show the characteristics distinguishing the ones that lay eggs (hens) from the ones who crow (roosters). Laying hens start to produce eggs at 5-6 months of age. Broiler chickens (females & males) are bred to size up for meat and be killed at 6-8 weeks, LONG before they are old enough to crow or to lay eggs. Most people want their investment in feed to pay off in eggs, not to find out then that their GIRL is in fact a BOY. Roosters’ crowing is a big reason for complaint calls to the city, and roosters are hard to find long-term homes for outside the city.  Hatcheries and the poultry industry dispose of millions of male chicks at birth, except for those that were bred for meat, or the few that are for fertilizing eggs. An estimated 250 million male chicks are turned into feed and fertilizer each year, right after they hatch. (Compared with some other sites I saw, this one is relatively undisturbing - wikipedia: chick culling.
  2. Commercial hatcheries offer a variety of breeds, distinguish females from males, and also vaccinate chicks against common illnesses that chickens are susceptible to getting from wild birds and other poultry. 
  3. Raising young chicks can be a great learning project even without hatching the eggs – day-old chicks arrive in the mail and need immediate care and tending (brooder, special feed, good monitoring). One chicken keeper suggested classrooms get day-old female chicks from a hatchery, raise them to pullet age (young hen), and encourage students/families to take them from there. They can learn about raising city chickens at one of our Basic Backyard Chicken Care Workshops! 

 TEACHERS: If you decide to incubate eggs, we suggest locating people ahead of time who will take the chicks after they hatch, and then ordering breeds those people select. BUT this won't solve the problem of 50% of eggs hatching as unwanted males. Advanced biology project: sperm selection and artificial insemination for all-girl eggs? Another option - incubate Japanese quail eggs, which hatch and mature faster, and finding homes for both male and female quails is easier...especially if OK with them eventually becoming food.