Craft your own guinea incubator, and learn how to troubleshoot their hatching. (All photos by author.)
Having incubated guineas three times now, I can attest that—despite the hard shells on their eggs—they aren’t any more difficult to hatch than chickens are. Not even when you use a cooler to keep them warm as I do!
On the Homemade Front
About ten years ago I decided the make-your-own-incubator instructions I found on the Internet looked like more fun than purchasing a boringly already complete incubator did. Of course, my idea of fun left much to be desired, since it involved having to check the thermometer and adjust the lid constantly over the course of 28 days to keep the temperature inside my cooler-turned-incubator “just right.”
My success at hatching 20 out of 24 eggs probably can be attributed to my elderly mother still being on hand back then. It was she who figured out how to convert a computer fan, so that it could be attached to the inside of the cooler. She also was there to turn the eggs and keep an eye on the temperature whenever I had to be away.
So, if you, too, choose to use a homemade incubator, you will be most successful if you have family members who are willing to help. Despite my discovering how much attention this type of incubation requires, I continued to use the homemade set-up for my later two tries as well. I had heard, from people who had used “real” incubators, that those sometimes produced no hatch at all. So I decided my more hands-on method might have its advantages after all.
What You’ll Need to Succeed
In addition to a large easy-to-read thermometer, you’ll require a lidded Styrofoam cooler which is about 14 1/2 by 12 inches at the top, 12 inches tall, and tapering to 12 1/2 by 10 inches at the base. A 15-watt incandescent aquarium bulb generally can keep this size cooler at about the right temperature of 99 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Please note that I said incandescent. That sort of bulb can be hard to find these days, but it must give off heat, which fluorescents and LEDs won’t.
You also will require a utility knife and super glue, the type of light socket kit that is used to make homemade lamps, a 6 by 8-inch pane of glass for a window, a power strip, a cup of water to provide humidity inside the cooler, and the aforementioned computer fan which has been converted so it can be plugged into your power strip.
Not to mention, of course, the eggs. For my first incubation, I purchased two dozen on E-bay from a farm in Texas. For the second, I bought a dozen from a local seller. And, for the third, I used a pile of eggs our guineas had laid themselves—about one and a half dozen that time.
You should opt for eggs that haven’t been chilled if you can, though I suspect the ones I purchased locally had seen the inside of a fridge and half of them still hatched. Those guineas have been my best behaved ones, so maybe that initial refrigeration helped them keep their cool!
Making an Incubator from Scratch
Use the utility knife to cut a window in the front of the cooler, slightly smaller than your pane of glass, and the super glue to affix the pane over that opening. You’ll also want to punch a couple small (pencil-diameter) ventilation holes in each of the remaining three sides of the incubator and attach your computer fan to one of the inside walls, with its wires running over the top of that wall to the outside. (I did that by duct taping the wires to the wall just above the fan.)
Finally, you’ll need to put together your light socket, following the instructions that came with it, and cut a hole in the lid of the cooler just large enough to insert that socket snugly—with the bulb on the inside of the box and the switch on the outside. After plugging both your fan and the light socket into your power strip and setting the thermometer and a cup of water inside the incubator, you should be good to go.
Marking the Spot and Hitting the Mark
Before laying the eggs on their sides in there too, draw an X on one side of each with a pencil and an O on the other. You’ll need to turn those eggs three times per day, making sure that the pointy ends always rest lower than the more rounded ends, and the symbols will help you determine when you have completed that task.
You should stop turning the eggs about three days before they are scheduled to hatch. Theoretically, that would be on day 25, but it’s been my experience that keets are impatient and like to break out about three days early—often beginning to hatch on day 25 rather than day 28.
During all those days, you’ll need to keep an eye on the temperature and try to keep it between 99 and 100 degrees. If the incubator gets too hot, crack the lid a little. If it cools too much, cover that lid with a blanket.
Don’t despair if the temperature occasionally goes a few degrees above or below the ideal 99 to 100-degree mark. I’ve seen that happen during every incubation and still had keets at the end of all three of them, though my success rate varied from 1/2 to 5/6. After all, as my dad likes to point out, hens don’t keep their eggs at a consistent temperature all the time either.
Home and Dry
You’ll need to have a box lined with paper towels ready for the keets. Since I keep them indoors when they are young, I can heat a box to 95 degrees by suspending an old-fashioned incandescent bulb above it. You should try to maintain that temperature for the first week and then drop it by 5 degrees per week—by gradually raising the bulb.
Allow the newly hatched keets to dry off a bit in the incubator before you move them to their box. They probably won’t be hungry or thirsty for a while, but you should provide them with a shallow container—such as an inverted screw-on-type jar lid—filled with bright marbles and water. The marbles theoretically keep them from drowning in that water and encourage them to peck at it. I feed the keets turkey starter in another shallow container.
If a keet appears to have difficulty standing because its legs are splayed, you can fix that easily with a band-aid on which the pad is about 3/4-inch wide. Cut that band-aid in half lengthwise before using one of the halves to create a hobble. Place the pad between the keet’s legs with the sticky ends of the band-aid wrapped around its legs just below where the “fur” begins. The keet probably will fall flat on its face a few times to begin with, but should quickly learn to stand on its own two feet!
Three Don’ts of Guinea Incubation:
– Don’t keep your keets entirely enclosed. We used a large TV box for our first flock, but made the mistake of leaving the lid shut when we weren’t feeding them. The keets would jump and scatter every time we opened the box because they hadn’t seen us coming. So they were much more high strung birds than those I kept in more open cages or dog crates later, though I did tape cardboard to the sides of those cages to make them less drafty.
– Don’t hatch guineas along with other birds, unless you plan to keep them separated afterward. I made the mistake of including a few duck eggs in my most recent incubation. Two of those hatched, and the keets seemed to consider the friendlier of the larger birds to be their mother. That, of course, caused some identity issues! Also, the ducklings always wanted to splash in the water dish, making a soggy mess.
The less friendly of the pair insisted on being in charge and letting all the little keets know he was. Fortunately, they did eventually rebel against their overbearing “father.” Until then, though, they weren’t learning to perch, because ducks don’t do that.
– Don’t attempt to hatch eggs late in the summer. I did that for the just-mentioned incubation because I didn’t want the pile of guinea eggs we’d found to go to waste. However, there wasn’t time to get the keets properly feathered out and properly imprinted on their surroundings before releasing them.
As a result, we lost a couple to the cold in early winter and most of the others drifted off at some point during the following spring. However, we still have the guineas from the second incubation, who had been given time to imprint on their surroundings as detailed in my previous article. So the ideal time to begin incubation usually is about mid-May. By the time the guineas are feathered out enough to be moved outside, the weather should be at its warmest.
Audrey Stallsmith is author of the Thyme Will Tell series of gardening-related mysteries, one of which received a starred review in Booklist and another a Top Pick from Romantic Times. Her e-book of humorous rural romances is titled Love and Other Lunacies. She lives on a small farm in western Pennsylvania.