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Natural incubation, in a quail or chicken context, occurs when the fertile eggs from a hen (or hens) are gathered into a nest……whereupon the hen places herself.  Genetically-wired to manage the whole process, the hen will spend the next 16 to 21 days turning eggs and keeping them at the optimum temperature and humidity……and not a thermometer in sight.

Sounds great?  So, why don’t we get the quail to hatch their own eggs?

I decided to start this post with a brief description of natural incubation – in anticipation of that very question.

The word natural resonates with tree-huggers and soul savers…..and with six-year old entrepreneurs who use their recently acquired counting skills to confirm that this is a business opportunity like no other.   All you need is a male and female quail, some feed and somewhere to keep them.   And then you start getting chicks and each chick is worth…….and so on.

As interesting as that might make the story for bedtime use, it’s not very practical if you’re planning on eating them because, while it works well for chickens, it’s a very different picture for quail.

Quail have been farmed intensively for over a thousand years so the brooding instinct is lost to most of them.

So, if we can’t rely on the quail hens to  hatch out more chicks, what do we do?

Broody bantams will certainly do the job – but that’s still a slow and uncertain process.  The fact is that consistent hatches of quail require artificial incubation.

To that end, we’re utilising a Hovabator forced air electric incubator with a capacity for 120 quail eggs.


The Hovabator – only cosmetic changes in over 30 years.

During my 35-year association with all things poultry and game, I’ve worked with tiny kerosene-powered still air machines right up to Multiplo and Petersime forced air incubators that held thousands of eggs but none of them has me quite so intrigued as this little machine.

The basic Hovabator concept has been around for over 30 years…..and what I’m using is fundamentally unchanged from those first machines.  It’s certainly a radical departure from what I’m used to.

My smallest past machines were still items of furniture (polished wood cabinets and all) and you could park a car in the largest of them.  While tabletop incubators are certainly not new, the Hovabator owns its own space in the marketplace for good reasons.

  • It’s lightweight – and features a moulded polystyrene cabinet.  For the resellers that means reduced shipping costs and, for the owner, it’s light enough to throw up into a cupboard when its not in use.  If you’re like me, space it always an issue – so being able to get an incubator up out of the way is a novelty for me.
  • It’s reliable – it’s using technology that has been proven over time.
  • It’s simple to operate and the instructions are comprehensive.  Interestingly, the same ether wafer temperature controller has been in use in the poultry industry.  Because it’s uncomplicated, you can maintain it yourself.  You can purchase a comprehensive range of inexpensive spares.

It’s design is very much like that of the WW2 US Army jeep.  There’s nothing on it that isn’t required to satisfy its core function.

That means it’s cheap to make…..and to own and operate.

If that was all it had, the little Hovabator would still be a good incubator to own – but it gets even better.

This little incubator has a feature that none of my former machines had.

Eggs undergoing incubation have to be turned from one side to the other – at least twice a day – more is better.  Between the innards of the egg and the shell is a membrane.  If the incubating eggs are not turned the membrane becomes stuck to the shell and the chick may be unable to hatch.

In very small incubators, the eggs may be turned by rolling them with your finger.  In more sophisticated machines, the eggs are contained in trays that slide into a frame – to be turned with a variety of hand-operated turning mechanisms.

In very sophisticated machines, all of the eggs are turned automatically…..and that’s what happens in the Hovabator.


The automatic egg turner for the Hovabator – removable for easy cleaning.

If you have a device like this, then your incubator need be nothing more a cabinet with racks – upon which we rest the auto-turn racks before plugging them in.  No more do my hatches have to suffer for my forgetfulness.  It’s a great day!

Now, let’s take a quick look at the top of the Hovabator.


The Hovabator’s minimalist control panel belies its stability and operability.

The two bright red bungs are vent plugs – they are removed as the hatch progresses – and the need for oxygen increases.  Two viewing windows enable you to confirm that, aside from the final 24 hours, the only movement that’s happening in the incubator is the egg auto-turner……that and a tiny computer fan.  The nice neat hole in the centre of the control panel is the vent that serves the fan directly below.

The shiny bit with the little turning key is an ether wafer temperature controller.  This was been the main method of temperature control in the poultry industry for many decades.   It’s simple, requires no knowledge of electronics and it can be very accurate.    The dark red bezel to the right of the controller is illuminated when power is flowing to the heater elements inside the cabinet.


The Hovabator is made for farmers – it’s reliable and repairable.

Inside the cabinet lid, we see the underside of some of the things we just looked at.

  1. Ether wafter capsule – simple and reliable.
  2. Micro-switch
  3. Viewing windows
  4. Operating light
  5. Ventilation fan
  6. Heating element
  7. Vent plugs

Incubation requires a combination of heat and humidity.  The heating element provides the heat.  Water is stored in a two-compartment plastic water tray in the cabinet base.  Only one compartment is filled for the setting period – the first 15 days.  During hatching, however, the humidity is increased to create the conditions necessary for the chick to break its way out of the shell – and I achieve that by filling both compartments of the water tray.

I should make it clear that my Hovabator may not be quite the same as someone else’s.  “You see, a Hovabator comes in an assortment of different mix and match options.

One of the real strengths of the Hovabator is its capacity for customisation.  Creative minds will find all manner of ways to adorn the existing Styrofoam cabinet……or to replace it with other materials……I suspect.  I spent hundreds of hours messing about with dozens of turning mechanisms and I never stumbled on the Hovabator auto egg turning mechanism until decades later…….and now I have one.

And it’s quiet.  There’s a soft whirring sound that comes from the turning mechanism…….and that’s it.

OK….while we wait for all of those eggs to hatch, my next post will deal with how we produce and handle fertile eggs.