As springtime rolls around again, we will all doubtless see articles on how to break a broody hen, but why should you need to?
A hen is the ultimate top choice in incubation and rearing of chicks, so why do many people choose to not have broody hens around?
The motherhood instinct is triggered by the increasing daylight. A hormone shift causes the hen to ‘set a nest’, she will then lay an egg daily – she may even steal from a nearby nest until she believes she has enough to sit on.
Then, she will sit on those eggs for twenty one days until the chicks emerge.
This article is about my experience with them and some do’s and don’ts of the broody hen.
Introduction to Broody Chickens
If you are buying for breeds that are not usually broody, be aware that they still can go broody on you.
Rhode Island Reds are not known for their broody ability, but three of mine decided to turn broody this past year!
Last year was my first year with broodies – a deliberate choice for the bantam Barbu D’Uccles.
What wasn’t planned for was the ‘infectiousness’ of broodiness! Three of my Rhode Island Reds and one Barnvelder decided they would go broody too.
The only problem was that their eggs weren’t fertile!
I gave some excess bantam eggs to one of the big girls and she successfully hatched out two chicks. I also had the good fortune to win some hatching eggs, so they were given to the big girls too and they managed to hatch out six Welsummer chicks.
If you intend to use the broody to hatch your eggs, make sure they are fertile. If you have a rooster handy that’s easy to do, if you don’t, buy some hatching eggs and slip them under the broody.
She may not accept them, so have your incubator ready!
Let’s look at what to expect when a hen turns broody and hatches chicks.
Is She Broody?
First, you need to know if she is broody, but how do you tell?
There is no mistaking a broody hen!
She will flatten out over her eggs, puff up her feathers to look intimidating and give you the chicken growl. If you insist on checking her eggs she may peck you, so wear protective gloves if necessary.
If she leaves the nest to eat or drink, she remains ‘bad-tempered’ and fluffed up – the other hens keep their distance from her usually, if they don’t she will growl at them.
All smart hens and roosters will back away from a growling broody….
She may continue to steal other eggs too, try to keep up with how many eggs she is sitting on, more than a dozen is not uncommon. She should be limited to how many she can comfortably cover.
Keeping Track of Broody Hens
Once she is broody you will need to keep track of her.
Dating the eggs is a way to keep track of the ‘due date’ of hatching, it’s also a good way to check whether the eggs are viable or not.
I use a pencil to mark the date on the eggs.
All but one of my broodies’ was tolerant of me checking and dating the eggs under them, I’m very fortunate. Some hens’ will abandon the nest if they are disturbed frequently, so disturb them as little as possible.
I try to candle the eggs once at ten days, but sometimes Mama is not having it. If this is the case with you, try dating and candling after they have gone to bed – it’s a bit easier. Alternatively, it really isn’t compulsory to candle the eggs – you will have a surprise on hatch day!
What Happens During Her Broodiness?
A broody will sit on her eggs twenty one days.
She will then nurture and care for her chicks for another four to six weeks after this.
She will likely take over her favorite nest-box for brooding. This means some of the other ladies are going to be upset.
There are a couple of ways to deal with this – either move her and her eggs to a special area, or place some new, temporary boxes for the other ladies. Personally, I leave them where they are in case she abandons the nest – most broodies’ like to stay put apparently, so moving her could prompt her to leave the eggs.
Broody hens are generally very dedicated to their nests. Occasionally you will have a hen abandon her eggs. If the eggs are still warm and you have another broody on-hand, you can try slipping the eggs under her and see if she will accept them.
If she won’t, this is the time for your incubator to be cleaned and fired up. I keep mine ready to go, just in case.
If Mama kicks a single egg out of the nest it’s usually for a good reason – it might be non-fertile, died in shell or some other problem. In this case Mama really does know best.
During the next twenty one days Mama will guard that nest, fluffing out her feathers to look fiercer and bigger than she is, she will growl and she can also deliver a mighty peck – so beware! She will keep those eggs warm, plucking her chest feathers so the eggs can be next to her skin, and turn them as needed.
This can be a very real problem for some broodies’. Once they ‘set’ their nest, they will generally leave it only once a day to eat, drink, poop and a quick dust bath, then back to work. Some broodies’ are fanatical and won’t leave the nest to eat and drink.
This happened with Rosie a year old Rhode Island Red. She started to look awful, feathers were ragged, she lost a lot of weight and it was very hot too. I worried about her dying on the nest.
My solution was to mix a small handful of eighteen per cent pellets with some water, added vitamins and electrolytes making a wet mash. I would put this in a small dish and feed her on the nest twice a day.
Apparently, she enjoyed the maid service because she would be looking for me every day for her feed!
After a few days, she decided to go and take a dust bath, take care of business and return to the nest. We kept up the feeding until she hatched her chicks, then gently moved her to a better spot for the chicks.
It has been estimated that a broody hen will decrease her nutritional intake by up to eighty percent! I can well believe it – the ladies look very ragged and tired after brooding.
If it is later in the year, a hen may go into the molt early and replace all of those worn out feathers
What Happens After The Eggs Have Hatched?
After the 21 days are up your chicks should have hatched.
Most hens are great mothers, but occasionally a hen will kill or severely injure her chicks, no-one really knows why, perhaps the chicken equivalent of post-partum psychosis, or perhaps something is wrong with the chick.
Be observant for the first few days, after that she should be just fine with them. In fact, she will likely be fiercely protective of them and the other chickens had better steer clear of her brood!
She will also keep the chicks warm and safe for those first few days until they get to be curious and start exploring their world. Mama Hen will always look out for her chicks and keep them safe from her flock mates and other perceived dangers.
If she does try to attack or kill her chicks, they must be removed for their safety and placed in a brooder unless you have another hen that is willing to take them.
Integration is a breeze when Mama does it! The other hens will give her and the chicks a good deal of respect and space.
Once Mama signs off on them (around ten weeks or so), they have to fend for themselves, but they are large enough and savvy enough to be evasive by then.
Would I do anything different next time? I really don’t think so. The hens’ did a fine job of raising some splendid little chickens that are now producing their own eggs.
On a note of caution – I had one hen who insisted on using a box outside of the coop. She would not be moved and was very aggressive if you went near her.
Her routine was to wait until every other bird had been put to bed and she would then go out to the compost heap for dinner. One morning I went to check on her and she was nowhere to be seen. I found a pile of feathers by the compost – a fox or raccoon likely killed her.
The moral of the story is to try and keep your broodies’ safe inside the coop if you can. A broody hen is somewhat distracted, so can be easy prey for a hungry predator.
I enjoyed watching the progress of the chicks with their mamas’- they seemed to take everything in their stride and were taught all they needed to know. I think this made them more confident around the other flock members.
In future, whenever possible I’m going to utilize my broodies’ and keep the incubator for back-up. I’m already looking forward to this season of little peeps!
Beware! Having little chicks around is addictive!
Have you raised chicks with a broody hen? Let us know your tips and secrets in the comments section below…