Spring has sprung. It’s the season for broody hens and chicks. If you’ve never had a broody hen you’re in for a treat: hormones trigger her to want to incubate eggs and hatch chicks. You’ll know you’ve got one when your previously docile hen has been transformed into a mini-Pterodactyl complete with screeching, pecking and fluffing up her feathers if you so much as look in her direction. Don’t ask what’ll happen if you try to remove the eggs she’s sitting on or move her out of the nest box.
Broodiness is something that happens – you can’t induce it. Some hens go broody often and others show no maternal aspirations. If you want to hatch your own chicks get a Silkie (who are perpetually broody), bantam or heritage breeds. If you’ve got a broody and don’t want to hatch eggs, good luck dissuading her.
The first two years I had chickens they were totally free-ranging. One of my Silver Grey Dorkings disappeared for six days and when she came back to the coop I locked her in overnight. By the following morning she’d forgotten about the unfertilized eggs she was sitting on in the woods. She was my one and only broody hen.
I gave those birds away and took a three-year break. I got four pullets and the following summer by Buff Orpington went broody. The next year she went broody once again. One broody hen all summer is a dream. There’s minimal work in separating her from the flock and taking care of the chicks once hatched.
I don’t know if it’s something in my water, but I’ve been getting more and more broody hens: last year, I had 17 hatches – some from hens who went broody twice, or three times, in a season. Added to that, I donated eggs to two elementary schools and got the chicks back – all 42 of them – and had one incubator hatch of my own. By the end of the season I was done. I love chicks, but by the time the fall rolled around I was exhausted.
My ideal scenario is to have one hen go broody each month during the spring and summer – maybe five, or six, hatches in total. I should only be so lucky.
One of my teenagers looked like she was going broody a couple of weeks ago. It was too early in the season so I gently lifted her off the nest a couple of times a day and she promptly abandoned the idea. Most of my hens are no so easily deterred.
The first time my Buff Orpington went broody I didn’t have a rooster and didn’t want to deal with chicks. I followed all the online advice: remove her from the nest several times a day, submerge her in cold water to trigger her hormones to stop her from being broody, put an icepack under her …. blah, blah, blah. She was having none of it, so after three weeks I gave her fertilized eggs and she sat for a further three weeks to hatch them. That’s dedication.
When I get a broody now I just give them eggs because it’s not healthy for them to stay broody for prolonged periods (they don’t eat or drink a lot during that time). People talk about ‘breaking’ a broody. I understand that they might not be in a position to have chicks, but it’s an instinctual behaviour in chickens. So much has been bred out of them I feel lucky when they’ve retained that.
Clearly I don’t have much success with deterring broody hens, but I do have a ton of experience with hens hatching and raising chicks. I’ve learned a few things along the way that you might find helpful:
Choose eggs that have the best chance of hatching: ones that are clean and fresh, not thin-shelled or double-yolked, most likely to be fertilized, and have a good shape (i.e. not irregular and with a clearly defined wider end where the air sac is). Some people wash or disinfect them, I just choose the cleanest eggs and if there’s a small amount of dirt on them I wipe with a dry, or slightly damp, cloth.
If you’ve got some special eggs that are particularly poopy or you’ve already put them in the fridge try them anyway. I’ve had success with those kinds of eggs, but less than ideal conditions do affect their viability. You’ve got limited space under a hen so make the most of that opportunity.
A hen can generally handle 12 eggs equivalent to the size she lays. So a bantam might be able to accommodate 5-6 standard eggs and a large standard might cover 14. I think to be on the safe side a maximum of 10-12 eggs will increase their chances of hatching.
If you have to store eggs then keep them at room temperature in an egg carton with the pointed end down. I ‘turn’ them by placing a book under one end of the carton to tilt it, and switching to the opposite end the next day. They’ll be fine for 7-10 days – after that they start to lose their viability.
I set up the maternity ward before putting the hen on eggs. I use a medium-sized dog crate and put a tray just a bit bigger than the hen in the bottom. I line it with a towel and then 2” shavings. I’ve found some hens move the eggs around a lot and if they hit the bottom of the crate they can get broken. I also like to limit the area of the nest within the crate so the eggs don’t roll away and get cold.
I separate my broody from the flock for several reasons:
- If she’s in the coop/nest box other hens will lay their eggs with hers. That necessitates you marking her eggs and picking her up daily to remove the interlopers’ eggs.
- A broody hen is often a cranky hen: squabbles can happen in the nest and eggs get broken.
- When she gets up – usually once or twice a day for just a few minutes – to eat/drink/poop she may come back to the wrong nest box and her eggs will get cool.
- When the chicks hatch being unprotected in the coop or up high in a nest box is unsafe.
- Make sure your hen is in a secure predator proof place. Often folks find their hen has gone broody when she’s disappeared and is sitting on a nest full of eggs and worry about disturbing them. Believe me, it’s always better to ensure they are safe than leaving them to the elements and potential predators. I just learned that lesson for the first time last week, when I discovered, too late, one of my pullets had gone broody and was sitting on a hidden clutch of eggs in the storage shed in my pen.
My main coop is divided into two sections – the coop and an area for storage/infirmary/ broodies where each hen is given a dog crate. I keep the crate door closed for the first 48 hours and let them out once or twice a day to eat, drink and poop. If she can find her way back to the nest within 10-20 minutes I then leave the door open all day and allow her to get off the nest when she wants.
The danger of leaving a hen in the crate too long is the eggs can get pooped on. Hens usually only poop once a day during this time and it is both massive and smelly. I have had four hens, each in their own crate, in this space and it’s worked out fine. Only once did an inexperienced broody go into the wrong crate, and an egg got broken in the scuffle. They also have a 4’x9’ fenced area they can go out to for dust bathing, which is critical for keeping mites and lice from being a problem. It’s a good idea to treat your broody for external parasites at the outset of her sitting. An infestation can cause her to abandon the eggs, or sadly, worse. Read: The Sad Story of Whitey & The Rescue Of Tracy’s Hatching Eggs.
My second coop – 4′ x 8′- is divided in half, each with three nest boxes. I can easily have one or two broody hens in each side with food, water, and a dust bath without having to let them outside till the chicks hatch.
I have also used this little coop (fenced within the main pen) a couple of times for a broody hen and chicks. It’s just the perfect size for one standard hen and a dozen chicks.
Food & Water
Although they often don’t eat much – sometimes not for 24 hours – they need to have access to fresh water and food. I put the dishes close to where they are sitting to encourage them to eat and drink. I try to give them their favourite snacks and high protein foods, because they can lose weight in those three weeks.
I don’t candle the eggs or bother them in any way. Of course, I’m curious so around day 19 I start listening for peeping. Most will hatch on day 21, but I’ve had some stragglers as well.
Some people have hens that will share incubation of the same eggs and then raise the chicks together. That’s great if it works, but I’ve also heard of hens killing the chicks in the fight to claim them as their own.
I have had some broody hens who started off in separate crates, but ended up sharing a crate when their chicks were a couple of weeks old. In both cases, one of the hens decided to go back to the main flock when the chicks were about four weeks old, leaving the other hen to raise all of them alone.
Once the chicks have hatched I remove the tray the eggs were in. I’ve had chicks climb out and not be able to get back in. There should be no impediments to them navigating their space.
You’ll want to make sure that newly hatched chicks don’t get separated from the hen – even by just a few inches – because the loss of body temperature at this stage can kill them. Several times I’ve had to rescue cool chicks. I’ve also had hens accidentally smother chicks by burying them in shavings and then sitting on them.
Chickens can’t count and contrary to what folks say about hens only abandoning unviable eggs I’ve found that to be untrue. Once a hen has a few chicks hatch she may get off any remaining eggs. If she’s given up on unhatched eggs you can candle them to see if they are viable. (I’ve not had great success candling, so I’m no expert). If you put the egg up to your ear you can often hear the chick peeping.
I’ve assisted chicks to hatch by bringing the egg into the house and keeping it warm under heat lamp and then returning the egg to the hen at night knowing she’ll sit on it for the next 10 hours or so. I’ve also had late chicks hatch in the house and then popped them under her, once they’ve fluffed up, with no problem.
One of my most complicated hatches involved a hen that abandoned eggs on day 6. I borrowed an incubator to finish the hatch, but on day 17 I had another hen go broody. She sat on them until they hatched, late, on day 25. You may find a hen who abandons eggs with viable embryos – be prepared with a back-up plan: an incubator or another broody hen.
I’ve been lucky with the health of chicks hatched by hens, but be on the lookout for early signs of problems: slipped tendon, spraddle leg or curled toes, which can be corrected with some help in the first day or two. Crossbeak can’t be fixed, but you may need to assist the chick with eating and drinking to ensure its survival.
Integration Into The Flock
I have fenced areas within my 40′ x 30′ pen for broody hens and chicks. From hatch day those chicks can see the main flock, but are protected. I decide when I’ll integrate them on an individual basis. I’ve never had any issues with birds bullying or pecking chicks, but there have been minor scuffles between some hens and the broody – usually if she is lower in the pecking order. I have lots of places for them to hide and get away from the main flock. I’ve had two roosters, both of whom have been good with chicks. Each flock is different so I’d suggest whenever you integrate birds – regardless of age or size – always do so under supervision until you are confident that they are protected.
Chicks require Starter crumble for the first 8 weeks, then Grower until they start to lay, when they transition to Layer pellets. So how do you feed birds of different ages different food? If the broody hen and chicks are penned together they all get Starter. When the chicks get integrated into the main flock I have a box that only they can access with a bowl of Starter (or Grower) so I don’t have to be concerned about birds eating the wrong food.
Coccidia is an intestinal parasite that can be a serious issue for chicks. Some people like to build their birds’ immunity naturally: exposure to pecking the ground and ingesting small amounts of pathogens will build their immunity over time. Others prefer to feed medicated chick crumbles containing Amprolium, a thiamine blocker, which prevents the parasites from reproducing. If your chicks are vaccinated against coccidia giving them medicated food counteracts the shots. It’s one or the other, not both. I don’t feed my chicks and I’ve never had a case of coccidia. Do your research and decide what’s right for you.
Water should be provided in a chick waterer or a shallow bowl with marbles in the base so they don’t climb in and drown.
Separating Hen & Chicks
I always feel a bit sad when folks sell day old chicks that have been hatched by a hen. Broodies are not living incubators. Those hens have expended a great deal of energy, sometimes at the expense of their own health, to sit for almost 24 hours a day for three weeks to hatch chicks. I leave chicks with the hen until she decides she’s done with them. It can be sudden or gradual. She might move from the crate back to the coop taking her chicks with her, or not – (if not, I carry them into the coop to rejoin her).
I have had bantam hens finish with their chicks at four weeks, immediately start laying and by the end of the week go broody again! I’ve also had others stay with their chicks until they were 10 weeks old or more and way too big to fit under her.
A couple of summers ago, I offered to hatch eggs for other people. They got the chicks and I kept one sexed pullet. One family wanted the chicks back when they were three or four days old so their kids could watch them grow up. I was assured that the hens wouldn’t care if the chicks were removed. Not so. One of them called and looked for her chicks all day, squawked at night and first thing the next morning ran outside to where their crate was, only to find it empty.
I got both clutches of chicks back that night – all were the same age, and returned in the same box. I worried that we’d get them mixed up. No worries, the hens called and their chicks went running to their respective mothers. It was a happy reunion and a lesson learned that I will never unnecessarily distress a hen like that again. (Not to mention I was pretty upset). I have found that, if you have to, you can take some of the chicks from a hen as long as you leave her others to care for. As I said before, chickens can’t count and are happy just being a mum.
It’s good to have a plan before hatching chicks. Will you keep or sell them? What will you do with the cockerels?
Chicks can be lots of fun. They are often the highlight of the season for me. Hatching, even with a hen, can also be stressful. Being prepared can reduce lots of potential issues and make for a happy hatch.