I’ve talked to folks who’ve never had a broody hen. I must have their share as I have more hens that want to go broody, than not. I love having chicks, but I wish their hatches were spread out more evenly throughout the season. My earliest hatch was at the end of March and the latest, on November 11th. Most, however, are April-June, with several hens going broody, or having chicks, at the same time. That overlap complicates things, but there are some side benefits.
I’ve never let hens sit on eggs together; I always put them in separate dog crates/maternity coop when they first start sitting to prevent egg breakage from squabbles or hens going back to the wrong nest, leaving their eggs to go cold. Once the chicks are mobile the family is moved to one of several outdoor pens, which is often shared by another hen and her hatch. On a couple of occasions those hens have voluntarily chosen to bunk in the same dog crate and share their chicks. In each instance, one mother was done with her chicks before her co-parent, when she headed back to the main coop leaving the other hen to finish raising all the chicks on her own.
The other advantage of having hens synchronize sitting on eggs is having a ready-made incubator to rescue abandoned, but viable, eggs. Contrary to popular belief, hens do not always know which eggs are duds or not. Once their chicks hatch, especially if they have hatched over several days, she’s done sitting. She’s ready to get back to the land of the living, bored with being cooped up for almost 24 hours a day for three weeks. That means she often just gets off any remaining eggs and takes her chicks to a new spot in the coop or the yard. Sometimes those eggs aren’t viable, but sometimes there’s an embryo waiting to hatch. When I haven’t had a broody hen I’ve hatched them under a heat lamp, or borrowed an incubator, returning any fluffed chicks back to their mothers. That intervention requires some work on my part and I’m all about minimizing my work load. That’s where other broody hens come in.
On several occasions when I’ve had multiple hens sitting I’ve moved abandoned eggs from one to another and then returned any hatched chicks to the original hen. I often can’t leave the chicks with the second hen, whose eggs aren’t quite ready to hatch, for fear that once she’s got some live littles she’ll abandon her own eggs.
This year I had three hens – Pixie, Lucy & Nox – go broody and put them on eggs on three successive days. Pixie’s eggs were set to hatch on a Monday. Two hatched the following day and then one more on Wednesday. Lucy’s expected hatch was a day later. Most chicks hatch around day 21, some a bit earlier or later, some all in one day or some staggered over a few days. I was concerned that once Pixie had three chicks by day 24 she’d get up off the remaining eggs while I was at work.
I couldn’t move her eggs to the two other broody hens for lack of space under them. I had a fourth hen, Ginger, sitting on 10 eggs so there was no room under her. A fifth, Ruby, had gone broody but I’d been removing the eggs from under her daily, trying to dissuade her from sitting. No such luck. When I don’t want more chicks I often move already incubated eggs from one hen to another, giving some to each of them. That was my plan for Ruby.
So going into day 24 I removed six of Pixie’s eggs, marked them with a sharpie, and gave them to Ruby. Then I went to check on Lucy. Six of her chicks had hatched and she had already left the other six eggs. That was not in my plans, but the eggs were cooling so I put one under Nox and the others under Ruby, who ended up sitting on 12 eggs!
I let her sit on them for a few more days in case there was a really late hatch. Many people candle their eggs and toss the ones that aren’t viable. Candling (shining a bright flashlight through the egg to see embryo development/ movement) requires a totally darkened space, which I don’t always have. It’s also harder to see through dark egg shells. I cracked open the eggs and all of them were either unfertilized or died in the first couple of days (it was hard to distinguish). Simon’s fertility rate last year was very high – I had several 100% hatches – but this year, for some unknown reason it’s taken a bit of a dip.
I replaced the dud eggs with a couple of golf balls with the intention of giving her some of Pixie’s eggs a couple of days before they hatched. I had put six under Pixie on the first day and then an additional four the next. The latter were marked with a sharpie so it would be easy for me to remove them and give them to another hen.
On Sunday night, two days before hatch, just when I was giving Ruby some new eggs I got a call from Christy with a chicken emergency. Her Icelandic hen, who had been sitting on eggs for 20 days, just abandoned them. She wanted to know if I had a broody hen who could incubate them until they hatched. As luck would have it Ruby was happy to help out. We put the five eggs under her and before we were even done she was tucking them under her with her beak.
I’m happy to report that all five hatched, successfully, the next day right on cue. We decided to leave them for Ruby to raise: it will save on Christy’s workload; hen-raised chicks learn a lot in those first few weeks from their mother and the flock; and I didn’t want to be harassing Ginger, taking eggs from under her for another hen.
A few days later, I moved Lucy and Nox and their ten chicks to an outdoor pen. As soon as I opened their dog crates the hens got into a scrap. Usually hens head in opposite directions and work out their territory without it getting physical. These two were going at it hammer and tongs and when I intervened Nox cut me with her spurs (yes, hens can have spurs).
I moved Nox into an adjoining pen. The problem was, in the melee, the chicks had all run together and were huddled in a group. Which chicks belonged to which hen? Two are distinctive so I knew they were Nox’s and easily reunited them. The rest all looked similar so I stood at the fence and watched to see the chicks’ reactions: did they run to find their real mother? Did they peep at a particular hen’s call? Did the mother come to claim her chick? No such luck. I tried putting one chick at a time with Nox to see if they claimed each other. Only one was a clear match. So I ended up leaving seven with Lucy, returning three to Nox, who lost one chick in the shuffle. Even though they were a week old no one pushed the outsider away and Lucy and the hatch-mates accepted it without question.
If that tale of poultry musical chairs was a bit confusing imagine the juggling I do. All spring, and into the summer, I am dealing with hens going broody and hatching eggs. That requires shuffling them about in dog crates and in a maternity coop, cleaning, providing food and water and making sure all goes according to plan. Yes, hens do their share of the work, but there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes labour provided by us chicken keepers as well.
I can’t control who goes broody, or when, but I can decide who gets eggs and which ones. And with a bit of sleight-of-hand I can use the maternal instincts and skills of my hens to inadvertently help each other out and ensure the survival of their chicks.