In my first flock I had eight hens and no rooster. In two years only one of them went broody and only once. I noticed that one of my free-ranging Dorkings was sneaking off to the woods and not returning to the coop at night. Whenever I tried to follow her she gave me the slip. On the sixth day, when she came back to the coop for a snack I nabbed her and locked her in for the night. By the morning she’d forgotten all about her secret cache of unfertilized eggs. If all broody hens were so easy to deal with I’d be laughing.
I rehomed that flock, took a break from keeping chickens and then got four pullets several years later. When I’d had them for a year, Mango, my Buff Orpington went broody. I still didn’t have a rooster and hadn’t given much thought to hatching chicks. She was definitely more committed than my first broody hen. I tried a number of strategies and finally after three weeks, I broke down and got her some fertilized eggs, which she happily sat on for another three weeks. Since that time I have given all my broody hens eggs, whether I wanted chicks or not.
So What Is Broodiness?
When the pituitary hormone prolactin increases it inhibits the production of gonadotropin, which stimulates ovarian follicles (what eggs are made from). The prolactin causes hens to stop laying eggs and go broody within a couple of days.
Other factors that encourage broodiness are: warm weather, letting eggs accumulate in the nest box, decreased exposure to light and even just seeing chicks. I don’t know if chickens are like women whose hormones influence the synchronization of their menstrual cycles with their friends or co-workers, but anecdotally I can tell you that broodiness is contagious. Once a hen sees a flock mate in the nest box they want to jump on the broody bandwagon. Case in point: four of mine have gone broody in the last 48 hours.
Certain breeds have a genetic predisposition for broodiness, most notably Silkies, Orpingtons and most bantam breeds. Those that have been bred for high egg production, such as Leghorns, rarely show broody behavior. Broodiness isn’t practical for the commercial egg industry, whose goal is to keep their hens laying while they artificially incubate eggs through hatcheries.
Breaking A Broody Hen
My flock has a high number of broody hens. If there were just one or two, or if they spread out their hatches it would be manageable. But mine tend to go broody in waves and then want to hatch sometimes two or three times in a season.
Last year there were a lot of health issues in my flock and I was overwhelmed with dealing with them and juggling broody hens.
I’d decided earlier this season that I wasn’t into hatching chicks this year and would try what I have never done before: ‘break’ a broody. Just the sound of it makes me feel bad.
When they are in broody mode their body temperature in their abdomen increases and they pull out their belly feathers so they can incubate eggs. To break them you have to disrupt that hormonal trigger by cooling off their abdomen and get them out of sitting in a comfy, dark nest box.
Remember Mango, my first broody hen? I lifted her off the nest several times a day and she just ran right back. I then dunked her into a bucket of cold water to shock her system out of being broody. When that didn’t work I put an ice pack in the nest box and found her happily incubating it, waiting for the chicks to hatch. Three weeks of that and I caved. She clearly was prepared to outlast my efforts.
Broody hens expend a lot of energy in the pursuit of hatching some littles: they don’t eat or drink enough; they might not dust bathe regularly and get infested with mites or lice. They can lose a significant amount of weight and, in some cases, die trying to fulfill the promise of motherhood. If you don’t want to let you hen hatch eggs then try to stop her before she is really committed – it’s more difficult the longer they sit.
I had a plan and decided I’d stick with it, no matter how pathetic my hens looked or how guilty I felt about deprived them of procreating. I started by lifting Aurora off the nest several times a day. After grabbing a snack she was back on the nest, but I was persistent. Each night I lifted her on to the roost bar. If there was still daylight at bedtime she snuck down to the nest box. I just went out in the dark and lifted her back up to the roost bar, which allowed cooler air to flow under her abdomen all night.
While I was dealing with her three more hens – Shona, Nigella and Audrey – thought they’d like to join the club. So now I had four broody hens to contend with. When it rains it pours which is why they drive me crazy.
Another strategy is referred to as a broody breaker or broody jail: putting a hen in a wire bottomed crate raised off the floor with food and water, but no bedding in order to cool their abdomen. That can take a few days, so be prepared for an unhappy hen. If you go that route make sure they are protected from predators.
Unfortunately I don’t have 4 wire-bottomed crates. I continued to lift Audrey and Shona off their nests and put the other two in the 4’x 9′ enclosed pen within my big pen. They wanted to get back to the coop, but were prevented from doing so. Being in the pen meant they were out in full sunshine and didn’t sit down all day. At nighttime I lifted them all up to the roost bars so they didn’t get comfy in the nest boxes.
I’m happy to report that it only took one day to break Shona; Audrey and Nigella spent two days in the small pen before throwing in the towel. When the pen was free, I moved Aurora over there: three days of lifting her out of the nest box, one day in the pen and then she cried ‘uncle’. There’s no guarantee that they won’t go broody again, but I was pleasantly surprised that they all gave up pretty easily and I didn’t feel too guilty. I’m glad I didn’t have to resort to the cold bath or ice pack strategies.
I love my broody hens: they’ve hatched many chicks and make great mothers. I’m happy that I haven’t bred something so natural and instinctual out of them, but sometimes it just isn’t convenient to be over-run with chicks. When they do have chicks it’ll be at a time when it works for both them and me.