Over the last decade I’ve had many hens go broody and usually let them have at least one kick at the can each year. The only time I’ve used an incubator is when a hen has abandoned eggs and I didn’t have another appropriate hen to put them under. I’ve also donated hatching eggs to elementary schools and received the chicks back. The one thing I haven’t done is bought chicks.
Unfortunately, broodiness is often seen as an undesirable trait as it has a negative impact on egg production and it does take some accommodation to deal with a hen and her chicks. For that reason, maternal behaviour has been increasingly selected out of commercial laying hen strains, and is often only found in heritage or bantam breeds.
After 65 hatches with broody hens, 5 with schools and one incubator I have a few observations about the importance of hen-raised chicks.
When my first hen went broody I didn’t have a rooster and hadn’t even thought about chicks. I only had four hens and was quite happy with them. I googled advice on how to break a broody hen – even the term ‘break’ seems so harsh. I removed her from the nest box several times a day, dunked her in a bucket of cold water and even put an ice pack in the nest box. All for naught.
What I came to realize is broodiness is a natural instinct that, thankfully, hasn’t been bred out of some hens. I relented and gave her a dozen eggs, which she happily incubated. When they hatched she was in her element.
I’ve had some hens that never go broody and others that reliably want babies once, twice or even, three times a year. I give them eggs to satisfy their maternal desires, but it’s also the highlight of the summer for me, as well. There is something quite engaging watching a hen care for her chicks: calling them for food, teaching them to listen out for danger and integrating them into the flock. I’ve learned from observation that hen-raised chicks are different from those who have to go it alone. There are many behaviours that are instinctual (e.g. dust bathing, pecking at the ground), but the ones raised with their mother tend to be more confident, recognize potential food more quickly and understand flock dynamics at a younger age.
I see folks on Facebook talk about how they remove newly hatched chicks from their mother to be raised in a brooder. I can’t imagine why someone would expect a hen to sacrifice so much of herself in sitting for 21 days, only to then separate her babies from her. I’ve seen firsthand the distress that causes to both parties.
I logged on to my computer just before sitting to write this and found a post in which a woman was talking about just this subject:
”If the first batch doesn’t produce any chicks, then I let them go again (i.e. sit for another 21 days). Or if they only hatch a couple I take the chicks and put more eggs under the hen.”
When I asked for the rationale of routinely encouraging hens to sit for 42 days straight, without the promise of chicks, she responded: “Eggs usually hatch better under a hen, but I don’t leave chicks with them. There’s more of a chance of something happening to them. If its a batch that doesn’t really matter whether I have them or not I will let her keep them, but all my show chicks get taken and raised in a brooder.”
Her practice, frankly, dumbfounded me. Apparently a hen is just a living incubator and is of no value to her offspring, or vice versa.
I have to say that in all of my hatches I have had only one bad experience: a first-time mum broke five of her eggs along the way, then killed three chicks as they were hatching. She finally ended up with one chick, who she cared for diligently. I rehomed her so I have no idea if she repeated that behaviour, but those odds are overwhelmingly in favour of the good hens.
The importance of motherhood in the chicken world isn’t just a nice sentiment, but influences the overall health of their offspring. I did a little reading of the scientific literature to see if my observations were backed up by research. Here’s a synopsis of how mother hens play an important role in shaping their chicks’ future:
- Although chicks are mobile shortly after hatch and look well developed, a lot happens in the first week of their lives that are directly shaped by the hen.
- The first few weeks of life are critical in setting the stage for developmental and physiological processes thermoregulatory, gastro-intestinal and immune systems. A hen provides not just the regulated heat a chick requires, but teaches it about food choices, which stimulate both intestinal and immunological development. (I notice that the incubator hatched chicks recognize chick crumbles, but take much longer to start eating produce scraps or start foraging for their own food.)
- The mother and chicks begin to communicate the day before hatching and the chicks can recognize their own mother’s calls by the time they leave the nest.
- In the first few weeks of life, chicks are unable to regulate their own body temperatures so they spend large parts of the day under the hen, in darkness.
- Chicks reared by hen are less fearful and show higher levels of synchronized behaviour (i.e. sleeping, eating and moving at the same time as a small flock).
- Brooder raised chicks live under artificial lights and heating lamps/plates so they don’t synchronize their activities like those with a hen.
- Hens are able to buffer their chicks’ response to stressors and model appropriate behaviour.
- Incubator chicks are more likely to develop behavioural problems, such as feather pecking, panic responses, smothering, and bullying. They are more fearful when confronted by new experiences.
- In part, a mother’s calming effect comes from her preen gland secretions, which are likened to pheromones in mammals.
- Hens teach chicks about predators and potential dangers and they learn to interpret her calls regarding threats.
- Naturally raised chicks are more active, more reactive to vocalizations, less fearful, less aggressive, and more social than brooder raised chicks.
- Chicks raised without the influence of a hen may lack the opportunity to learn about species-specific appropriate behaviour, which can have implications for the ability to display normal behaviour later in life.
My intention is not to imply that brooder-raised chicks will be emotionally crippled due to separation from their mother or they won’t be able to function as normal chickens, as that clearly isn’t true. Rather, I suggest, that chicks are social animals and they get a positive head start, leading to better health outcomes by being part of a flock and raised by a hen.
So the next time you get a warm and fuzzy feeling at the sight of a hen and her chicks recognize that she is also imparting valuable knowledge and skills to her offspring. There are healthier for having the experience of being raised naturally.
Not everyone has a broody hen, but consider getting your chicks from folks like me that eschew incubators and allow nature to take its course. I don’t rehome chicks until the hen has signaled she’s done with them and feels they are ready to go out on their own.
Credit: HatchTech; NCBI; Research Gate; United Poultry Concerns; Wageningen University. All photos: Bitchin’ Chickens