I had my first broody hen in 2012. I tried to break her; I didn’t have a rooster and hadn’t any plans to expand my flock, but her persistence outlasted my resolve, so I succumbed and got her fertilized eggs. Since then, I’ve had an increasing number of hens wanting to have chicks of their own. Broodiness is genetic and it clearly runs deep in my flock. In 2018, I had 17 hatches with hens (some on their second clutch in the season) and another 14 broody hatches the following year. I love chicks; they are the highlight of the year for me, but even with the assistance of a hen a significant amount of work falls on my shoulders. Multiply that by more than a dozen and the thrill of hatching wears a bit thin. In the fall of 2019, I had the first symptomatic cases of Marek’s Disease, losing several over the next six months, including Pixie and all three of her chicks.
There’s nothing like being faced with a potentially fatal virus to put a damper on adding to your flock. In the summer of 2020 I took a chance and let two of my experienced hens incubate some eggs. I timed it so their chicks hatched on the same day: four each. They were raised by those hens for the next few weeks, until their mothers were ready to go back to the main coop and the two clutches were amalgamated into one flock. The two periods when chickens are most vulnerable for becoming symptomatic once infected with Marek’s are between the ages of 6-10 weeks and around the time of sexual maturity (i.e. six months). I waited until all the pullets had started laying before integrating them with my main flock. The cockerels were all re-homed. Eighteen months on, I haven’t had another loss due to Marek’s and hoping that little blip was an anomaly.
The casualties of my caution were all my other hens that went broody. For the first time, I had to say ‘No babies for you’, and worked to convince them of the wisdom of my decision. Some of them were what I endearingly refer to as ‘half-ass broody’, those that were easily dissuaded by being repeatedly removed from the nest box over just one or two days. Others were more committed and took a little more persuasion.
In the spring of 2018, I hatched my favourite hen, Skye, a gorgeous barnyard mix frizzle. I also donated hatching eggs to two elementary schools that later returned the hatched chicks to me. Amongst one group were two of Skye’s sisters, Coco and Nigella, who all share the same birthday. I kept Skye, but rehomed the others as, at the time, I thought they might be cockerels. I later learned they were pullets and regretted having let them go. Months later, when I interviewed their new owners Tasha and Keith for my series ‘Having Chickens Is A Great Way To Meet Your Neighbours’ I was reunited with the two. Seeing them in person made me even more sad. As luck would have it, a couple of months later Tasha and her family decided to leave the island and asked if I wanted the frizzles. I jumped at the chance.
Skye has never gone broody – she’s too glamorous for the hard slog of motherhood. Her sisters, on the other hand, go broody for a day or two what seems like every month. Apparently they did that at their previous home as well. I once moved a broody Nigella to a separate coop and gave her eggs, which was enough to make her snap out of it. Some hens are committed right from the get-go, while others lose attention long before the chicks have hatched.
In the spring, which is when most of my hens want to hatch, I was replacing some rotten fence posts in the enclosure where I house broody hens and their chicks so wasn’t able to accommodate them until the repairs were made.
I let Shona hatch chicks and was hoping for another broody hen around the same time. Having several coordinated hatches has been a good strategy for me: if a hen abandons egg prior to hatch I can move them under another hen; sometimes hens have opted to co-parent and share a crate once their chicks were born; and when one hen wants to return to the flock the other one usually cares for her chicks.
No such luck this time. Shona hatched eight chicks and I assisted with an additional two (one didn’t survive) for a total of six pullets and four cockerels. She returned to the flock when they were eight weeks old and that left me yearning for a few more littles. My flock consists of 20 hens (many between 3-5 years old) and one rooster. As my girls are aging and I’ve experienced some losses (i.e. ovarian cancer) I was hoping for some youngsters. At night, when I went out to the coop I encouraged the hens to go broody and said if any one of them were serious I’d let her sit. A few of them gave me hope, but none of them followed through.
Coco, who goes broody often, but gives up at the drop of the hat went broody again at the end of the summer, just on the cusp of final days when I’d want chicks to hatch. Instead of removing her from the nest box a couple of times a day (and especially at night) I let her sit. This time she seemed pretty determined so I saved a few eggs. Under cover of darkness I moved her to her own 4’x4’ coop and slipped eight eggs under her. The next day I added four more for a total of 12. Somehow my math was out and I counted a baker’s dozen: 13. She’s one of my larger hens and was able to cover them all without objection so I left her to it.
When I went to check them later one egg had gotten pushed to the back corner of the nest box and was cold, as was another on the periphery of the circle. I tucked them back under her not knowing if they had started to be incubated and had subsequently died or if they hadn’t been incubated at all and would therefore be behind the other developing embryos. I took my chances things would work out.
Over the next few days I was working, which meant leaving early in the morning and coming home at dinner time. I usually lift hens off the nest once a day to encourage them to eat, drink and poop. Once they get the hang of it, the broody hen then decides when she’ll leave the nest (one-three times/day) and for how long (5-25 minutes). I monitor how much they are eating and drinking and often have to scoop out a giant, smelly poop. I checked on Coco daily and was concerned her food dish was never missing much and she wasn’t pooping.
Most broody hens are recognizable for their change in behaviour: fluffing up, screeching if anyone gets too close or pecking at hands that try to check on the eggs. Coco was the most docile broody I’ve encountered. I gently lifted her off the nest daily in attempt to get her to eat, drink and poop. She did so without complaint, but went immediately back to the nest without haven’t done any of the above.
I know folks say that chickens have some innate sense in doing what’s right, but I don’t believe it: I’ve seen hens kill healthy chicks, abandon viable eggs and in Coco’s case, starve herself in the some misguided sense of dedication. Leaving the eggs for a few minutes several times a day would not adversely affect them and would have done her the world of good.
By day 8, she had hardly eaten a thing despite me setting out a small buffet of tasty treats. She’d only pooped twice. I had to up my game if I was to keep Coco healthy until the chicks hatched. I started lifting her off the nest twice a day: she reluctantly nibbled a teaspoon of food, had a couple of sips of water and beetled right back to the nest. I made a little dish of food and held it in front of her in the nest and she half-heartedly pecked at it, more in a gesture to appease me than to satisfy her appetite. I’ve seen broody hens wolf down a meal in a matter of minutes so I know what’s normal. Why she refused to keep up her own health confounded me. And as someone who enjoys a good meal, I can’t imagine many circumstances that would put me off eating.
By day 14, she had now pooped a grand total of four times! I was questioning if I should pull her from the eggs, but that would mean their doom: I didn’t have a surrogate broody hen and I wasn’t set up for an incubator hatch as the weather is getting cooler and the chicks would need their mother to keep warm. I lay awake at night crossing my fingers that Coco would be fine till hatch day, then resume her healthy appetite.
I had flashbacks of my only bad experience in over 60 hatches by broody hens. I gave a first time broody hen a dozen eggs: along the way she managed to break and eat five eggs and then kill three chicks as they hatched. She ended up with only one chick who she sat on 24/7 with total dedication. The problem was she failed to show the chick food and water, which fell to me. The baby turned out fine, but might have suffered if it wasn’t for human intervention. I began to wonder if Coco had what it took to be a good mother and hoped my fears wouldn’t be confirmed.
I never candle eggs being incubated by a broody hen, but I got curious about those two cold eggs I tucked under her. I went out at night with a good flashlight and try as I might I don’t think I was particularly successful. The first egg had a dark shell and I just saw a dark blob, with no veins or movement. Same with the next one and the following one was totally clear, the sign of a dud. The recommendation is to removed any unviable eggs: those that were never fertilized or for whatever reason didn’t develop, or a viable chick that died somewhere along the way. I left it to deal with after the hatch was done. I probably should have removed it, if only to ensure she was more able to fully cover the remaining eggs.
Each time I lifted her off the nest I took advantage of her one minute absence to gently turn the eggs. Ordinarily a hen would do that several times a day, ensuring that the yolk stays centered in the egg and to prevent the developing embryo from sticking to the membrane, but I wasn’t confident that Coco was a reliable egg tuner.
By day 15 she seemed to have turned a corner: I noticed one sizeable poop and her food dish was tipped over first thing in the morning. Over the next few days small amounts of food were missing, but there was no more poop to clean up. When I lifted her off the nest – again, without complaint – there was no poop there either. She started to molt, losing feathers on her neck and around her face making her resemble a vulture. Hatch day couldn’t come fast enough for either of us.
On the night of day 20 I lifted the nest box lid and heard some chicks peeping within their eggs. A hen usually starts talking to her chicks the day before hatch, cheerleading them through the arduous task of breaking out of the egg. Coco was characteristically quiet.
On the afternoon day 21 I gently lifted her off the nest and counted three chicks – two dark and one white – and scooped the shells they’d come from (pink, cream and blue). I also noticed that one chick had externally pipped (made a hole in the shell) and another one looked like the shell had cracked in the middle, perhaps from Coco standing on it. I was hoping that if there was a viable chick it was so close to hatch that it wouldn’t affect it’s chances of survival. (If that crack had happened earlier it can be patched with soft wax or nail polish).
Later that night three more chicks hatched, coming from white, blue and olive eggs. By the next day I could hear Coco softly encouraging the remaining chicks to hatch and some did: two blue and one egg.
For two more days there was evidence she had taken the nine chicks off the nest to eat and drink, but when I peeked in before and after work she was still sitting on the remaining eggs, still hopeful they might hatch. That night I removed them from the nest and candled them before breaking them open. I always do an ‘eggtopsy’ on any unhatched eggs just to see what happened. Three of them were unfertilized or failed to developed and one had a small embryo that died in the first week. It was interesting that the three that were clear all came from the batch I put under her on day one.
My intention had been to leave Coco and her chicks in the grow out pen, but I had a raccoon attack on one of the teenagers two days before hatch day. I wasn’t confident they’d be entirely safe so when they were five days old I moved them to a separate section of my main coop with outside access to a 4’x9′ run within my main 30’x40′ fun. The little family will grow up seeing my flock their whole lives and won’t have any issues integrating with them.
The first thing Coco did was to dig a hollow in the ground and dust bathe. I had treated her with Ivermectin when she started sitting in order to prevent external parasites like lice or mites. Being cramped in one position for weeks with little food or water is a feat of dedication and endurance.
She has turned out to be a great mother: calling her chicks to food, protecting them and ensuring they stay warm now that autumn temperatures are upon us. Whenever I’m around she displays her characteristic docile manner and never alerts the chicks that I could be a potential threat. It seems like the birth of those chicks has been win-win for the both of us: I got to expand my flock with birds I will come to love and Coco, at the ripe old age of 3½ got to experience motherhood for the first time and it suits her.