A broody hen can either be a frustrating problem or a big help to anyone keeping a flock of backyard chickens.
Broodiness results from a strong mothering instinct. The hens of many breeds, especially those that lay white eggs, rarely go broody, while other breeds, often heavy brown egg layers with fluffy feathers, are well known for their mothering instinct.
It’s easy to identify a broody hen. She’ll stop laying, puff up her feathers, sit in a near trance, vocalize with a distinctive squawk when you disturb her, and spend day and night in a nest box. Approach her and she’ll respond with a warning call to stay away. Even “non-broody” breeds sometimes want to be mothers. Sooner or later everyone tending a flock will have one or more hens go broody. Broodiness is most likely in the late winter and spring but can happen anytime.
It is frustrating to have a hen stop laying and go broody if a family doesn’t want chicks or when eggs the chicken might otherwise lay are needed. However, when chicks are wanted, a hen will do the incubation and rearing work. What a fascinating process to observe. Flock owners who know how to manage a broody often find it one of the most rewarding parts of keeping chickens, and it’s a wonderful process for children to see.
Chickens are amazingly intelligent but there are a few things they can’t figure out. Eggs take 21 days of incubation to hatch, but hens can’t count. They sit until chicks hatch, and they’ll sit and sit far longer than three weeks if no hatching occurs. They are also unable to recognize their own eggs, or even that they may not be sitting on chicken eggs at all!
The inability to count and recognize eggs works to the benefit of anyone managing a hen. If flock owners have no rooster, eggs won’t hatch. Because the broody hen can’t count days there’s time to get fertile eggs from another grower or even order them online.
TWO WAYS TO SUCCESSFULLY MANAGE A BROODY HEN
LETTING HER INCUBATE FERTILE EGGS
• Put a nest box in an area safe from predators and away from the rest of the flock. Often sister hens will kill or maim baby chicks so it’s usually best to keep the broody and her soon to be babies in a separate place. Make sure she has food and water nearby.
• To keep her happily sitting, remove infertile eggs and slip artificial nest eggs or even golf balls under her until fertile eggs arrive. This is usually best done after dark.
• Prepare for the arrival of chicks by setting up a safe area like a small pen. Buy chick starter. Have a waterer and feeder ready to place in the pen.
• When the chicks hatch the mother will proudly lead them around and teach them how to find food and avoid danger. Protect her and her babies from predators, weather extremes, and mature chickens by keeping them in a small pen for a while. Change the waterer and refill the feeder as needed.
• Be aware that there is no way to tell the gender of a fertile egg. About half the resulting chicks will be roosters.
LETTING HER RAISE HATCHERY CHICKS
Often a flock owner would like to try chicks of a new breed or can’t find fertile eggs for the broody to sit on. Here is a way to encourage her to brood and educate hatchery chicks.
• Isolate the hen in a private area in a nest box stocked with golf balls or artificial nest eggs.
• Immediately order chicks from Hoover’s Hatchery to be delivered in two to four weeks. If only females are wanted order pullet chicks.
• The day the chicks arrive keep them in a warm place away from the hen until after dark. Carefully reach under her, remove the golf balls and replace each ball with a baby chick. A large hen should be able to brood about a dozen to 15 babies. As soon as she hears the peeping chicks and feels them underneath her she’ll come out of her trancelike incubating state and adopt the babies as her own. She’ll do all the brooding until her chicks are big enough to be on their own. Once they approach adult size they can be introduced to the flock.
Observing a hen incubate eggs and raise chicks is fascinating, fun, and educational. It’s also a great way have her do the work of raising babies.