PHOTO: iStock/Thinkstock
Sue Weaver
March 15, 2017

As you’re collecting eggs, you reach into a nesting box and the hen within emits a loud, strident squawk and viciously pecks your hand. You peer inside, and she fluffs up, fixing you with a beady glare. You reach in again—slowly, this time—and she fluffs up even more and growls—yes, growls—at you. What’s her problem? The answer is simple: Her hormones are telling her it’s time to set some eggs and raise a family. Whether you want her to or not, she’s gone broody.

A Mood Fit For A Mama

Because a hen stops laying while setting a clutch of eggs and doesn’t start again for six to eight weeks after her chicks hatch, modern hybrid layers and even many heritage breeds have been selectively bred to discourage broodiness to increase egg output. Occasionally, a hen of these breeds still might set, but don’t count on it. Don’t think you can force a hen to go broody, either: She will have the urge or she won’t.

If you want to hatch chicks with mama hens, you’re best off with a broody breed. Silkies are noted for their keen desire to set and to mother chicks. Bantams of the setting breeds are good bets, too. Their one fault is that their relatively small bodies can’t cover a lot of full-sized eggs; give them something to set on, though, and they persevere.

This is important because some hens of broody breeds aren’t good setters. Some individuals abandon their nests before the eggs hatch or they aren’t good mothers once the chicks arrive. So once you have a proven broody, keep her! She’ll reward you by setting once or twice a year—occasionally three times, if you’re lucky—and she’ll raise her chicks with very little help.

Keep in mind that you can raise prolific, nonsetting breeds if you need lots of eggs, but also keep a few setting-breed hens to hatch eggs and raise chicks. If you keep ducks, guinea fowl or quail, you can hatch their eggs under broody chickens, too.

Why Brood?

Why would you choose to raise chicks under a hen instead of in an incubator? Some perks:

  • Incubators can be fairly expensive to buy and operate. A setting hen isn’t, and she’ll give you eggs between her broody spells.
  • You don’t have to fuss with heat and humid-ity settings, you don’t have to turn eggs, and there’s no worry if your electricity goes out.
  • You don’t need a brooder to keep chicks warm once they’re hatched; their mama hen will take care of that. She’ll also teach them to drink, eat and forage, and she’ll fiercely protect them from harm.

There are also disadvantages to consider, too.

  • Your hens might not be broody when you want to hatch some eggs. Hens tend to be broody in the spring through midsummer, but they rarely set in the winter.
  • If you don’t have a rooster, you won’t have fertile eggs on hand when your hen decides to set.
  • You can’t hatch as many eggs under a hen as you can in an incubator, although hens of large broody breeds, such as Australorps, Cochins, Jersey Giants and Orpingtons, can easily handle a dozen or more.

Help Your Broody Hen Settle In

So let’s imagine one of your hens has staked a claim to a nesting box, and she’s settled down to raise a family. What next? It takes 21 days for a hen to hatch an egg; in fact, some eggs will even hatch a day or so before that. Your hen will stay on her nest for three weeks, leaving it once or twice a day to grab a bite to eat and relieve herself.

Don’t Bug Her

Because she’s stationary most of the time, she’s much more likely to pick up lice and mites than her out-and-about sisters do. Dust her with a chicken-friendly parasite control product or diatomaceous earth and consider strewing fresh or dried bug-repellent herbs such as catnip, mint, lemon balm or lavender in and around her nest. These naturally calming herbs will help her mellow out a bit, too.

Scramble To Get Her Some Eggs

Make sure you have fertile eggs for her to hatch. If your rooster is an immature cockerel or you have only one rooster to service dozens of hens, this may not be the case. To be on the safe side, pen an overworked rooster with a half a dozen hens; after a week or two, their eggs should be reliably fertile.

If you don’t have a rooster, you’ll need to buy hatching eggs. If you have them delivered via the mail, it could be a week or more until they arrive. This is OK. Keep your mama hen happy by placing a few golf balls, smooth round stones, plastic Easter eggs or unfertile hens’ eggs under her until the fertile eggs arrive. If she’s truly broody, she’ll be content.

Move Her On Up

It isn’t a good idea to let her set in a communal nesting box, especially if nesting boxes are in short supply. The biggest hazards are bold, pushy hens that shove their way in alongside her to lay their eggs and hens that lay in the box while she’s out for her daily constitutional. These new eggs won’t hatch when the others do, but they compete for space under the hen.

If you do allow her to brood in a nesting box, use a soft pencil to draw a big X on either side of her eggs and then remove unmarked eggs as they materialize. Remember, setting hens often peck—hard—so doing this daily isn’t in your best interest. If you have to collect new eggs from a broody’s nest, do it at night by flashlight, so she’s drowsy and less likely to peck you.

Set The Mood For The Brood

Get your hen out of the nesting box, and set her up in a safe brooding area before setting your eggs. Mother hens prefer semidark, out-of-the-way nesting spots, and you’ll want to choose one where she and her chicks will be safe, so a temporary predator-resistant fence is in order. When you build it, remember that she needs enough out-of-nest room to stretch her legs, eat, drink and eliminate.

Setting hens usually won’t soil their nests, which is a good thing, as a blob of once-a-day, broody poop is huge and stinky. Place plenty of soft, chopped straw or similar bedding in her new, private nesting box and move her to it after nightfall, when she’s less likely to stress and try to return to her chosen nesting spot. She may be fidgety for a day or two, so don’t give her any eggs until she calms down.

Set It & Forget It

This ensures that all eggs hatch within 24 hours of each other. If you have to collect eggs to do this, place them large-end up in a clean, closed carton at 55 to 70 degrees F and roughly 75 percent humidity. Prop up one end of the carton by slipping a book or block of wood under it. The next day, move the book to the other end, alternating ends until you have enough eggs to set. This will keep the yolks from sticking to one side of the shells. Choose well-shaped, clean, uncracked and unwashed eggs.

Nighttime Is The Right Time

Place the eggs under the mama hen at night. Don’t give her more eggs than she can handle. Large breed hens successfully brood 12 to 15 or so full-size eggs; bantams, up to a dozen bantam eggs or six to eight full-size eggs, depending on the hen’s size. She has to cover them completely, so plan accordingly.

Caring For Your Broody Hen

As long as the hen is kept out of drafts, no supplementary heat in the brooding area is required. A broody hen plucks feathers from her breast to help line her nest, and in doing so, she exposes skin that helps warm her eggs. If she’s setting in hot, sultry weather, keep her reasonably cool. In extreme cases, a box fan set on low and aimed at the broody box will help.

Because she isn’t laying eggs, a broody hen doesn’t need calcium-rich layer feed. However, because she infrequently leaves her nest to eat, the feed you give her should pack a wallop. Think 18 to 20 percent protein chick starter: It’s nutrient-rich, and it’s what the chicks will eat when they hatch. A broody hen tends to skimp on feed and lose a lot of weight while setting, so a bit of high-carbohydrate scratch grain on the side is helpful, too. Clean water should always be available.

Check the broody hen every day, but keep things low-key. It’s wise to candle the eggs at day 7 and again around day 14, removing any that don’t contain an embryo; do it at night when the hen is less likely to object. If possible, recruit a helper to hold the hen. This way, you can move through the clutch quickly before the eggs cool.

After 20 days or so, the eggs will start to hatch. You’ll hear peeping as each chick pecks through its shell and joins its nest mates. Most broodys continue setting until the last egg hatches, so after 21 days, check any remaining eggs for signs of life and discard any that aren’t viable.

Tiny chicks cuddle under their mother’s wings and are easily dropped when you pick her up, so be careful when you do it.

The new mother hen will teach her chicks everything a chicken needs to know, and she’ll keep them warm under her feathers. You can keep her fenced away from the rest of the flock if you like, but if you do, expand the nursery fence so the chicks can move around. Many people who free-range their chickens separate the new family for a week or two and then let the hen rejoin her flock.

If you let her free-range, place shallow saucers of water or chick-drinking fonts in the areas they frequent, so the chicks can drink water whenever they want. Their mom will teach them to scratch and find wild food, and she’ll bring them back to the coop to sleep at night.

The biggest hazards for free-ranging baby chicks are predation and drowning. Chicks like to hop up onto things, and water buckets maintained for livestock are fair game. If a chick falls in, it’ll drown, so if there are lots of water hazards where baby chicks range, keep them penned until they’re older.

A mama hen’s maternal drive starts to wane when her chicks are 5 to 8 weeks old, then she’ll start spending more time with the rest of the flock. In a few more weeks, she’ll begin laying again. In the meantime, you’ll have raised a clutch of happy, healthy, homegrown chicks.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2017 issue of Chickens.


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