Weather of late in much of the U.S. has been anything but sunny and spring-like, but to a broody hen, that’s irrelevant. When a hen’s maternal instincts awaken, the only thing that matters is a nest filled with eggs. Illustrating this point, on a recent blustery, chilling morning I received a plea for assistance from a person with a broody hen: “What can I do to protect her and her soon-to-be babies?” The immediate concern, given the cold, was the potential danger to the developing eggs. But there’s more to consider when a hen is setting and you want to let her continue until the eggs hatch. Here’s what to do.
Consider the Hen’s Safety
The primary concern is the security of your would-be mama. Where is your hen setting eggs? Frequently—and fortunately—a hen goes broody inside her coop, typically on the nest where she normally lays eggs. She’s comfortable there, so it makes sense to her to nestle down for three weeks of nest sitting. Occasionally, however, a hen settles down in a more unusual setting: inside a planter on a deck, within an old tire in a garage or tucked into the woodpile by the side of a house. Our Black Orpington hen, Fitz (pictured below), went missing for a week last year and we were sure she had fallen victim to a coyote or raccoon. My husband, Jae, finally found her nestled against the eastern wall of our pole barn, hidden under the prairie grasses and setting almost a dozen eggs.
Move the Broody Hen to Her Own Brooder
Regardless of where she is, consider moving your broody hen to more private accommodations. This is absolutely necessary if she occupies an unfortunate location such as next to a barn or out near a woodpile. If left in her chosen spot, she (and her eggs) would be exposed not only to the elements but also to predators. Hens who brood within the safety of a nestbox can also be in danger. Broody hens are often victimized by flockmates who don’t understand why their fellow hen is suddenly immobile.
Separate housing for your broody hen also helps her clutch. Even tucked underneath their mom, eggs can still become chilled outdoors, especially if they are sitting directly on the ground. The eggs can be targets of predators such as mice, snakes and skunks, who will grab their goodies while your girl is off seeking food and water or relieving herself. A greater danger might even exist within the coop, where other hens might knock a developing egg out from under the broody hen (or out of the nest) to make room for their own eggs.
Give Your Broody Hen Basic Necessities
Once you’ve established your broody hen in her own place—be it a coop of her own, a brooder or a large plastic tote—be sure to give her what she needs for a three-week stay. Broody hens spend most of their days in a trance state: Biology tells them to set the eggs and occasionally turn them, and that’s what they do almost 24 hours a day. They do, however, get up occasionally to eat and drink and poop. Don’t be alarmed by the size of a broody poop. Just equip your brooder with plenty of absorbent bedding or, even better, scoop it out daily to keep your hen’s nesting place clean. Offer plenty of fresh water and make sure her feeder is topped off. You might want to increase her protein ratio right now, as turning her body into a miniature oven to properly heat her clutch takes a lot of energy. If you live in a cold region and the weather is cold, consider offering your broody hen a safe heat source such as a ceramic-panel heater to keep the brooder’s temperature ambient.
Mark the Eggs
Incubation does not start until the day your girl settles down and stays on her eggs. From that point, all the viable eggs in that clutch will start developing at the same rate, with a hatch date three weeks (21 days) forward. Because eggs look remarkably similar to each other (unless you have a mixed flock), mark notations on the shell of each egg. Eggshells are porous, so use a permanent marker instead of one with washable or erasable ink. For a time I used a No. 2 pencil, but the heat and humidity rubbed off the graphite by day three or four.
What should you write? First and foremost, write the expected date of hatch on each egg. This way, you can always keep track of how close you are to chickdom. I also note the date on which the hen started setting the eggs, just as a means of confirming the hatch date. When possible or necessary, I also note the name of the hen that laid the eggs. This way, I have an idea of what color variety and breed of chicks will hatch, depending on the rooster that fertilized them. I also give each egg an identifying number or letter; I can note in my breeders records that Egg A was the first one to pip, while Egg F failed to develop and Egg J took the longest to hatch.
Monitor Food, Water and Cleanliness
Check in with your matronly tenant daily. Monitor her food and water levels, remove broody droppings and place any eggs that have shifted off the nest back under your bird. Your daily check-in is also an ideal time to do some housekeeping. Remove any littered soil and replace it with fresh bedding. Make sure the nest has enough material to keep the eggs safe, cushioned and contained. You might need to temporarily lift your broody hen off her eggs, but she will swiftly settle back down when you’re done.
Check Egg Development
Candling your broody hen’s eggs—using a light source to detect the level of development inside an egg—is not a requirement, but it helps you track chick development and lets you identify any eggs whose embryos have failed or ceased to develop. Dispose of these duds; any eggs that are cracked or leaking should also be immediately removed, as these swiftly become bacterial breeding grounds. You might need to lift your hen off her nest in order to access her eggs for candling. Rest assured, the embryos are able to tolerate the few minutes away from Mama Hen necessary for candling.
Be Patient During Hatching
Resist the urge to jump in and help your peepers pip their way out of their eggs once hatching day arrives. Nature provides them with everything they need to emerge on their own. All you need is patience. Pipping and zipping (creating the circular incision through the eggshell that allows the chick to exit) varies from chick to chick. It can take less than an hour, but it can also take more than a day. Make certain you don’t help the hatchlings in any way, other than removing their discarded shells. Remember that it takes several hours for the chicks to become dry and fluffy.
Trade Out Brooder Equipment
If you plan to raise your chicks in the same brooder, readjust the heat source to accommodate infant temperature requirements. If Mama Hen is staying with her babies, watch her for signs of panting or overheating and lower the brooder temperature a few degrees if necessary. The babies can always cuddle up with their mom to keep warm, but your hen doesn’t have a handy way to cool down.
Swap the waterer your girl used during her broody time with one that is designed with infant poultry in mind; this helps prevent accidental chick drowning while still giving your girl access to cool drinking water. Also replace the feeder with a chick-friendly system filled with chick starter crumbles. Your hen can eat the babies’ food but, because the calcium content in layer rations can seriously damage your chicks’ kidneys, they should not eat hers.