Broody Hens: 5 Types You May Encounter

Broody Hens Can Be An Adventure for Chicken Keepers

by Bruce Ingram

Broody hens are a fact of life during spring and summer in the chicken coop. Here’s a look at one coop and the five different broody hen types that the author experienced and that you’re likely to encounter at some point.

Mary tends to several of her young chicks.

1. The “Come Hell or High Water” Broody

Because of one factor or another, our 4-year-old hen, Charlotte, has twice had to endure summers of being on the nest for more than 40 days each time — never slacking in her desire to raise chicks. The first time was apparently because the sperm of our then 4-year-old rooster, Friday, wasn’t quite up to previous standards. So we had to put her with a younger, more virile roo. The second time was because of Charlotte’s own misjudgment.

When I opened her coop one morning, I discovered she had spent the entire night keeping a sole egg outside the nest warm. Panic-stricken, I then lifted her off the stray egg and plopped the mother hen back into the nesting box. On day 22, Elaine candled the “main” eggs and found that, as we feared had happened, the eggs contained dead embryos.

Nevertheless, both summers Charlotte persisted, finally being able to rear the chicks she’s hard-wired to produce — come hell, high water or stray eggs.

The stress of brooding can sometimes cause feather loss in a hen. Here, Mary shows her offspring the joys of dusting.

2. The “Brawling” Broody

One spring, we had three hens become broody at the same time: Charlotte, her mother Mary and a hen we named Ethyl, also one of Mary’s offspring. Fortunately, we have two fenced enclosures, so Elaine and I moved the other hens and roosters to the adjoining run figuring the trio could work matters out among themselves.

The decision proved disastrous. The hens tolerated each other reasonably well during the incubation period, although Ethyl “growled” any time her two peers wandered near her nest or even entered the henhouse. But the goodwill rapidly dissolved after the chicks hatched. It was entirely Ethyl’s fault. Elaine and I set up multiple feeders and waterers so there would be no competition regarding the provisions. We also positioned the feeders and waterers around the run.

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Mary and Charlotte were more than content with this situation. I even noticed that some of the chicks wandered back and forth between the duo, and sometimes the two hens even brought their chicks to the same feeder at the same time without any issues.

However, Ethyl wasn’t satisfied with the arrangements. She went out of her way to make sneak attacks on her two fellow mothers. On one of her raids, several chicks were trampled during the melee. I witnessed the skirmish and the plight of the chicks and realized that for the sake of all the little ones, Ethyl couldn’t remain in the enclosure.

Upon Ethyl’s removal, Mary and Charlotte quickly adopted their oppressor’s chicks and harmony was restored. Sadly, though understandably, for two weeks Ethyl paced back and forth along the barrier between the two adjoining runs trying to find an entrance and regain her chicks. She never went broody again.

We’ve been fortunate to have some great mother hens such as Mary and Charlotte.

3. The “All The Eggs Are Mine” Broody

People who have never experienced a broody hen may not know that the eggs a hen sits on almost certainly won’t consist solely of the ones she has laid. When a hen goes broody, she collects/rolls eggs from other nesting boxes to hers with her beak. Usually, the prospective mother stops doing this at some point. From our experience, it’s somewhere between six and 12 eggs. I would guess the reason for 12 being the maximum is that number equates to the ones that a hen can physically cover with her rump and keep warm.

However, chickens can’t count or at least one we named Six couldn’t. So named because she was the last of a half dozen that hatched one summer, Six obsessively stole eggs from other hens until she had accumulated 20 of them. Apparently, in that chicken head of hers, she had decided that 20 was the correct number. Thus, she spent much of each day trying to keep all 20 eggs under her and warm at the same time —an impossible endeavor.

This Sisyphean task continued for about a week before Elaine and I, rightly or wrongly, decided to intervene. Fearing that none of the eggs would hatch and that Six would spend the entire summer on the nest, we took away all 20 of her eggs and replaced them with four recently laid ones. We then gave Six’s original eggs to a friend who agreed to incubate them. As we had guessed, none of Six’s original clutch hatched, but 21 days after the “big switch,” she was the proud mother of four chicks.

We created a birthing room in our basement where our hens could hatch and raise their chicks in peace.

4. The “I’m Not so Sure About This Baby Chick-Thing” Broody

A hen we named Daisy waxed hot and cold over brooding her eggs. Some days she would dutifully spend all day sitting on them with the requisite reprieve to eat, drink and wander about the run a bit. But on other days, she took to spending what we felt was far too long an absence, or as Elaine said, “She’s just putzing around.”

On day 20, we moved Daisy and her nest to what we call the “birthing room,” which is an enclosure we assemble in our basement for hens and their offspring. We have learned that the other hens will kill newly hatched chicks no matter how fiercely the mother hen tries to protect them. The mama simply can’t fend off the other hens while they are attacking the little ones. And since the other hens and rooster were already in one enclosure, and Charlotte and Mary occupied the other with their young flocks, we simply had to take Daisy to the basement.

Upon arrival in the birthing room, Daisy abandoned her nest. We observed her for over an hour merely wandering around the small enclosure and ignoring the nesting box and eggs. She spent the night away from the nest and she never returned to it during the day as far as we observed. We then put the eggs into an incubator, but after several days and candling was accomplished, it was clear that Daisy’s earlier walkabout had proved fatal to the developing chicks. Like Ethyl, Daisy never became broody again.

Broody Hens: Basic Necessities

Once you’ve established your broody hen in her own place — be it a coop, 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.

5. The “My Way or The Highway” Broody

The “my way or the highway” attitude is another attribute of Charlotte. She’ll only sit on eggs in the far left nesting box in our second coop. Once when I attempted to move her nesting box and eggs to the basement’s birthing room, she emitted squalling sounds that I can only describe as caterwauling. Fearing another Daisy-like situation, I acceded to her demands and returned Charlotte to the second coup where her eggs hatched on schedule.

A chronic complainer about everything the rest of the year, but a great mother, Charlotte possesses other peculiarities. Many hens only take care of their offspring for six to eight weeks, but not Charlotte. She willingly nurtures them to 10 to 12 weeks of age, settling disputes between young, hormonal-charged cockerels, belting out the food cluck, and quickly shepherding them away from some perceived threat.

Another personality trait is that Charlotte has no interest in running after treats and competing with the other hens and roosters for tidbits. Elaine and I have long enjoyed saying “looky, looky” and then tossing bread or vegetable bits into some corner and watching our chooks charge the chow. Charlotte, instead, marches directly toward us with the expectation that we held back some delicacy just for her, and she’s right; we always do.

Diligent mother hens, such as Charlotte often nurture their chicks longer than six to eight weeks.

Of course, I guess Charlotte has become accustomed to a little pampering. When hens go broody, I always make it a point to bring fresh blueberries to them at least once a day. I think on some level, they appreciate the gesture, and I believe that the moisture and nutrition that blueberries possess must be beneficial for a creature undergoing three weeks of maternal stress.

That subhead best describes the attitude of Mary, the best broody we’ve ever had. She had little interest in interacting with the other hens, racing after tidbits, or dealing with amorous roosters. Her whole purpose in life seemed to be brooding eggs and raising chicks. Mary is also the only hen we’ve ever had that went broody twice in one year.

I’ve often pondered Mary’s place in the pecking order. She was clearly not the alpha, but I also never witnessed any of the other hens bullying her as female chooks often do to each other. She just seemed to live in this rarified world where she was a gamma girl. The gamma female is not at the top of the hierarchy, but she is also not a victim of abuse. Mary simply went her own way, and that meant the whole year was a prelude to going broody once again. Mary died the winter she turned five, and I believe she would once again have tried to raise a clutch if she had survived the stress of the cold weather period.

If you are fortunate enough to have a hen or hens become broody, relish what is to come. The nesting period, the glorious day of hatching, the rearing of the young, a young chick’s first dust bath, chest-bumping wanna-be cockerels, and a host of other fascinating events are all part of the experience. And may you have broodies such as Mary and Charlotte and not like Ethyl and Daisy.

This story about broody hens and their types was written for Chickens magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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