It’s likely that no story from Otterridge Creek has garnered more exclamations of surprise than the one of a chicken hatching a duckling. “What? A real duckling?!”
I used to pull out my phone and show off a short video clip of the dedicated Black Australorp with her fuzzy yellow-billed baby quacking behind her. It was highly satisfying.
I’m sure many a backyard fancier has wondered about the possibilities of setting eggs from differing species under their wistfully waiting broody. Perhaps your farm is overflowing with spring chicks and doesn’t need any more, but another hen is setting, so can you give her duck eggs? Pheasant eggs? Turkeys?
It can be done, if the circumstances are right and you make a few allowances for natural differences. Some things are simply common sense. You wouldn’t want to put quail eggs under a goose, or vice versa.
I’ve had some success with cross-species brooding, and I’m happy to share a few of my war stories and tidbits of information I’ve gained along the way.
One of the first considerations for brooding is size. Ask yourself these questions:
- How large of an egg can fit underneath your broody and still incubate correctly?
- How many eggs can she set comfortably in the clutch?
- How large will the babies be right off the bat?
- Will she be able to keep them covered and warm as they grow?
Conversely, is the surrogate mother so big that an accidental step onto the chick would kill it? To avoid excessive complications, it’s probably best to match birds with eggs that are close to their normal egg size.
The standard chicken incubation cycle is a precise 21 days, or exactly 3 weeks. As poultry enthusiasts know, many dedicated broody hens will set much longer if chicks don’t appear on time.
If the incubation temperature is colder than the natural mother’s body temp, hatching will be delayed. If it’s warmer, hatching will be accelerated. Either option tends to cause deformities or lower hatch rates in the offspring. (These are common problems with novice operation of household electronic incubators.)
Read more: Is your broody hen too young to hatch eggs?
The Die-Hard Broody Hen
Last summer was busy, to say the least. Broody after broody started setting in the barn, we were raising hogs, the cows were getting out frequently and, of course, full-time off-the-farm jobs all around. Since we gather eggs daily and have to set aside eggs for our hens to set, it’s not very surprising that we missed giving one new broody a clutch of eggs for brooding.
“Did you give that new broody eggs today?”
“Ah, no, I forgot!”
So it went, for about two weeks. I thought ruefully that I’d missed the window, and putting eggs under her after two weeks of setting would be a waste. They’d likely die when she left the nest.
Fast-forward two months and that hen was still setting!
Of course, I felt terrible. So, when I went into the local farm-supply store on Sept. 1 and heard little cheeping sounds, I gravitated over that way to investigate.
Some young Pekin ducklings were contentedly grouped together in a brooder. I knelt down to investigate. While I don’t usually like getting chicks from feed stores, this option could possibly solve my problem. I could give that poor broody hen a couple of babies to mother, then harvest duck meat in a few months.
Besides, we had a large swampy pond area that wasn’t being utilized and was the perfect duck habitat. It would be a win all around.
One of the store employees saw me studying the ducklings and quipped: “Do you want them all?!” Without missing a beat, I replied: “What discount would that get me?” After all, it was already cold outside. No one wanted to raise chicks that late in the year, not even me.
She knelt down to look into the brooder. After a moment’s consideration she spoke again.
“Half-off?” she asked.
“I’ll take ’em,” I said.
So, instead of just two ducklings for my long-term broody hen, I left with 19. Oh, well—I’m a sucker for a good bargain. I’d just have to set up a supplemental heat lamp.
I got the ducklings home and set up their brooding circle inside one of the barn stalls. Heat lamp, waterers, feed, litter—check.
I had a vague hope that I’d put one or two of the ducklings underneath the mama in her nest, she’d accept them, then I’d move her into the stall to raise all 19. What an idyllic dream world I had created. Ha.
Long story short, mama and babies firmly rejected each other, with mama pecking and babies fleeing. I was left to raise the ducklings, and mama continued sitting on her nest for another full month. (Yeah, I should’ve just given her eggs—four times over.)
The longer you raise birds, the better idea you’ll have of how long each individual is willing to set.
The Turkey Mama
Wishing to expand my poultry operations, I purchased a nice set of Midget White turkey poults from a good-quality backyard breeding program. We kept a breeding pair, and the next year I watched eagerly as the young hen set a generous clutch. The turkeys were given a separate breeding pen to help brooding go smoothly.
When hatch day came, I was delighted to see one of the healthy yellow poults run out to greet this brave new world. Knowing that the hen had set somewhere between 13 to 16 eggs in the clutch, I anticipated a large hatch.
I started preplanning the sale of Thanksgiving turkeys and the growth of my flock. Not wanting to disturb the new family, I would only go into the pen briefly to replenish food and water, then exit.
The young tom strutted and the young mama huddled over her nest. I’d wait until mama and babies started traipsing about the barnyard before counting the hatchlings.
Several days passed, and the turkey hen stayed on her nest. I thought it was odd that every time I went to the barn, the poults needed to be huddled. After three days, I saw the tom climb on top of the hen and realized something must be wrong. Going directly over to the nest, I moved the mama turkey hen against her protests. To my horror, the stench of flat, dead babies greeted me.
The hatch had indeed been successful. But the mounting tom was too heavy for the mama’s legs to support. Not one single poult survived.
I cleaned up the horrible mess, and moved the turkey hen out of the pen to distract her. However, the hen immediately set up a new nest on some chicken eggs she found. I wasn’t sure how that would turn out, so I bought some fresh turkey eggs from a neighbor for her.
Success (of a Sort)
Twice, the hogs got out and ate the eggs from underneath her, yet still she sat, brooding. I finally gave her a tiny clutch of three chicken eggs. Wouldn’t you know it, two hatched! (Yeah, I locked up the tom this time.)
So, I had a turkey hen raising chicken chicks. Right around that time I lost a good broody chicken hen, leaving her two chicks motherless. The orphaned chicks were only a few days older than the turkey’s.
Might it be possible to get her to adopt these extra babies?
I carried the two motherless chicks to the turkey area, snuggled warmly against my torso. When I arrived, the turkey mama and chicks were calmly stepping about, completely unaware they weren’t at all related. Well, I thought, “here goes” and put the other chicks down.
A Care Caveat
Now it should be noted that chicks hatched by a living mama, surrogate or not, memorize the sound of their mother’s voice. That’s how they stay in their own little family cliques out in the barnyard, and conversely the mothers know their own babies.
However, occasionally you run into a mama—whether bird, sheep, cow, etc.—that simply loves nurturing any offspring, her own or others’. Such was my hope for the turkey hen. This was her first (well, second, technically) hatch, and I wasn’t sure of her mothering preferences.
After all, she was raising chickens!
Expect the Unexpected
The orphaned chicks, hearing the sounds of their cousins’ cheeping, ran towards the eclectic little family. For one brief moment all was good. Then the turkey cocked her head, studying the new chicks. Peck! The little yellow chick went down. I hastened to snatch it up but couldn’t grab fast enough. Peck! A second time. Poor little dear.
I cuddled the yellow chick against my chest and went to rescue his littermate, when all of a sudden I saw something astonishing: The turkey hen had accepted the black chick, because it looked like the ones she hatched!
I tried to sneak the yellow chick in again, to the same result. Nope. She would take the dark one, but not the light one. I found this completely ironic, because her own biological babies had been 100 percent yellow!
All this to say, expect the unexpected with cross-species surrogacy.
If you decide to set waterfowl eggs underneath a land bird for brooding, such as a chicken, recall that mama ducks typically get off of the nest to swim once or twice per day. They climb back in on top of their eggs with damp feathers, increasing the moisture during the incubation period.
In the example of my Black Australorp hen with the duckling, I had tried to compensate for this difference by adding water to the nest occasionally. I’m pretty sure I overdid it, though, since only one of the eggs hatched.
Moisture content during incubation is important, and specific to each species. If the moisture is too low, the air space inside the egg will be excessively large, the interior of the egg will be too dry, and the chick will not be able to turn around during the hatching process. If the moisture content is too high, then the air pocket will be too small and the chick won’t have enough oxygen to last through the exertion of hatching.
In either case, the chick will die. Try to match similar surrogate mothers-to-eggs for this reason.
It’s a Risk
Bear in mind that successful animal breeding is complicated enough, and cross-species brooding is always a risk. Occasionally, however, surrogacy might be the best option available.
For example, it seems guinea hens are chronically poor—albeit very determined—mothers outside of their native desert habitat. Hence, it’s common here in the extreme north for chickens to be used for setting and raising guinea keats instead.
Chickens have a more moisture-resistant feather structure and stronger brooding instincts, usually raising the survival rate of those cute little camouflaged cheepers.
You’ll be glad to know that, as of this writing, last year’s guinea keats have finally figured out they aren’t chickens.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2022 issue of Chickens magazine.