Hatching Chicks the Old-Fashioned Way

Hatching eggs with an incubator is pretty easy. But with a broody hen, you can experience one of nature’s exciting life cycles.

by Ana Hotaling
PHOTO: Ana Hotaling

Hatching your own chicks has become quite easy for hobby farmers and poultry fanciers, thanks to readily available fertilized eggs on eBay and incubators on Amazon. It’s almost Jetsonian: Place your order online, open your packages and 21 days later … poof! Instant farm. It’s a convenient, educational and entertaining way to start or expand your flock.

If you prefer a more traditional approach to growing your bird herd, however, you need to do a little more prep work than hatching the space-age way. In the end, however, your efforts will yield an experience just as if not more rewarding. For hatching eggs the old-fashioned way, you need:

  • a broody hen
  • fertilized eggs
  • a quiet place to brood
  • a safe place for your hen to raise her chicks

The Broody Hen

Before commercial or home incubators existed, there were hens. We of course still have hens but, for brooding purposes, we can’t just pick any old (or young) hen. For home brooding to succeed, we must be selective in the breed of bird. Certain chicken breeds feature a mommy instinct so deep that the hens will contentedly set on a rock at a moment’s notice. Diametrically opposed are varieties whose maternal instinct has been bred out, resulting in high-producing hens that won’t give an egg a second glance.

If you plan to hatch eggs naturally, it’s best to include broody breeds in your flock. These include large fowl such as Orpingtons, Cochins and Light Brahmas. Bantam breeds such as Silkies and Old English Game Hens will also do. Bear in mind that broody hens do not lay eggs; their focus in on hatching. If you want to maintain your egg supply while your hens brood, include non-broody layers such as Leghorns, Lakenvelders and La Fleche in your flock.

Fertilized Eggs

Changes are, if you have a rooster among your hens, your eggs are already fertilized and ready for incubation. If you don’t have a rooster, don’t fret: Locating a source of hatching eggs is as easy as an online search. If you seek a specific breed, check that breed’s website. National breed clubs such as the Ameraucana Alliance frequently feature directories where members list whether they sell hatching eggs, chicks or adult birds. If you seek heritage breeds, the Livestock Conservancy’s breeder directory similarly lists members and their offerings. Your local 4-H or county extension office might can direct you to poultry farms that sell hatching eggs; you might also find a neighbor or local farmer who has fertilized eggs. When all else fails, there’s eBay, which has become a huge resource for chicken breeders selling hatching eggs.

hatching broody hen eggs chicks
Ana Hotaling

Keep Things Quiet

When a hen first begins to set eggs, it can take one to three days for her to sink into that all-consuming trance that is characteristic of a broody hen. During this time, excessive noise and activity can cause her to “break her brood” and abandon her eggs. Prevent this by having a separate brooder or tractor in which she can brood all she wants without being bothered. Include a feeder and waterer; broody hens rarely leave the nest but, when they do, they need quick access to food and water.

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If you cannot provide separate housing for your broody hen, give her more privacy by pinning a short curtain over the entrance to her nestbox. The dimmed lighting encourages brooding and helps keep her calm when she hears the everyday traffic in the coop. The curtain can also help deter curious hens from climbing in, laying their own eggs in the broody nest, accidentally breaking the hatching eggs or causing the poor broody to abandon her eggs.

The Baby Brooder

Have the new family’s habitat ready two or three days before hatching day. Include a fresh nest of soft straw and dried grasses if possible, especially if you can’t move the nest used for incubation and hatching. Use a ceramic wall panel or other safe heat source to bring the brooder to 95 degrees, the ideal temperature for newly hatched chicks, and keep a thermometer mounted inside to gauge the brooder’s heat level. Use a waterer with a small lip that lets the chicks learn to drink without the danger of drowning. (Add pea gravel to raise the water level in the drinking saucer if necessary.) A trough-style feeder lets mother as well as babies to feed; remember to use chick starter only, as chick grower or layer rations can irreversibly damage a baby bird’s kidneys.

Hatching—and Moving—Day

hatching broody hen brooder chicks eggs
Ana Hotaling

When hatching day is imminent, set up a monitoring schedule to check for chick arrival. Avoid disturbing your broody; simply listen for sounds of peeping below your bird. A chick can take hours to pip its way through its shell, so be patient; all of your clutch’s eggs should hatch within 20 hours of the first chick’s emergence. Remove the discarded eggshells if you can do so without disturbing mother and babies. Carefully watch to ensure that no chicks accidentally tumble out of the nest or nestbox. Two weeks ago, I found one of our baby Ameraucana chicks on the floor of its coop, just inches from the nestbox where it had hatched. Fortunately, it was one of those 100-degree days and the baby hadn’t chilled. With relief, I popped it back under a worried Dolly, who’d been quietly clucking and crooning to the chick the entire time.

When all your chicks have hatched, it’s time to move the little family to its brooder. Quickly lift the nest and place it within a carton or handled laundry basket. If possible, have a friend or family help you to prevent any chicks from escaping as you lift. Cover the carton or basket with a towel and swiftly transfer the birds to their brooder. Place the mother in first; this way you can give the babies the once-over, checking for any malformations or unhatched eggs. Next, gently tuck each baby beneath your broody’s wings until they are all clustered together again.

Of Special Note

Our farm specializes in custom chick hatches, for which we use our incubators. Every now and then, however, we get a hen to hatch eggs the old-fashioned way. Usually this is because we encounter a hissing broody stubbornly settled down on a group of eggs (because we raise Silkies and Orpingtons, this is not a rare occurrence), but sometimes it’s because we’re old softies and we’d like one or more of our birds to experience motherhood. Our six-year-old Ameraucana, Dolly, went broody in late spring and, given her age, we figured “Why not?” The same holds true for our six-year-old Royal Palm hen, Alex, although we’ve never had a turkey hatch a chicken egg before, so that will be something new. Nevertheless, from our experience incubating with hens over the years, we’ve learned a few things:

A broody hen can be a dangerous hen. She’ll fluff up, growl and even snap at you. To avoid attack, speak to your hen in soft, reassuring tones. Do so on a daily basis if your girls are brooding in their coop because, invariably, some dingaling hen will climb in and insist on laying her egg in that very same nest.

Mark your hatching eggs. Use pencil or a nontoxic marker to identify which eggs will yield your chicks. This is especially important if you have dingaling hens climbing in with your broodies. This way, you can differentiate between your hatching eggs and your freshly laid eggs. The last things you want are a mad broody and an unfortunate surprise when you go to scramble up some eggs.

While 95 degrees is the correct temperature for a chick’s first week, that coupled with being under Mama Hen might be too much heat for a chick to handle. Don’t be surprised if you peek in and see your chicks wandering about the brooder. Mama is there and knows when to gather them all back beneath her.

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