The Basics of Hatching Chicks

Our resident goat blogger explains how to take care of broody hens.

by Martok
Don't touch newly hatched chicks until they are dry and fluffy, and even then, minimize handling them so the mama hen can do her job. Photo courtesy iStockphoto/Thinkstock (
Courtesy iStockphoto/Thinkstock
Don’t touch newly hatched chicks until they are dry and fluffy, and even then, minimize handling them so the mama hen can do her job.

I took a break from writing yesterday for Memorial Day, and today, to make up for leaving you hanging, I’m going to answer two reader questions—both on the topic of baby chicks. Here are the questions:

Is it true that if a human touches a chicken when it hatches that the mother hen will peck at it and not accept it? —Bonnie

I live in the city and one of my chicks grew up to be a rooster. We had to get rid of it, but it already did his thing with some of my hens. One of the hens started sitting on some eggs, and two of them hatched. The mom freaks out when anything gets near. What should we do? —Gena

It’s fun to raise baby chicks from a mama hen, and it’s not very hard to do because the hen takes care of most everything for you. In fact, the less you handle her chicks, the happier their mama will be.

Hatching chicks starts with fertile eggs and a broody hen. Brooding is a hen’s desire to sit on eggs and care for the chicks that emerge. Not all chicken breeds become broody. Heavy hens usually do, while Mediterranean super egg layers usually do not. Some breeds, like Silkies, love to sit on eggs. If you want a living incubator, get a Silkie!

You’ll know your hen is broody when she chooses one of your nesting boxes and stays in it, crouched down and kind of flattened out, with a hypnotized look on her face. If you reach under her or try to remove her from the nest she’ll squawk and peck—hard!

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It’s fairly easy to care for a broody hen. She’ll probably only leave the nest once a day to feed, drink and poop, so make sure she has water and food available all the time. Many people feed chick starter to broody hens because that’s what the chicks will need when they hatch, and setting hens don’t require extra calcium in their diets.

Once your hen gets broody, collect some eggs for her to sit on. Chose large, perfectly shaped eggs from mature hens, avoiding misshapen, cracked or dirty eggs that might not hatch. Don’t refrigerate them! Place them, unwashed, in an egg carton with the pointy ends down and store them in a cool, well-ventilated room for up to one week. Place a block under one end of the carton and move it to the opposite side once a day. Leave it there; this keeps yolks from sticking to one side of the shell.

In the meantime, prepare a place for your hen to sit and to raise her chicks. It should be in a clean, quiet, draft-free, fairly roomy area away from the rest of the flock so the other hens don’t bother the broody hen while she’s sitting. The area should be big enough for the nest plus an area for the hen to eat, drink and poop and for her chicks to play and exercise after they’re hatched. The nest box should sit directly on the ground so the chicks won’t fall out. Bed it with straw, pine shavings or another soft litter but nothing slippery, like paper.

Twelve to 15 eggs is a good number for a standard-sized hen to hatch. When you have that many eggs saved up, wait until dark when the hen is sleepy and take her to her broody nest. When she settles down, slip the eggs under her. With luck, in 21 days you’ll have chicks!

Broody hens turn their eggs, so you don’t have to. In fact, unless you candle them, don’t handle the eggs at all. Be sure your hen has feed and water available. She’ll make ‘broody poop’ when she gets off the nest to eat and drink. It’s the biggest, stinkiest chicken poop that you can imagine, so clean up the mess every day.

Chicks should start hatching on day 21 and probably continue through day 22. Don’t handle the wet, newly hatched chicks—not because the hen will abandon them (she won’t) but because they shouldn’t be handled until they’re fluffy dry.

Then let the hen raise her chicks without getting in the way. Feed them chick starter and provide chick-specific feeders and waterers. Keep them away from the rest of your flock for about six weeks because some chickens harass and kill other hens’ chicks. If the hen takes them outdoors, make sure all chicks are accounted for when evening comes and that they’re back indoors, tucked away safely under mama hen. If any are missing, try to find them and return them to their mom. Don’t let nighttime predators steal your chicks!

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