If you keep chickens for any length of time you are bound to have at least one hen that decides it is time to sit on some eggs and raise a little family of her very own. This basic instinct to sit on eggs and hatch them is called “going broody”. Whether you decide to give your broody hen eggs to hatch, or to convince her to start laying again, will depend on your personal situation.
Natural reproduction is not commercially cost effective. Incubators can hatch out 100’s of chicks at a time, while a broody hen can only hatch a dozen or so, and while brooding she is out of the egg business for several months. Many breeds have been selectively bred to reduce the broody instinct. This allows the hens to lay more eggs per year and, because they do not lose laying time by being broody, production costs are reduced.
If you are interested in high egg production, raising replacement birds using these modern methods will be best for you. However, many people still love to raise chickens the old fashioned way, under a broody hen. What farm could be complete in the spring, without a clucking biddy and her brood? Think of the lessons your child can learn while watching the momma hen leading around her clutch of chicks, and finding little morsels for them to eat. So how do you start and how do you take care of a broody hen?
If you want to experience this miracle, first find a breed of hen that still retains the instinct to nest. Usually a heritage breed, such as the Dominique, Cochin, or Orpington, is a good choice. Some newer breeds, like the Silkie, are also well known for their broodiness. Hatchery catalogs will indicate breeds that are likely to sit, but it really depends on the individual bird.
Now that you have your hens, be sure you also have at least one healthy rooster as well.
Unless eggs are fresh and fertilized by a rooster they will not hatch. Provide your hens clean roomy nest boxes that are in a darkened area of the coop. Hens prefer privacy while laying their eggs. If you are trying to encourage a hen to go broody, you should also provide some nest eggs. Nest eggs are fake eggs that are left in the nest. They can be made from many different materials from marble to plastic. Some hens are even fooled by a golf ball! Just make sure that the “eggs” are solid having weight similar to a real egg, so when the hen moves them around she thinks they are real. Leaving the fake eggs in the nest gives the hen the impression that she is collecting a clutch, and will encourage her natural broodiness.
During normal reproduction, a hen will lay eggs in what she considers a safe nest. When she has around eight to twelve eggs, she will go into a “broody” or incubation cycle. During this incubation period all egg laying will stop. Normal egg laying will not return until after the eggs are hatched, and the brood of chicks has been raised. This could take several months.
When a hen "goes broody" there are several signs. Broody hens "growl", squawk, or may even try to attack if you bother their nest. They puff their feathers out, and they often hold their wings slightly away from their sides. A chicken who is sick will often appear puffed up and droopy as well, but a broody will be lively if she is removed from the nest, while the sick bird will just creep about.
Broody hens lose feathers along their breast area, which allows more heat to get to the eggs. This feather loss can be slight or heavy, again depending on the hen. When a broody hen is on the nest they usually look kind of "hunkered" down on it. They will be reluctant to leave the nest even to eat or drink, and will hold their poo until they take one the few food and water breaks they permit themselves. This results in huge dropping clumps that are usually found near the feeding area.
Broody hens also "tick". They say "buck...buck...buck...buck...buck...” quietly, and consistently, at very regular intervals, almost all of the time. This "ticking” continues as they care for the chicks. It may be how the chicks recognize their mama, as they can hear her before they hatch.
When you are certain that your hen is broody you should move her and the fake eggs to a brooding pen. This pen should have a safe secure nesting box that is fairly low to the ground. (Think about the baby chicks trying to jump out of it after they hatch.) The pen should be separate from other chickens, protected from weather, and constructed with sturdy tight wire small enough to keep rats and snakes out, and keep baby chicks in.
The City Biddy Hen House makes a perfect pen to house your broody and her new chicks. Since you build it yourself you can position the nest box to be perfect for raising little ones. It's design will keep them safe and secure from all predators until the little ones are big enough to join the main flock. The City Biddy is also the perfect place to house that breeding pair or trio when you are raising purebred chicks or even a perfect place to keep your show birds in good condition.
Provide the broody with her own water fountain and feeder, and keep them full of fresh water and a high protein feed to help the hen stay fit. Once you are sure your hen is really ready to “sit a spell”, it is time to trade the fake nest eggs for fertile real eggs. The fresher the egg the more likely it is to hatch. Since hens usually lay only one egg per day, you will have better results by hatching fresh eggs from several hens. Simply trade the real eggs for the fakes when she is off the nest eating. Try not to give the hen too many eggs to cover well or they may not hatch. Sometimes a cold spell or heat wave can also kill the embryos. It is a good idea to candle a few eggs, after a week or so, and see if they are viable before allowing the hen to continue to sit on them. With luck and a dedicated hen you will have a new family in 21 days.
What about a hen that shouldn’t raise a family? What if you don’t want chicks, or you have no rooster? Some hens will go broody and continue to try to sit for months causing them stress, weight loss, and even illness. When a hen decides to go broody in these cases, you need to “break her up”. This involves convincing a chicken that she has better things to do than sit on eggs. The best way to do this, is to place her in a wire bottom cage with plenty of food and water, but no bedding for a couple of days. No nest, and no nest box will change her mind very quickly about things. Usually in a day or so she will be back to normal and ready to return to the flock.
Caring for a broody hen is certainly not for everyone, but it can be very rewarding. Baby chicks, and broody hens isn’t life grand!