When Hens Go Broody
How to Care for Your Naturally Expanding FlockPosted Aug 2, 2016
Your hen is perfectly normal, until one day, you notice that she’s hunkered down in a nesting box, making sounds like a feral cat and fluffing herself up like your grandmother’s feather duster. Resisting your attempts to move her, she guards whatever is beneath her (eggs or no eggs) with determined revolt and all the tenacity of an elephant.
No, your hen hasn’t gone insane, nor is she sick, but she has entered a phase of hen-life commonly known as “broodiness.” Her internal clock, triggered by the sun’s increasing rays, along with her own hormones and genetics, has decided—come hell or high water—that it’s time to be a mom.
If you raise chickens for eggs, odds are that you will face the enigma of the broody hen at some point in your husbandry career. As noted above, hens go broody for a variety of reasons. Some are genetically predisposed to want to hatch eggs. Others are easily influenced by outside circumstances like a nearby clutch or another broody hen in the flock. Whatever the case, you cannot make a hen go broody by putting her on eggs. A hen will go broody when her internal clock tells her to do so.
If you do end up with a broody hen and you’re eager to welcome whatever she produces, here are some things to think about as you expand your flock the good old-fashioned way.
What Does Broodiness Look Like?
A broody hen is a hen with a mission. Rather than leave the nesting box after laying, like other hens in the flock, a broody hen will stay in one place much of day. She will flatten herself out to protect her clutch, pluck feathers from her breast to soften the nest, and make low rasping or gurgling sounds when you approach, indicating she wants to be left alone. Some hens will even peck or kick up a loud and impressive stink if you attempt to touch them. A broody hen will continue to act this way for three weeks or longer whether or not she has eggs to sit on.
How to Care for a Broody Hen
If your hen is broody, removing her from the communal nesting box and placing her in a more isolated location is usually necessary. This is important for two reasons. First, although a broody hen doesn’t eat or drink very much while sitting on eggs, she will get up at some point during the day to sip and nibble. When this happens, other hens may lay eggs in her clutch, confusing the incubating eggs with those you might want to harvest for breakfast. Second, when her chicks do hatch, there is a chance they will be vulnerable to other hens in the flock. These jealous Henriettas may peck or chase them when they emerge from mama’s fluffy underbelly.
Creating a separate nesting area for your broody hen will guard against these outcomes. To ensure your hen accepts the switch, have the new location mirror the size of her original nesting box as much as possible. Fill with straw or shavings and carefully place her eggs on this new nest, marking the day that she began sitting on the calendar. If you move your broody hen at night, she will usually acclimatize to her new surroundings by morning. Some still kick up a fuss, and may attempt to get back to the original nesting box. For this reason, it is easier to move a broody hen to a location that she can’t leave—at least for a day or two—before opening the door. Ensure that she has easy access to food and water, however, since she may not get up for long periods of time.
After 21 days, listen for the sounds of chicks hatching. Although some broody hens do their job well, some react strangely to hatching eggs and have been known to turn cannibalistic at the crucial moment. Until you know your bird’s temperament, it’s wise to check her several times a day around hatching time. In our experience, heritage breeds like Australorps, Brahmas, and Orpingtons most often make excellent mamas, while hybrids like Isa Browns seem to wonder what they have gotten themselves into.
The most obvious sign of a hatching chick is a peeping sound coming from mama’s feathery bosom. And while it’s tempting to help mama along with her job, it’s best to let nature take its course. An egg showing signs of life (a peeping sound or a “pip” or break in the shell) can take anywhere from 12-18 hours to hatch, occasionally longer. Breaking out of a shell is hard work, and chicks need to rest along the way.
Checking periodically beneath mama to remove any broken shells or rotten eggs is important for the health of new chicks. Occasionally an egg will get broken beneath your hen. Additionally, not all eggs in the clutch will hatch, and some may hatch prematurely, before they have had a chance to absorb the yolk sac. Survival in these cases is unlikely, though many chicks beat the odds.
Three or four days after the last viable egg has hatched, your mama chicken will likely abandon her sitting duties to care for her growing chicks. This usually means burying the eggs that didn’t hatch deep in the nest or building herself and her chicks a new nest in another corner of the brooding box. This is why it’s important to put eggs under your chicken that were laid near the same date. Otherwise she might abandon hatchlings very close to their hatching point.
Food and Water
Be sure to have food and water available for mama and her chicks at all times. Chick water dispensers have small openings to prevent chicks from drowning and should be within easy reach of the nest. Chick feeders are also appropriately sized and should be stocked with food formulated especially for chicks. Mama hen can eat this too, since she won’t be laying for several weeks and won’t need the extra calcium in a layer ration. As they grow and change, she will soon get her appetite (and her laying abilities) back.
When Eggs Don’t Hatch
If 21 days go sailing by and there are still no signs of hatching, take heart. Baby chicks are still possible several days before or after this window—particularly if you don’t know the exact date your hen began sitting. Continue watching and checking her clutch for another five days. If nothing hatches after this time, and you are quite certain of her sitting date, watch your hen for signs that she has given up. If she does not do so, you will need to consider breaking your hen of her broody habit.
Hens who remain in their broody phase will lose weight and may get dangerously ill if they go too long without food and water. Signs of an ill hen after an unsuccessful broody period include listlessness, droopy heads, and a pale, sickly-looking comb. Breaking a hen of her broodiness in this situation is a life-or-death option. The best way to do so is by using a wire cage, complete with wire floor, so your hen’s nether regions receive cool air circulation. A hen’s stay in this “broody breaker” usually lasts an average of three days—and don’t forget the food and water!
Broody hens will poop less frequently than hens that haven’t gone broody, but the poop will be large and very smelly. If your hen can’t easily get outside her nesting box to defecate during broodiness, be sure to take her out a few times per day to do her business. We’ve had hens that are almost “housebroken,” pooping only when we take them outside the brooding house. Once back into laying mode, however, they resume their random pooping ways. Apparently some hens know they shouldn’t soil a nest when babies are about—clever hens!
Once your hen has hatched her brood, her internal clock will signal her egg-laying capabilities to begin anew. If all went well, she will return to full form about six weeks after she began to sit. Now she can return to her layer ration—and you can enjoy watching her babies and eating eggs for breakfast.
Shannon Cowan is an author, editor, and teacher who lives on six acres of land with her husband, daughters, and backyard chicken flock.