Broody Hens: How to Care for a Brooding Chicken
Authored by Gail Damerow
Authored by Gail Damerow
To hatch chicks the natural way, you need fertile eggs and a broody hen. The fertile eggs might be from your own flock or purchased elsewhere. As for the broody hen, you never know for certain that a hen will brood until she actually does. But a hen that once proves her reliability is likely to repeat it in the future. You can enhance her chance of success by knowing how to care for a broody hen.
The hormone, prolactin, triggers broodiness. The pituitary gland usually releases this hormone when day length is increasing and healthful spring greens are available for pecking. Since most hens tend to brood at the same time of year, many people believe broodiness is contagious.
Clucking is a sure sign of broodiness. Many hens don’t cluck until their eggs are ready to hatch. But some start clucking almost as soon as they start setting.
Another sign is the appearance of brood patches, which are bare spots on the hen’s underside. These patches of bare skin help keep the eggs from drying out by providing moisture from hen’s body. They also bring her body warmth closer to the eggs.
To test a hen for broodiness, gently reach beneath her. If she complains and leaves the nest, she’s probably not broody.
But if she puffs out her feathers, pecks your hand, or threatens you with growls, things are looking good. Within 2 or 3 days, she’ll likely settle down to serious business.
A hen can cover approximately one dozen eggs of the size she lays. She might cover as many as 18, if they are smaller than her own.
If the eggs are larger than hers, don’t expect her to handle more than about 10. If they are much larger than hers (such as turkey or goose eggs) she can handle maybe 5.
Whatever their number, all the eggs must fit beneath her body. If any are left out in the cold, she’ll likely rotate them back under her and let some other eggs take a turn getting chilled. In that case, some or all of the eggs may fail to hatch.
Brooding requires a quiet place where a hen can calmly go about her business and not be vulnerable to predation. Separating the hen from the rest of the flock is a good idea for many reasons.
For example, when a broody hen briefly leaves her nest, another hen may enter the nest to lay an egg. The returning broody may then choose a different nest to settle in. Or, if she returns to the same nest, it may now hold more eggs than she can cover. And even if she can cover them all, some of the eggs will be closer to hatch than others.
Avoid these and similar problems by separating each hen in her own brooding space furnished with a nest. The nest should be at least 14 inches square and 16 inches high. A 4- to 6-inch sill at the front will hold in nesting material and keep eggs from rolling out. Suitable options include a covered nest box placed at floor level or a pet carrier with the door removed.
An experienced broody hen is usually easier to move than a first-time broody. Either way, the move is more likely to be successful if:
You might separately move an experienced broody and her eggs into a new nest. For a first-time broody, move the entire nest, hen, eggs and all. To avoid disturbing her the next morning, provide feeders and drinkers with enough food and water to last at least the first full day after the move.
Ample nesting material both helps prevent egg breakage and keeps warmth. A hen will shape her own nest out of clean, dry wood shavings (other than cedar), dry leaves, straw, or hay, always augmented with feathers she pulls from her breast.
Be sure both the nesting material and hen are free of lice and mites. They can make a hen restless enough to leave the nest. They also can take enough blood to kill the hen or her chicks. To discourage parasites, sprinkle diatomaceous earth or a poultry-approved insecticide into the nest box before placing the nesting material inside.
An egg that breaks in the nest attracts bacteria and ants. Check the nest occasionally, preferably while the hen is off for her daily stroll. Remove any yolk-smeared eggs and replace soiled litter with fresh, clean nesting material.
A hen that’s brooding in a safe, secure environment requires little by way of management, other than seeing that she has ready access to feed and fresh water. Place feed and water near the nest, but don’t worry if the hen doesn’t eat for the first few days.
After that she should get off the nest for 15 or 20 minutes at about the same time each day to poop, grab a few kernels of grain, and maybe take a quick dust bath before returning to her nest.
As much as possible, avoid handling a broody hen. If for any reason you must handle her, first gently raise each wing. She may have an egg under a wing that could drop and break, possibly cracking other eggs as well.
If the hen doesn’t seem to be eating, pique her interest by either lifting her off the nest and putting her down near the feeder or by sprinkling a little scratch in front of the nest. If she remains indifferent, chances are she’s been eating when you’re not around.
One way to tell if a hen has been eating is to watch for broody poops. To avoid contaminating her eggs, a hen rarely poops in the nest. Instead, she holds it until she leaves the nest. Then she immediately relieves herself by dropping one huge blob.
To keep the poop firm, therefore easier to clean up, feed scratch grain instead of layer ration. Since a hen doesn’t eat much while she’s on the nest, scratch also helps maintain her weight.
The hen typically will drink more than she eats. To encourage drinking and prevent dehydration, make sure her water is always fresh, clean, and plentiful.
After the sixteenth day for chicken eggs and the twenty-fourth day for others, do not disturb the hen. Normally all the chicks will hatch within a few hours of each other. Chicken eggs hatch in about 21 days. Eggs of other poultry species take 28 days, except Muscovy eggs at 35 days.
The hen will keep her brood on the nest for another day, maybe two, waiting for stragglers. Meanwhile, she likely will become aggressive toward all intruders, including you. Small children who are rightly excited to see the chicks should remain at a distance until things settle down.
You have successfully cared for your broody hen. Now she needs a little alone-time to connect with her newly hatched chicks.