Certain times during the year, particularly during the spring, some of your hens may go broody. Some breeds of chickens (and certain strains) are more prone toward broodiness than others.
What is broodiness?
It’s when a hen decides to sit on eggs to hatch them. Her body goes through certain hormonal changes, and her behavior starts to change. She will want to sit in the nest box on eggs all the time. Almost every time you go out to the coop, you’ll find her there.
How do you know for certain that a hen is broody?
She will act very bothered if you disturb her while she’s sitting in the nest boxes. She will fluff out her feathers, making herself appear much larger than usual. When you extend your hand toward her, she will be very perturbed and say, “Brrrrrrrrrrrr” in a tone that declares “Leave me alone!”. She may peck your hand, further warning you not to disturb her.
If you remove her from the nest box and set her down, she will walk around all in a huff, her feathers puffed out, continuing to make the same disturbed sound. Soon you’ll find her back in the nest box. A reliable broody hen is very determined to set, that is, to sit on and incubate eggs.
You don’t have to do anything. If a broody hen can find an isolated spot where she can sit for 21 days on eggs undisturbed, she’ll hatch them. If you give her a chance, you may even find that a determined broody hen will disappear into the woods or shrubbery for a few weeks, then when you’ve about given up finding her, she will reappear with chicks.
But this simple approach isn’t necessarily the best or most useful. When hatching with a hen, I like to be more intentional. There’s a better chance of success and of having a useful hatch.
An Intentional Approach to Natural Incubation
When a hen first seems to be broody, I’ll remove eggs from her every day for a few days.
For several reasons. First, sometimes broody hens just aren’t very serious about hatching. They’ll act broody for a while, but they’re not very committed to seeing it through. If I can deter her, by removing her eggs a few times, or taking her off the nest box, then she wasn’t determined enough.
Second, usually, I don’t know the parentage of the eggs she’s on. Or if I do, they may not be eggs that I want her to hatch. Often I will have a separate pen with a good breeding pair or trio in it that I’d prefer to hatch eggs from. So once I know she’s serious about setting, I’ll move her to her own pen (we built a small coop especially for this purpose). Then I’ll place eggs under her that I’ve gathered from breeding pairs.
A third benefit of removing her eggs and setting her on eggs I’ve gathered is that I know these eggs are the same age, so they will hatch close to the same time. If she’s been in a coop with other hens, then eggs will gradually accumulate under her over several days’ time. The oldest are incubated several days longer than the youngest. That spreads out the hatch too much.
(An interesting side note is that a broody hen is sometimes so determined to find eggs that she’ll take them from another nest box by sticking them under her chin. Then she’ll carry them to her nest box one at a time.)
Once the hen is in her own small coop, I’ll give her feed and water. She’ll eat, but not nearly as much as usual while she’s brooding.) I’ll leave her alone most of the time until she has set for about 21 days, at which point the chicks will begin hatch. It sometimes takes a few days beyond that for all the chicks to hatch. Depending on the size of the, she can incubate 9-10 eggs comfortably.
Fire Ants and Baby Chicks
One thing that can be a problem at this point is fire ants, which are prevalent here in Texas. Hatching is messy, and ants are attracted to the newly hatched eggs and chicks and can kill the baby chicks. In preparation for this, I’ll spread some rotenone around the coop and as needed to eliminate the ants.
As the chicks hatch, it may be necessary to clean up a little by removing broken egg shells. Once they’re all hatched, you may need to put in some fresh bedding also.
After the Hatch
I let the mother raise the chicks in the small incubation pen until they begin to outgrow it, then I’ll move them into a larger pen. I like to use a 3′ x 8′ chicken tractor for this because it allows the chicks to scratch and peck in the grass and soil. The mother hen will teach the chicks to eat and drink and forage for food. She’ll keep them warm and protect them from wet weather. This saves me time, as otherwise, I would need to provide those same sorts of things myself for the chicks. This is one of the main advantages of letting a broody hen hatch and raise the chicks. And the chicks end up “smarter”. That is, they learn more from their mother about how to forage, how to hide from predators and how to respond to the verbal cues that their mother provides.
Potential Problems with Aggressive Hens
While the mother raises the chicks, I keep an eye out for any signs that she might be getting aggressive toward them. If she does, then I remove her immediately. Some hens have excellent mothering instincts and will raise baby chicks indefinitely. Others, I’ve seen, will become aggressive toward some of the chicks when they are a few weeks old and will even kill baby chicks if you don’t step in and prevent it. So I watch closely for this.
Disadvantages of Hatching under a Broody Hen
Unpredictability is the biggest disadvantage of hatching with hens. You don’t know exactly when they’ll go broody. You’re not sure if they’ll be serious enough about it to follow through (though testing them as I’ve described above helps significantly) and you don’t know if she’s going to be a good mother unless you’ve had her hatch chicks before.
(Incidentally, we have one hen that goes broody several times a year and is an excellent mother. She likes mothering so much that we’ve seen her “steal” chicks from another broody hen that hatched chicks and adopt them as her own. And the chicks even seem to prefer their new foster mom. She’s never been aggressive to the chicks, is very protective of them, and will stick with them and continue to mother them until they’re so well grown that it no longer makes sense to have her with them.)
If the timing works out, often I will start a batch of eggs in the incubator at the same time as the hen. This offers several advantages. First, if the hen decides to quit setting, I can move her eggs into the incubator and finish out the hatch. So far, I’ve not needed to do this. Second, when chicks hatch in the incubator, the hen also will be hatching at the same time. So I can take a few of the incubated chicks and put them under her at night, and she’ll adopt and raise them, no questions asked. There’s a limit to how many she can raise, but she can almost always take on a few extra chicks.
What breeds of chickens go broody?
Some of the most likely are Silkies, White Cochins, and many of the bantam breeds. Our Black Australorps go broody (about 10-20% do). That’s in part because we select for it to a degree in our breeding program.
Many of the more specialized layers, such as White Leghorns and ISA Browns rarely go broody, though it will happen at times even with these. Broodiness has largely been bred out of the specialized laying breeds.
The Henderson Breed Chart is a good source of info on different breeds’ tendency toward broodiness. To be sure, also check with the supplier that you’re getting your chicks from. Just knowing the breed isn’t always enough. Sometimes different strains or lines within that breed will be more likely or less likely to go broody. It depends largely on the breeding program from which those hens were produced.
A broody hen is nature’s way of hatching chicks, and she can save you a lot of time and effort caring for the baby chicks. Not only that, but she’ll train them better and more thoroughly than you can.
But an incubator does have its advantages. In particular, it’s much more predictable.