Working with Broody Hens: Let Mama Do It
You’ll find it easy to find plenty of information describing step-by-step the care of new chicks in an artificial brooder. I have brooded dozens of clutches of chicks that way over the course of several decades, and can assure you that the process is not especially mysterious or tricky—you should find it relatively easy to start a clutch of chicks in a homemade brooder.
However, when I read those descriptions for brooder care I feel fortunate because so many of their precautions against disaster are things I simply do not worry about. For example, they warn that the brooder must be draft free and that it must be kept at 95°F the first week. But my first chicks of the season—a week out of the shell—are out on the pasture even as I write. The temperature is 45-50°, and there is a 20-mile-an-hour wind—too chilly for me to be outside without being well-wrapped. The chicks are scooting around like little waterbugs. (The temperature last night was 29°, freezing the waterers.) The tutorials warn about the dangers of stress, infection, and boredom if the birds become too crowded as they grow—leading to infections, toe and feather picking, and even cannibalism. Sounds pretty horrifying—but my little chicks have a large plot of pasture at their disposal. They are hardly crowded, and certainly show no signs of being bored. What about avoiding chick diseases, especially coccidiosis, including the frequent admonition “Brood your chicks away from older birds”? The fact is, I don’t even think about coccidiosis, and I don’t know that I’ve ever had losses to disease of any sort among my chicks on pasture—who are with the adult laying flock from day one. Indeed, the loss of a chick to “misadventure” of any sort is a great rarity. And don’t forget the good advice you’ll read for avoiding “pasting up”—an outcome devoutly to be wished, as I can attest after picking sticky goo off the rear end of many a distressed chick in the past. These days? I never, ever have a case of pasting up.
So what is the difference between best practices in the carefully-managed brooder and my easy-going attitude toward week-old chicks? I decided long ago that a mother hen is a lot smarter than me when it comes to raising chicks. Thus the smart thing for me to do is: Let Mama do it!
I have never used an artificial incubator, preferring to hatch new stock under broody hens—though as said, I have artificially brooded many clutches of purchased chicks. For decades now, however, I have not purchased any chicks at all, and have raised all my chicks (up to 150 a year) using broody hens exclusively, from eggs out of my own breeders.
Where Are the Broody Hens?
I meet many poultry enthusiasts who would like to use broody hens, but who are frustrated. They want to know my secret for making a hen “go broody”—that is, get into the “mood” to incubate eggs and raise chicks. The true secret, though, is that we (human keepers of poultry) have made it emphatically clear to modern hens that their mothering instincts are not welcome. That is, we have considered “broodiness” a big nuisance (since a hen who is brooding is not laying; and we’ve decided that managing broody hens is a lot of trouble), so have selected against this natural instinct in modern breeds. If we make going broody a capital offense, it doesn’t take long for the hens to get the point!
The result is that in most breeds developed in the past hundred and fifty years, the broody instinct is either entirely lacking or “hit-or-miss” at best. Hens of some breeds—Cochins, Buff Orpingtons—are more likely to express the trait than most, but even in these breeds, emergence of a good working broody is more the exception than the rule.
So my secret for getting lots of broody hens to do my hatching? Revert to the older, historic breeds among whom broodiness is the norm rather than an oddity. Old English Games, for example, express the trait at virtually 100%, and the hens are accomplished, attentive, and fiercely protective mothers. Note that I am not recommending basing one’s entire flock on a broody breed. A broody hen is indeed less productive where egg laying is concerned—while incubating eggs and raising her chicks, she does not lay. But one can establish a sub-flock of reliable working broodies, based on historic breeds much in need of preservation, to do all one’s hatching and brooding chores. (In addition to Old English Games, consider Kraienkoppes, Malays, Shamos, Asils, Madagascar Games, Silkies, and some strains of Dorking.)
Once my sub-flock of working broodies is established, I permit them simply to mingle with the flock until they indicate they want to be mamas. Only at that point is it necessary to do anything special with the broody hen.
Setting the Broody Hen
How can you tell if a hen is broody? She will first express broodiness in the nests she regularly uses to lay her eggs. You may find that she is lingering in the nest a lot longer than usual for egg laying. She will have a settled, Zen-like intensity that is hard to describe but distinctive once you learn to spot it. If you reach into the nest, she may peck your hand, or put up her back in a threatening manner and emit a loud “sqwarrkk!” All these signs are indicative only, and of course are subjective. But if you come back at night and that hen has remained on the nest rather than going to roost, there’s an excellent chance she is broody.
Once you conclude the hen is broody, move her to a separate place to brood. Trust me on this one: She cannot stay in the regular egg nest. If she does, other hens will get in the nest with her to lay their eggs, in the process breaking eggs and coating the rest with goo. She may leave the nest to relieve herself, and then return to the wrong nest. I’ve been there. It doesn’t work. Don’t do it.
If you work with only one or two broodies, it is easier simply to set up a temporary nesting area in a quiet corner, physically isolated from the other hens by poultry wire, scrap plywood, etc. She will need feed and water. Be sure to allow enough room for her to get off the nest to relieve herself—if you do so, a good broody usually has the instinct not to foul the nest.
If you rely on broody hens for a lot of hatching, as I do, it might be wise to make a set of “broody boxes” where setting hens can be isolated. To avoid losing floor space for the rest of the flock, I mount them on the wall. Each box should be at least 24 by 30 inches, and 16 inches high—that’s enough for a generous nest, feed and water, and space to stretch a bit and poop. I strongly advise a wire floor—one half-inch hardware cloth is best—which is much easier to clean. (Simply use a scraper of some sort to scrape the poops through the wire.) Wire also doesn’t accumulate an inch of dust in the off-season like a solid floor—a nasty cleaning job. Finally, a wire floor permits much better ventilation through the broody box, which is essential.
Prepare the nest box during the day. I use either a cardboard box I have shaped as needed with a knife, or pieces of scrap wood to make a shallow open container for the nesting material. I prefer fresh clean straw. Place a few plastic eggs in the nest. Golf balls or even smooth round stones would work as well. They do not have to be the exact shape of an egg, and you do not have to use the same number of fake eggs as the number of eggs you are going to set. (Broody hens are smart, but they don’t count.) Move the hen to the broody box and onto the nest at night (only), setting her on the nest with the fake eggs.
It is important that the hen not be infested with lice or mites—not only will they rob the hen of vitality during a period when she is unable to fend them off, but will infest the vulnerable new chicks as well. My hens prevent exoparasites on their own by dust-bathing. On the rare occasions when I’ve found mites or lice on a hen I’m about to set, I have dusted her thoroughly with diatomaceous earth before placing her in the broody box. I dusted the nest with d. e. as well.
Unobtrusively monitor her the next day. It is not unusual for the broody to be somewhat agitated the day after being moved, especially if she’s a first-timer: She thinks the nest she already chose is just fine as a place to hatch babies, and the strange nest is disturbing to her. Typically, however, she will settle on the plastic eggs by the end of the first day. If she is still restless the next morning, you can give her another day to settle. If she hasn’t settled by the end of the second day, she is unlikely to do so.
After the hen is thoroughly settled in the broody nest, I give her an additional day on the plastic eggs. Then, again working at night only, I remove the plastic eggs and replace them with the eggs I want her to hatch. Key points about hatching eggs: Obviously the eggs you set must be fertilized, so make sure that your hens have sufficient exposure to a cock. If you have no more than a dozen hens per vigorous young cock, the eggs should be 100 percent fertile. You should accumulate your hatching eggs ahead of time so you are ready anytime a hen goes broody. I keep my breeders isolated in separate breeding pens, and keep eggs from each pen separated and labeled. I constantly rotate out the older eggs (rarely more than a few days to a week old, still perfectly edible), so anytime a hen goes broody, I have the freshest fertile eggs all ready to go.
Be sure to mark the date 20 days out on your calendar, so you will know when to look for hatching chicks. Yes, I know the literature says the incubation period is 21 days—and it is, in an incubator. But my experience is that hatching is as likely to happen in 20 days under natural mothers.
A final point about which there is often confusion: Add the eggs to be hatched all in one clutch. Do not add eggs from day to day as you collect them, and do not add any more after you set the hen. The germ cell of a fertile egg is ready to develop into a chick, but it does not begin to do so until the hen sits on it—that is, maintains constant temperature and humidity at a level sufficient to trigger growth of the embryo. Thus it doesn’t matter if the eggs you set were collected on different days: All the embryos begin to grow at the same time, and they will all hatch on the same day. If you add more eggs after the hen starts incubating the clutch, however, the development of embryos in the new eggs lags behind that of the first eggs, and hatching cannot occur all on the same day—a disaster.
Once you have set your hatching eggs under the broody, she will do the rest. Just make sure to refill her waterer as needed, and provide feed free choice. As for feed, I like to change to a “leaner” feed for broodies. For example, my typical feed contains corn, peas, fish meal, flax seed, sprouted grains, and other ingredients. I find that if I simplify the mix for broodies to coarsely cracked corn and peas, plus whole wheat, there is less chance the hen will have loose, diarrhea-like poops, and the broody box remains cleaner.
Some broody hens like to leave the broody box occasionally, others never do so even if given the chance. If a hen makes it obvious she would like to leave the box for a quick outing, I generally allow her to do so. She will typically emit an explosive poop of an odd, distinctive smell, then maybe take a quick dust bath, then return on her own to the broody box, since she instinctively knows the eggs must not cool too much. (A brief partial cooling during this outing does no harm.) But if she fails to return, say by mistakenly getting into one of the egg nests to continue sitting, the embryos in the cooling eggs will die. If I allow a broody off the nest, it is only when I am caring for the general flock, and I make certain the broody is back on the nest when I leave the area.
Good Broody, Bad Broody
Since the broody instinct has been deliberately selected against in so many breeds, it is not surprising that it can be quite weak even when present. In what ways might a hen be found wanting? A good broody wants to work—once she goes broody, she is easy to move to the broody box and settles right down, eager to get on with her task. During hatch, she knows how to give the chick the space to struggle out of the shell, and to breathe as it recuperates and dries afterward. After the chicks hatch, she is closely attentive, nurturing, and protective. A poor broody is difficult to settle. She may be fixated on the egg nest she chose, and resist moving to the broody box. She may start out sitting well enough on the clutch, then after a week or two get restless, tear up the nest, scattering eggs, even eating one or two. She may poop the nest, even though there is room in the broody box to relieve herself elsewhere. She may keep full weight on the hatching eggs, smothering some of the emerging chicks. Finally, after successfully hatching her chicks, she may not be attentive enough protecting and nurturing them. (I once had a Silver Grey Dorking who would forget all about her chicks the second the feed hit the trough.)
Only you can decide whether you want to continue working with a mediocre mother. Probably if you have only a chance broody or two, you will be more inclined to be patient with a hen who seems to have problems accomplishing the task, to give a second chance. A first-timer is more likely to have some confusion on her first attempt, and will do better on a second attempt.
I have a large pool of potential broodies in my flock now—maybe two dozen—and my standards for performance have risen accordingly. I am much more inclined these days to cull a hen immediately if she goes broody and then fails to do the job for me. I take seriously the offer of a hen to work as a mother—such a hen earns an honored place in the flock, and will never be culled to the stewpot as long as she continues to be a good mother. But if she fails me, I have no place for her in the flock—she is neither laying eggs for me nor hatching new stock—so she can serve very well in the stockpot.
Candling the Eggs
It is a good idea to “candle” the eggs midway through the incubation period. Work at night, in full darkness, right beside the broody’s nest. Remove the eggs from the nest, and, working quickly, shine a strong light through the egg. (You can buy candling lights, though I just use a strong flashlight.) At about day ten, a growing embryo will show as a small pulsing mass at the center of a spider-web of red supply veins. Keep examining eggs until you are sure you recognize a living embryo with its support system. Then it will be obvious when you find a non-living egg—one with only a yolk showing, or a dark mass. Such eggs should be discarded immediately.
It is tempting to skip the chore of candling—and admittedly, I sometimes do—on the assumption that “it’ll all come out in the wash,” come hatch day. And frankly, you can usually get away without candling in a typical clutch. But remember, a non-viable egg is a rotten egg; and the putrefaction in that egg generates gases which can sometimes cause it to explode. Not only is the resultant smell not to be believed, the remaining eggs get covered with a thick coating of goo. Eggshells actually permit gas exchange, so those developing eggs are “breathing” needed oxygen through the shells. The coating seals off the gas exchange and can smother the growing embryo. Also, the exploded contents of the bad egg carry a heavy load of nasty bacteria which can also penetrate the pores of the shells. You should candle instead.
Plan ahead for the hatch. If the nest has sides that might prevent a chick who has fallen out from getting back in, place a little straw around it to give it something on which to climb back in. A chick who cannot get back under mama will chill and die.
Check progress on the expected hatch day without being too intrusive. With most broodies, you can slip a hand gently under the hen and feel the eggs. If you feel a crack in one of them, pull it out and examine it. The first stage of hatching is “pipping”—the chick cracks open a little hole from the inside. (At this point, if you hold the egg up to an ear and tap with a fingernail, you hear the chick peeping inside. Kids love this.) Later the first crack extends around the entire shell, which breaks open into two neat halves, the wet, exhausted chick sprawled between. After an hour, the chick will be dry and fluffy, and surprisingly active. During the day you can remove the broken egg shells from the nest as more chicks hatch.
Remember that the embryos all started development at the same time. However, their rate of growth varies sufficiently that the first chick may be out of the shell 16 hours earlier than its slowest sibling. The hen has the wisdom to know that she must not leave the nest early, and is quite patient in waiting for the last chick to hatch. The early arrivals hatch with the last of the yolk material in their systems, and are thus able to wait awhile without feed or water. In practice, this means that one typically waits until the following morning for the last chicks to hatch. Any egg showing no sign of pipping at this point is unlikely to hatch. If you shake it gently, you may hear a liquid gurgle inside—proof of a non-viable egg. Even if there is pipping which has not progressed, if you tap on the egg and hear no peep, it is clear that the embryo has died attempting to hatch. Such failed eggs should be removed from the nest, and the hen encouraged to leave and start caring for her chicks.
Sometimes a chick is unable to break free of the shell on its own, and it is tempting to intervene and help it out. This apparent kindness is ill-advised. Breaking out of its shell is difficult for the chick, but that difficulty itself is nature’s first challenge for the new life. If it is not strong enough to meet that challenge, and you give it a boost it would not otherwise have had, it is likely to start its life weak. Perhaps it is lacking in vigor, a trait you would not want to pass on to offspring. Better to let it make that first big step or fall on its own. Like the hen, you should focus your efforts on the vigorous chicks in the clutch.
Grafting Chicks Onto a Broody Hen
If my description of the advantages of a broody hen over the artificial brooder sounds good to you, you might conclude that it would be great to give purchased day-old chicks to a broody hen to mother. Will a broody accept such an offer? Maybe. Most of my attempts to “graft” purchased chicks onto a broody hen in this way have been successful. However, never assume that success is certain, and be prepared to brood the chicks yourself if the hen doesn’t cooperate. The hen should have been on the nest a couple of weeks—she is unlikely to accept a “graft” if she has been broody only a couple of days. But you can “hold” a willing broody on her nest with plastic eggs for 4 or even 5 weeks until your purchased chicks come in. The hen is not counting off days on a mental calendar—she moves on to the next phase when she hears live chicks under her.
To make a “graft,” you should again work only at night. Remove the plastic eggs and slip the chicks (who have been kept quiet in their shipping carton through the day) under the hen. Check on them later that night, and again at first light. Chances are excellent the hen will be delighted to welcome “her” new babies into the world. I have only a couple of times had a hen reject grafted chicks, but in the worst case, the hen killed a few of the “intruders.” Monitor closely and be prepared to intervene.
My most spectacular success grafting chicks occurred with a White Jersey Giant hen named Hope. Hope came off the nest with only six chicks of her own. Shortly after I put her and her chicks in a section of the poultry house, I bought in 42 day-old chicks, and set them up in a brooder in the next section. Believe me when I say that Hope asked to be mother to those new chicks, and when her “request” finally penetrated my thick skull and I opened the door between the sections, Hope rushed in and began busily mothering them.
But that is not the end of the story. That night I tried grafting ten purchased goslings onto a broody goose. The goose was willing, but the goslings wouldn’t “fix” on her, wouldn’t recognize her as mother, and kept wandering off through the dew-wet grass. By morning, goslings were going down like dominoes. In desperation, I scooped up the remaining seven and prayerfully offered them to Hope. She didn’t even blink.
Breaking Up a Broody Hen
As said, a good broody wants to work. Indeed, some broodies will set a second, or even a third, clutch of eggs in a season. But her willingness to do so may outstrip your need for chicks. Hens who go broody after you have closed the breeding season must be “broken up”—i.e., must be gotten out of the mood to incubate. Actually, management of a determined broody you want to return to productive work in the laying flock is much like management of a broody you are going to set: Isolate her from the rest of the flock, with feed and water, but in this case without a shred of nesting material. My broody boxes have a wire floor—if I take the nest box out, there is nothing suggestive of nesting. I usually leave the broody in the bare box until she lays an egg, signaling the end of broodiness, then return her to the laying flock.
Another way to break up a broody hen is to isolate her with a vigorous young cock, whose undivided “attentions” will disrupt her urge to brood.
Care of the New Brood
I have found that two hens coming off the nest at the same time may be fiercely aggressive toward each other. (In worst cases, I’ve even had to remove one hen to another location and allow her opponent to adopt her chicks.) I have also concluded that the best thing I can do for new chicks is take them directly from the broody box to the pasture. Thus my current practice is as follows:
I schedule my first hatches for about the first of April (northern Virginia, Zone 6b). I take the new clutch with the mother hen from the nest to a “halfway house,” a low pasture shelter divided into two sections with a wire partition between. If there is another hen coming off the nest at the same time, that clutch goes into the other section. The two hens get used to each other’s presence, but cannot fight. After a couple of days I release both clutches to the open pasture, and there is rarely any aggression. (Note that the only problem of aggression is with other mothers. No member of the general flock would ever be so foolish as to threaten a mother hen’s brood.)
The weather in early April can of course be chilly and breezy, certainly nothing like Gail’s 95°F brooder. But Mama knows when the chicks are getting chilly, and gathers them under her wings and breast for a warming session before continuing foraging. She gets them under shelter if it rains.
Since the new clutches are on the pasture with the general flock, there are special considerations for feeding. As Gail pointed out, young growing chicks should never be fed commercial laying feed. I make my own feeds, omit any heavy boosting of calcium, and offer crushed oyster shell for the laying hens as a free-choice supplement. The feed itself is 16 percent protein, which any poultry book will tell you is not nearly enough for young chicks. However, the mother hen works diligently finding live animal food for her brood—earthworms, insects, etc. I think the presence of live food in the diet—food of a quality superior to anything I can offer them—is the main reason my chicks are so healthy, and why there is never any pasting up. Also, I have a second low pasture shelter set up as a “creep feeder.” That is, the doors are covered with slats 2-5/8 inches apart—the young birds can enter between the slats, but the adults are excluded. I give high-protein supplemental feedings for the chicks—crushed hard-boiled eggs, earthworms from a large vermicomposting project, Japanese beetles—inside the creep feeder. I open the creep feeder at night as an additional shelter.
I hope you have the chance to give a willing broody hen a try. Especially if you have young children, to see her hatching and nurturing her brood is to celebrate together the miracle of life.