Broodiness and Broody Hens
A broody Self Blue Old English Game bantam, "Powder Blue," with one chick
Photo of "Powder Blue" courtesy of Bill and Sue Tivol
What is Broodiness?
A hen lays only one egg every day or two. She does not start to incubate them until the whole clutch is laid. This way all the chicks will hatch at the same time. The physiology of a hen changes after she's laid her clutch. She will remain on them, with her wings slightly spread to help keep them warm, for 21 days. She will make muttering, growling sounds if disturbed, and may even peck or otherwise try to defend her nest. She will only leave the nest once a day to eat, drink and defecate. You should make sure the hen does do this at least every other day so she will not either starve or get the eggs dirty with her droppings. (Broody droppings usually come out in one large, very bad-smelling glob.) Once the chicks start to hatch she will remain on the nest with them for 24-48 hours. Any eggs that have not hatched by then will be left behind when she takes the chicks for their first walk. At this time water and chick feed should be available for the chicks.
I keep the family separate from the flock for 2 weeks, then introduce them as follows. In your chicken yard or coop, construct an area in which you can keep a supply of starter feed and water. It should have entrance holes that are too small for the older birds to get through. Confine the family in there for 2 days. They'll learn where the food is and when you open the entrances they will be able to go in and out. At this point you put the hen outside this creep feeder and the chicks can get to feed without hassle from the other adult birds. At 6 weeks, change the feed to a grower feed.
Another thing: while she's sitting make sure that the other hens can't get to her nest as they'll either lay more eggs that won't hatch at the same time or chase her off and she'll end up sitting in the wrong nest. Or if she's very protective, the eggs may get broken while she's fighting off the interlopers.
It is best to move her to a protected nest once she has been sitting tightly for a few days. This protects her from being chased off the nest by more dominant hens, leaving the eggs to chill and die. It also keeps her from having eggs that won't all hatch on the same day. Move her gently at night and keep the new nest dark for the next day. Have in it some eggs you don't care about or a couple golf balls. If she stays on these tightly for a couple days, then give her the eggs you want her to hatch. Be sure that the new nest is somewhere she can't see the old one, or she'll just keep trying to go back.
A hen is also called broody when she is raising her chicks, protecting them, teaching them to find food, and hovering over them to keep them warm.
Note that many breeds of chicken have had the instinct to go broody bred out of them so they'll produce more eggs (as they don't lay while sitting or mothering). These includes especially the Mediterranean breeds like the Leghorns and Minorcas. Most of those birds will never go broody, so don't sit around waiting. The Sex-linked hybrids and production strains of Rhode Island Red and Barred Rock also usually won't go broody.
For information on how to break up a broody hen, see below.
For information on how to hatch eggs without a hen, see my page on Incubation.
For information on how to brood chicks without a hen, see my page on Raising Chicks.
Photo courtesy of Whitman
"Breaking Up" a Broody Hen
We don't always want to have our hens hatching eggs. When we want to stop one, this is called "breaking up" a broody. Sometimes just putting her in a pen where she can't see her old nest and keeping her there for 4 days will do the job. She should, of course, have feed and water. Some strong broodies will just continue to set even in a pen with no eggs. For the more stubborn hen, a wire-bottomed cage is necessary. The airflow up through the wire keeps her underside cool and after a few days she will usually give up. Again, she should have feed and water available at all times. Some commercial people and old-time chicken raisers deprive a hen of feed and water when trying to break her up, but this is cruel and also not good for the bird. Lack of feed weakens an already weak bird (since they don't eat much when broody anyway) and lack of water for several days can damage the liver. I just learned of another trick. Put a 'clutch" of ice cubes under her. Sometimes it'll take 2 "clutches" but it should cure her.
Some hens (especially Cochin bantams and Silkies) just don't want to quit. Another trick I've found that helps with these is to put them in a pen with nothing but feed, water and a very active young cockerel. He just won't let them sit there as he'll constantly be trying to mate them.
John's page with hints on using broodies to raise chicks
The Broody Breaker -- When a Hen's Mood to Hatch Should be Interrupted
Caring for Broody Hens: Facilitating Egg-hatching
Um, would you call these "ugly ducklings"?
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Direct questions and comments to Barry at FeatherSite -- questions and comments