What does the term broody hen mean?
Broody hens are female chickens that are stubbornly determined to lay on a clutch of eggs to hatch out chicks. Hens that are in the process of raising chicks naturally after they’ve hatched are also called broody hens. So basically, broody hens are the ones that are being good mamas.
Most modern chicken breeds and hybrids that have been selectively bred for greater egg production have lost their natural ability for brooding. The reason is that a broody hen will stop producing eggs until she is over her broodiness. Obviously those people focused on egg production do not want hens that stop laying eggs, so this trait has been bred out. Fortunately though, a number of the older heritage breeds have kept their broody quality. And some breeds, such as Silkies, Old English Games, Dorkings, and Cochins are especially known for their exceptional broodiness. They can be wonderful additions to your chicken flock if you are interested in raising chicks naturally – without the use of incubators and artificial brooders.
How do I know if my hen is broody?
Broody hens will not want to move off their nest. You likely won’t even see them go get food or water or leave to defecate, although they usually do very briefly. They just tend to be very quick and sneaky about it. It will seem the hen hasn’t left her nest box for days or longer. She also will likely be very protective of her eggs, puff up, and make egg collecting more difficult for you.
Some people mistakenly think their hen is broody when they’ve seen their hen sitting in the nest box for several hours and then wonder why she keeps leaving her eggs alone later. In this case, the hen was likely not brooding and just taking her time laying an egg. If your hen is truly broody and ready for setting on eggs, she will not want to leave at all or only very briefly with quickly returning to her nest.
A good way to test if a broody hen is really ready for hatching chicken eggs and raising chicks naturally is to move her to a new nest box in an isolated area out of sight of her old nest and test her for about 4 or 5 days. The moving should be done in the evening so she’s ready to stay for the night. Place a few eggs under her that you don’t care too much about and then watch her over the next several days. If you catch her leaving the eggs alone for too long, then she’s not ready. But if she stays with the eggs all day each day and only leaves briefly to feed and defecate, then she’s ready to set.
My hen has gone broody, now what?
Now that you’re sure you have a broody hen, you will want to gather the fertilized eggs that you want to hatch out. The eggs do not need to be from your broody mama or even from the same breed. Good broody hens will not care and likely not even notice the eggs aren’t theirs. Remove the test eggs from under the hen and gently replace with the ones you want hatched. Do not worry about the position of the eggs or their exact placement. A good mama will move the eggs just how she wants them. Make sure she has feed and fresh water nearby so she doesn’t have to leave the nest for long.
Then wait approximately 21 days and you should have a nice clutch of fuzzy peeping little chicks. Since a broody hen is adept at raising chicks naturally, the mama hen will know just what to do with her chicks, although this is now the time to add a feeder with good quality chick feed. The hen will likely remain sitting on the chicks for the first day or two to give time for all the eggs to hatch. It’s not unusual to have some eggs that don’t hatch though. They likely have gone bad during the 21 days and are no longer viable. Once your broody hen leaves the nest to take her chicks for their first big outing, it’s very unlikely that any more eggs will hatch after that. So it’s then time to discard any eggs that were left behind.
What if I don’t want broody hens?
If you don’t want to deal with broody hens and don’t want to be raising chicks naturally, then the best thing is to start off with breeds or hybrids where the broody quality has been bred out – i.e. most of the modern production breeds – so that you likely won’t ever have broody hens. But if you already have a hen that has gone broody and you want to try to stop her (called breaking a broody hen), there are a few things you can try. Mainly they have to do with cooling off her underside. Tip #1: Place the broody hen in a wire cage and hang it up in the hen house. The open wire cage bottom cools off her underside and that along with the swinging motion from the cage being hung up tends to break the broodiness. Tip #2: Place ice cubes under her in the nest in place of eggs. Replace the ice cubes as needed as they melt. Tip #3: Take the broody hen and dunk her underside into a bucket filled with icy cold water. These tricks don’t always work though. Some broody hens are just more stubborn and there’s not really anything else to do other than wait it out. Eventually, most broody hens will snap out of it on their own.