What to Expect When Your Hen is Expecting
– helpful tips for the backyard chicken keeper –
Using a broody hen is definitely the easiest and most natural way of bringing baby chicks into this world. But just because something is easier and more natural, doesn’t mean it’s fool proof, guaranteed or void of any risks and problems. Our mother hens have hatched more eggs than we can count here on the farm and we have experienced just about every undesirable situation you can think of. With all of the benefits that come from hatching chicks the natural way, we think the good definitely outweigh the bad, but it does take a little knowledge and careful planning for a successful experience each and every time.
IS MY HEN REALLY BROODY?
-Broody or Bullied?
So you have a hen that has been camping out in the nesting boxes, a spaced-out look in her eyes, growls or puffs up her feathers when anyone or anything comes close. She must be broody, right? Usually…but not always. Sometimes hens will appear to be going broody for other reasons. Perhaps there have been new additions to the flock and this has stressed her out a bit. There could be a new or young rooster seeking her out and she decides hiding in the nesting boxes is a peaceful retreat. She could also be feeling ill and looking for a cozy place to rest. If it’s cold outside, sitting on a warm pile of eggs might just be too relaxing to get up. Or perhaps a recent predator attack has led her to camp out inside the safety of the coop. If you have a hen that is inside more than out, and sitting on eggs more than she is eating and socializing with the flock, give her a thorough health check before assuming she is broody. If you suspect bullying may be the cause of her self-isolation, don’t separate her from the flock unless she is in danger of being hurt as doing so will only make the bullying worse when you try to reintroduce her. Instead, locate the bully and separate the bully from the flock to see if that improves the hiding hens socialization habits. If the hen isn’t ill, and isn’t the victim of some mean bullies, you may have a hen that wants to hatch some chicks!
-Testing for Broodiness
In the initial stages of the hormone surge that causes a hen to go broody, she may be trying out a few different spots to hunker down and may move from nest to nest several times a day. A good way to tell that a hen is at least seriously practicing going the long haul of sitting, will be the first night she sleeps in her nesting spot instead of roosting with the others. If she is still there in the morning, even with the busy rustling about of other hens trying to lay their eggs, you can bet she is indeed broody. The surefire way to check and make sure a hen is broody and ready to commit to the 21 days is to pick her up out of her nest (carefully, as she may peck you) and gently set her back down in a different spot. If she immediately sits back down and has the appearance of melting back into the ground, she is broody. If she runs or walks away as soon as you put her down, she isn’t ready to sit.
SO MY HEN IS BROODY, NOW WHAT?
Broody hens will choose their nesting spot carefully. Their instinct is to choose a spot that is safe and off the ground and where there are, of course, plenty of eggs. This means that the obvious choice is a nice comfy nesting box. But a broody hen camping out for 21 days in a nesting box can cause a lot of problems. First, a hen that takes up residence full-time in a nesting box can mean one less place for other hens to lay their eggs, which can cause stress and anxiety among hens if you have limited space for laying inside your coop. Eggs may start showing up in weird and undesirable locations, like in the middle of the floor of the coop, outside in the runs, under the roosts, etc.
If your hens are friendly with each other, they will simply hop into the nesting box with the broody hen and double up to lay their eggs. The broody will then roll the eggs right underneath her afterwards. The more the merrier! Suddenly you have a hen incubating 25+ eggs all laid on different days. Even if you have marked your initial eggs for her to sit on, you will have to check underneath her every day to remove the new and unmarked eggs before they start to develop. This means lifting her completely up and off the nest to retrieve the eggs that don’t belong there, potentially altering the delicate humidity levels necessary for a healthy hatch. While the eggs are developing, this might not cause too many problems, but during the 3 days before and during hatch, changing the humidity levels might prove fatal to the chicks. Also, if your hen is aggressive (more on this later), this daily ritual of reaching underneath her might not be an enjoyable experience for you.
On the other hand, other hens might not take too kindly to a broody taking over their favorite nesting box and might peck, push or bully her off the nest repeatedly. This scenario is also dangerous as the shuffling around of many different hens might lead to broken eggs in the nest which could contaminate the whole clutch. A contaminated clutch usually means starting over again with a whole new set of eggs.
Another reason that the nesting boxes are not a good location for a broody to sit is that she will more than likely get up at least once per day to eat, drink water, poop and/or dust bathe. While this is a good thing that she gets up every day, a big warm clutch of eggs is a hen magnet just asking to be sat on. The broody will be, by instinct, in a big hurry to return back to her nest after taking care of herself and more times than not, another hen will be sitting in her nest laying an egg when she returns. If there is another pile of eggs to sit on nearby, even if it’s just one egg, she will choose to sit there instead to wait for the hen to finish. But soon after laying back down her “broody trance” will kick back in and she will not get back up even after the hen has left her nest, and the developing eggs will go cold and die. This has happened to me many many times and it’s very discouraging.
Lastly, if your hen is allowed to hatch a clutch of eggs in a nesting box that is raised up off the ground. The newly hatched chicks may fall out of the nesting box onto the ground below which is bad news for several obvious reasons.
If your hens free range regularly, and feel safe doing so, a hen may choose to make a nest outside rather than inside. Although rare among backyard chicken flocks, this usually happens when a hen is not controlled or bonded with a rooster. For many obvious reasons, a hen sitting on a clutch outside is not the best scenario. She and her eggs will be in constant danger from predators, exposed to the elements, and more susceptible to bacterial contamination.
-Moving the Broody
The longer a broody hen has been sitting in her chosen nesting location, the more attached to that location she will be. It is possible to move a broody to a new place after she’s been sitting for awhile but it’s much more difficult. It’s easiest if you move her as soon as you notice she is broody. If possible, moving a broody hen at nighttime is also easier as they are less likely to want to get up and run around and will settle down easier in the dark.
There are a couple of different ways to move a broody hen, and we choose a method based on how long she has been broody/sitting. If you are able to recognize right away that she has gone broody (a couple days at most) you can move her by picking her up and placing her back down in your new location. Keep in mind that with this method, no matter how long she has been broody, she will most likely rebel against this move and within a few minutes she will attempt to get back to her original nesting spot. So for this reason, you do need to confine her to this space until she accepts the new spot as her own and settles down at her own free will. A roomy cage or kennel works well for this. It usually takes my newly broody hens around 10-15 minutes or less to accept the new location and hunker down quietly and peacefully. Before that happens, however, the hen will usually be quite upset about you moving her and will squawk loudly, pace back and forth and seem quite obsessed and determined to get back to her original nest. Because of this, avoid giving her any food or water in the new location until she settles down and do not put the eggs you intend on hatching in the new nest location with her right away. Use fake or ceramic eggs or a small clutch of eggs that you don’t mind potentially getting broken as she will most likely step or jump on them in her crazy stuper. It is her motherly, hormonal instinct to get back to her original nesting spot, but moving her to a safer location is necessary for both her overall health and the health of her future offspring. When she settles down over the fake or dummy eggs and she is quiet, give her a few more minutes to relax before changing out the eggs in the nest to the real ones you want to hatch.
If the hen has been broody for awhile (more than a few days), our chosen method of moving her is on her nest. Because a broody hen’s instinct is to stay laying down covering her eggs, it’s surprisingly easy to move her this way without her trying to get up or protesting the move. Depending on the nesting materials underneath her, you can usually reach completely underneath the nest and carefully lift the entire thing up with her still laying down on it. This works well with stiff hay or straw bedding. With two hands underneath the nest to keep everything together, you can move her and her nest and place in a shallow open box or crate and move her that way. If the new nesting location is close by, you can just carefully move her from one location to the next to avoid multiple transfers and messing with her too much. Have another pair of hands or a helper if possible to gently place a hand over her back to keep her calm. You also cover her with a soft towel or sheet if she is one to be anxious or stressed. If she is on looser materials such as pine shavings, carefully push a strong board underneath her entire nest and move her that way. The hen’s rounded body should hold the eggs in place underneath her while you move her, but if you’re worried about eggs falling or breaking, you can reach underneath her and remove them temporarily until she is in her new location. Of course, if the eggs she is sitting on are the ones you intend to hatch, handle them extremely carefully with freshly washed hands. Since you haven’t actually moved her off of her original nest, you’ve just moved the nest’s location, the hen will not usually oppose this move, especially if she has been broody for some time.
-Her Basic Necessities
Because a broody hen’s physical activities will come to a quick halt as she begins to sit, and because she will stop laying eggs during this period, her food requirements will also be reduced. You will notice her eating and drinking much less than normal, but it is still crucial that she have access to food and clean water at all times of the day. Most broody hens will get up at least once a day in the initial stages of sitting. They will want to quickly stretch their legs, eat, drink fresh water, poop and perhaps even get a quick dust bath in. If you are keeping your broody in a confined area or space, make sure to place her food and water as far away from the nest as possible so that she is forced to get up and stretch and hopefully poop away from the nest as well. If you have no way to allow her access to a dust bathing area, it’s a good idea to dust her bottom, and underneath her wings with something that will protect her from external parasites, (you might check out our Coop Fairy Dust we created for this purpose and many others as well).
-Pecking Order Issues
It’s always a good idea to isolate your broody hens from the rest of the flock for many reasons. As I discussed earlier in this article, broody hens can be easy targets for bullying from other hens that are simply bored or just overall aggressive by nature. Most adult hens will leave a broody alone, except to cozy up with her, peck at her a little (innocently) and lay their eggs by her to add to her clutch. But some hens and especially pullets or cockerels might want to practice bullying her because they themselves are lower in the pecking order. Protective roosters won’t be in the coop at all times to police the broody from unwanted attention (and generally don’t protect broody hens anyway because they aren’t currently mating with them regularly) so this leaves an exposed broody hen literally like a sitting duck in the hen house. But completely isolating a broody hen, such as moving her into the house or garage, etc., will present a fair share of issues as well. For one, the flock will forget about her existence over the course of the 21 days (and however long after the chicks hatch before you return her full time to the flock). Which means she will most likely lose her place in the pecking order, and therefore lose the protective nature of the very delicate and most important aspect of the pecking order, respect. The other hens of the flock could see her (and her new babies) as a newcomer and therefore a potential threat among the flock and the rooster(s) will see her as a new girl to conquer and will chase her relentlessly to mate with her and attempt to control her.
Many people always ask me if I remove my broody hens or new mother hens from the flock and the short answer is no. The best scenario is where the broody hen stays with the flock at all times, but is in a protected environment while she sits for the 21 days and for at least a week after the chicks hatch. In our coop, we have a separate large cage built in where the flock can see her everyday and night, but they can’t get to her (she is protected, the eggs are protected, and no new eggs can be added to the clutch). We have a large door to get in and clean the nest if need be, candle eggs, care for the broody or the newly hatched chicks, etc. and a small door that can be opened or closed to let her out each day to take care of herself. Even though there is enough space to put her own supply of food and water in the cage with her, we don’t. This way she will have to leave the cage in the coop and join the rest of the flock to eat, drink, poop, dust bathe, etc. and she doesn’t lose her place in the pecking order and remains a familiar face among them. This is pretty important because it also means that when she emerges from her cage full time in a few weeks or even days after her chicks hatch, her chicks will be an extension of her and will be accepted among the flock. They will assume her place in the pecking order allowing them to eat and drink just like the big girls without potentially being killed. It’s immediate acceptance by association via the balance of the pecking order.
I realize not everyone can create a separate caged area inside the coop for a broody hen, as most coops are quite small. But a small cage, dog kennel, cat carrier, or even enclosing a smaller area in with chicken wire (with access for her to get out with your control) would work well. If you must move your broody to a house or garage or separate area out of sight, returning her to the flock even for just a few minutes a couple of times per week will help to retain their memories of her as a friend and not a foe.
A Quick Note: If your mother hen and chicks will not be separated from the flock, we recommend switching everyones feed over temporarily to chick starter feed (we use unmedicated starter and we ferment most of our feed for added nutrition). The mother hen will want to feed her babies what everyone else is eating and this will cut down on possible fighting over feed if everyone is eating the same thing. The extra protein in the feed won’t hurt the older hens and this will ensure the chicks get the proper nutrition they need during the first few weeks of life. Make sure to provide grit for everyone (especially if the flock doesn’t free range) and a separate calcium source such as oyster shells for the laying hens. When the chicks are around 6 weeks old, you can switch the flock over to grower feed.
DIRTY OR SOILED NESTS
Broody hens can hold their poop in for several days at a time to keep from having to get up. With their physical activity nearly stopping completely, their urge to go is also drastically reduced. When they do go, it will be quite large and very smelly…the dreaded “broody poo.” Most hens will get up to relieve themselves away from or at least off the nest, but some very dedicated sitters will poop right where they sit, so as not to risk their eggs going cold. This is a messy and unfortunate situation, as you try to hatch the cleanest of eggs at all times, but it isn’t an immediate deal breaker. Keeping in mind that the eggs are protected from bacteria by the bloom or cuticle on the outside of the egg, aggressively wiping the poop off the eggs can also wipe off the bloom and expose the growing embryo inside to dangerous bacteria.
If you do have a hen poop in her nest, carefully remove as much of the poop as you can while avoiding using a wiping or rubbing action and then as hard as it may be, leave the eggs as they are. In most cases, the hen’s skin as she shuffles about over the eggs can help to clean them just enough (which is why its important she can still dust bathe when she needs to). Chicks can and will hatch out of dirty eggs. It isn’t ideal, but it’s possible. Remove the dirty egg shells as soon as possible after hatch.
PROBLEM BROODY HENS
-The New Broody
In this day and age of backyard chicken keeping where most flocks are a melting pot and a plethora of various breeds and barnyard mixes, broodiness is contagious. Ignore the statistics out there regarding which breeds have a tendency to go broody and which don’t, as they are very general guidelines. A hen’s “biological clock” can start the hormone surges necessary for broodiness at any age, at any time of year, and with any breed. Most hens will instinctively go broody in the warmer months with early Spring being a favorite, but there are those hens that will go broody year round with no regard for the weather (bantam hens, especially silkies are notorious for this). A younger hen that has just begun to lay can decide she wants to raise some babies. In fact, I have even have several hens go broody after laying just ONE egg. But just because she shows all signs of being broody and may even give it a solid go, doesn’t mean she will stay broody. It’s always a good idea to have an incubator ready in case you have a new hen give up a few days or even a few weeks into it. It’s unfortunate to have to dispose of eggs that are half developed just because your broody gives up or changes her mind.
There are many things that can cause a new broody hen to give up and return to the flock. Sometimes just messing with her too much can interfere with her hormones (constantly lifting her up or straightening the nest, trying to hand feed her, etc.). It’s best to err on the side of ‘less is more’ and leave her be as much as possible. Wait until she gets up off the nest on her own before you tidy up, candle eggs, remove any poop from the nest, etc.
-The Aggressive Broody
Suddenly your sweet and docile hen that gets along with everybody, eats treats from your hands and may even let you pet or pick her up, is now growling at you from the nesting box and attempts to rip the skin off your hand the minute you get close to her and may even draw some serious blood in the process. Congratulations, you’ve just been properly introduced to the grumpy, hormone-crazed beast that is the…aggressive broody.
Despite the aggravation or fear that an aggressive broody can have on human handlers, a broody hen that is aggressive is actually a good thing in the long run. It means that she isn’t afraid to defend herself or her very fragile baby chicks that will be hatching soon. An aggressive broody hen rarely means she will be violent or aggressive with her babies and we have found that the aggressive ones make the best protective mothers. Mean broody hens, whether they are aggressive when not broody as well as when they are, are generally higher up in the pecking order which means her baby chicks will be well respected and her presence when she’s out “in public” with her young ones will be feared.
It’s good practice to leave any broody hen be, but there will be those circumstances where it’s necessary to get close to her, lift her up, move her, check on the chicks, etc. and you can’t risk losing a finger in the process. If I know my hen is particularly aggressive, I will wear gloves when dealing with her (leather works best) or simply cover the hand she can see with my shirt and let her get one good peck in first. That’s usually all it takes to let her know that I’m not going away and I mean no harm and usually they will go with the flow after getting that out of their system.
If you’re placing eggs underneath her, make sure to cover the egg with your hand as you get close to her so she pecks your hand and not the egg. One good strong peck from an aggressive broody can put a hole right through an egg shell and then of course that egg can no longer be used for hatching.
THE HATCHING PROCESS
A few days before the eggs are to hatch, they will begin to move slightly from the chick inside becoming more active. This usually signals to the broody hen that hatching day is quickly approaching. At this point, some hens may cease to get up off the nest for their daily rituals and some will still get up but their sense of urgency to return will increase. As the eggs begin to move and roll underneath her around day 19-day 20 (and sometimes sooner), she can feel even the smallest of these movements. She will begin to shift her weight and lift her body off of the eggs to allow for the movement. When the chicks pip internally (break through the inner membrane into the air cell) and start to chirp inside the egg, she will communicate back to them with a low clucking sound. The actual hatching process can take up to 12 hours or more and each time the chick(s) chirp loudly and move around, she will lift her body weight up so as not to crush their delicate bodies as they are emerging from their shells.
When hatching eggs in an incubator, day 18 is considered “lockdown” where you don’t open the incubator at all and you stop turning the eggs. There really is no set lockdown rules when hatching eggs using a broody hen, but it is a very important to not lift up the hen during this time. The humidity levels during the hatching period is extremely important because a drop in humidity can dry out the inner membranes of the egg and “shrink wrap” the chick inside. The chick may still be able to pip externally but won’t be able to turn inside the egg in order to “zip” around the shell. They will essentially be trapped inside the egg and will eventually die. It is possible to assist the hatch in this situation by moistening the dry membrane with a warm damp q-tip, but it is much easier to simply avoid this situation at all by leaving the broody hen alone during the hatching period. It’s exciting when you hear lots of chirping coming from underneath her and you want to peek and check to see if any have hatched, but you will have to practice some patience and restraint. The mother hen will usually push the egg shells of the hatched chicks out from underneath her once the chicks are dry and start to move around more under her. I wait until I see eggs shells being pushed out around her or until day 22 before I check to make sure everyone hatched. If on day 23 or beyond, eggs still haven’t hatched, now is the time to candle them and see what is going on inside. If a chick has piped internally, you should be able to see some head and beak movement inside the air cell. If your dates are spot on and the chick still hasn’t hatched after day 23, and you can see the beak inside the air cell, you can bet the chick is shrink wrapped and it is your choice at that point to assist the hatch. If there is still a dark solid line around the entire air cell and you cannot see a beak or head and no movement within, the chick may have died or may just be extremely late to hatch. I usually leave these eggs underneath the hen for a few more days just in case. She will eventually abandon the unhatched eggs when they show no sign of life and her chicks become more active. Remember it is her instinct to care for the strong and leave the weak.
THE FIRST FEW DAYS OF LIFE
If you’ve kept food and water out of your broody hens nesting location, now is a good time to give her water (a poultry nipple waterer works best) and chick starter feed and close her in if possible for safety. When she was broody, we like to keep the food and water at a distance to force her up, but now the opposite is true. We place the chick feed and waterer close enough to her so she doesn’t have to get up. This way she can feed and water herself while keeping the chicks warm and she can practice feeding the older chicks that hatched first while still staying down to cover any late eggs still remaining to hatch.
Don’t expect the mother hen to do too much with her chicks during the first few days after hatching. The chicks won’t need to eat right away as the egg yolk they absorbed before hatching will nourish them for 36 hours after hatch. Her most important job is to stay down and keep them warm, but she will also use this time to bond with her new babies and practice communicating with them. When they emerge from underneath her without being summoned, she will peck them gently on the head to tell them to get back underneath her. When they chirp from underneath her, she will cluck back and lift her weight up so they can move around. When she feels they are ready she will begin tidbitting to the babies as her way of calling them out to eat. She will show them what is food and how to drink water. She is using this time to get acquainted with her babies so that when she gets up and begins to leave the nest, they will follow her and be able to understand her language. It’s important to be a bystander at this point and let the mother hen do all the work so she can bond with her chicks, unless of course she is exhibiting signs of being a bad mother.
TERRIBLE MOTHER HENS
Let’s face it, not all hens are fit to be mothers, and not all hens fit to be mothers are good mothers. Just like with humans, any female can create offspring but it takes a certain kind of personality and self-sacrificing devotion to be a great mother. Most hens turn out to be lovely mothers and it’s a wonderful thing to watch them care for their young. But there’s always the other side of the coin, and there are those few hens that make terrible mothers.
It’s usually a first time mother hen. She takes her new babies out into the big world and is so excited to be up and out of the coop that she runs off to be with the flock and forgets she has babies. Or, the chicks have just hatched (may even still be wet) in the nest and not be strong enough to walk let alone follow her and she gets up and leaves them exposed. Oops! This can usually be rectified as soon as the chicks begin to chirp loudly for her but some newbie mother hens will simply ignore the desperate calls of the babies and continue on with her business. When this happens I try to give the new mother hen some time to adjust to her new surroundings and come to her senses, acting as a temporary caretaker, keeping the chicks safe and warm if need be. But if after she repeatedly and obviously ignores the cries of her chicks, she is deemed an unfit parent and her chicks are taken away and raised in a brooder instead.
The same goes for a hen that retreats to the coop when it starts to get dark and leaves her chicks outside or in the run. A good mother hen will practice taking her chicks in and out of the coop so they know how to do it before it’s bed time. An even better mother hen will risk her own life to hunker down where the babies are in order to keep them safe and warm.
The exception: Its important to do a nightly check on the new mother hen and her chicks for the first few nights that she takes them out of the nesting area they were hatched in, to make sure all of them made it back with her safely. Sometimes there will be one or two that can’t figure out how to get back into the coop (or are too small to jump up if there’s a height difference into the coop) even though the mother hen has tried with every effort to get them all in (mothering is hard). By natural instinct, she will stay with the majority of her chicks and leave the weaker one(s) if need be. This doesn’t make her a bad mother, it makes her a survivor and sometimes human help and intervention is needed in this case.
This is of course the worst case scenario and the most feared among chicken keepers. A great broody hen that shows wonderful promise, suddenly and violently attacks and kills the baby chicks as they emerge from their shells. Something within the hen’s brain gets crossed and tells her that the wiggling baby chick hatching underneath her is a threat to her eggs and must be stopped. Hopefully, you are able to catch this behavior right away and remove the rest of the hatching eggs before she is able to kill them. In a pinch, a heat lamp and a couple of warm damp wash cloths around the hatching egg (but not directly touching it) can work to help hatch the eggs if you don’t have an incubator available.