A young commercial layer (hen) will lay almost one egg a day, but one egg every other day is more typical for a home flock with older hens of mixed pedigree. One rooster for every ten hens or so will ensure the eggs are fertile. Some roosters can handle more. If a rooster isn’t successfully fertilizing eggs with a flock of ten hens, a new rooster is in order.
For the purpose of this article, a “broody-hen” is a hen that will go broody. A hen that has gone broody is a hen that has laid all the eggs she thinks she should, and she now intends to sit on those eggs for 21 day to hatch out chicks.
If you look at and gently bother a hen who is sitting on a nest to lay an egg, she will become alarmed and rush out of the coop making a racket. Do the same to a hen that is broody, and she will sit still and ignore you, or the meaner ones will fix you with a hate filled eye and double dare you to try something. (These are the very best broody-hens.) Mostly you will notice that when you are collecting eggs in the evening, there will be a hen refusing to move from the nest. Leave her for 24 hours and if she’s still there, then she’s serious.
Not all hens will go broody, in fact, breeds that specialize in laying eggs such as Leghorns should never go broody. Other breeds are hit and miss, like Buff Orpingtons. I have a friend who has a whole flock of about 12 hens and none of them have ever gone broody, whereas I bought five and two of them do go broody every year. Other breeds are notorious for being broody, such as Silkies. As I run a mixed flock, there are usually more broody-hens than I want, but once I did have to actively seek an influx of broody stock. I didn’t want to use Silkies since they are small like bantams and all of these small birds are just the size for hawks to snatch up. One minute there they are, then the next minute gone! Standard old English game chickens are known to go broody, and the ones I bought from Cackle Hatchery, though expensive, certainly were and have passed these broody genes down through the generations.
Standard Old English Game chicks from Cackle Hatchery
Do not keep a broody-hen that will not complete her job. Any hen that starts to sit on eggs and changes her mind, or abandons her chicks too early, is a hen that has taken time from you, ruined all of those eggs and is not producing eggs as she should. Soup would be a good job for her.
Now is as good a time as any to point out that half of the hatched chicks will be male, yet a flock only needs about one rooster per about ten hens. This means there will be a lot of extra males, so don’t start down this path if you don’t have a plan to get rid of them. The most sensible plan would be to slaughter and butcher the extra males and put them in the freezer. Or you can give them to someone else who will butcher them. Don’t think you can keep them (this will lead to flock chaos including the males fighting, and multiple rapes of the hens daily resulting in torn up backs and low egg production) or give any away to a paradise country estate. I have succeeded in finding nice homes for three roosters over two decades — this isn’t enough to dent the number of male chickens you will be stuck with.
It should be noted here that a hen used to raise young will not be producing eggs. So she will produce no eggs for the 21 days she’s sitting on the eggs, or for four to six weeks while she’s looking after her chicks, and she may decide to go broody two to three times a summer. Two our three broody-hens is all a that are needed to maintain a home flock and produce surplus chickens for the freezer. By banding the broody-hens you can try to keep the number of broody-hens necessary to meet your needs.
If you have more hens going broody than you want, and you don’t want to convert them into soup, then put them in a bare pen with food and water for four to five days. Make sure they have necessary protection from the elements, but also have no comfy place for a nest. Exceptionally broody hens will sit on nothing, and the idea of the pen-treatment is to break up this mindset.
When a hen goes broody in the egg-laying nesting box, I don’t use any of the eggs she is currently sitting upon. There are usually only one or two since I collect eggs daily and hens tend not to lay in a nesting box with a broody hen in it. “Tend” is in italics because they will, and broody hens will move to another nest if annoyed too much, leaving ruined eggs behind and ruining a new batch as well. What to I mean by “ruined”? The chick has started to develop inside the egg, starting with a large round spot on the yolk and the egg white becomes runny. I scramble these eggs and I’m sure caught early enough they would taste fine, but I feed them to the dogs and back to the chickens. It’s unlikely that a broody hen will stay on eggs in the egg-laying nesting box for the 21 days necessary to hatch chicks, given the likely interference of other hens. Even if she does, other hens will lay some eggs in the nest which, over three weeks, will result in too many eggs and a very low number of chicks hatched. Furthermore, when the first few eggs hatch, the mother hen will leave with the first few chicks so none of the eggs laid in the nest later will survive.
So, you have a hen that has gone broody. Leave her where she is, and fix up a place for her separate from all other hens, safe from predators, protected from weather and with the nest in semi-darkness. A separate pen with a doghouse in it will work, or partition off a part of the barn or a shed. I have two broody-boxes that are four by four feet each, with screened fronts. Smaller than this and the broody-hen may be too tense to finish her job. It’s critical that the nest is insulated on the bottom, contained on the sides so eggs don’t role out and will not hold in moisture. Soda can crates, or kitty litter boxes with multiple holes drilled in the bottom to allow moisture to escape, work well. I put down two to three layers of newspaper in the bottom of the crate or box, and then make a nest with hay. Put up to ten eggs in the nest for a standard-sized chicken, maybe up to 12 for larger hens.
The eggs that you use can be several days old at room temperature, but they cannot have been refrigerated and should be kept out of sunlight to avoid over heating. (I would not trust eggs left out during even one very hot day.) Once the hen is sitting on them, the older and the newer eggs will all start to produce a chick at the same time, triggered by the heat from the hen’s body. Since my hens lay different sizes and colors of eggs, I take a picture of the nest so I won’t forget what the eggs were like. Do not use the few eggs the hen is already sitting on in the egg-nesting box, as these will hatch first and she’ll leave the almost ready-to-hatch eggs behind.
Put the nesting box into the semi-dark, protected area of the enclosure. It’s best to put it on top of a little hay so it’s not in direct contact with the ground or floor boards. The hotter the weather is, the more important it is to ensure moisture can escape. Provide cracked corn or poultry food, and water in the enclosure. She will not eat or drink much. Make sure the water dish is shallow so chicks can’t drown in it.
Take the broody hen and move her to the enclosure with the nesting box and new eggs. I put on gloves because I’m a coward. Slide your hand under her body and firmly grasp a leg. Then get the other one. As long as you don’t let go of the legs, she can’t get away. Carry her, supporting her body to keep her as calm as possible, to the enclosure and set her down, then quickly shut the door. I like to do this when it’s early twilight. She needs to be able to see those tempting eggs in the nest, but it’s best if she doesn’t have a lot of time to carry on about being moved, and it may help if she can’t see too well to notice nest differences. But I have moved hens successfully in the middle of the day.
Mark on your calendar when the chicks are due, and check her food and water every few day. Don’t clean up droppings; she needs to be bothered as little as possible.
Chicks should hatch out of 80-100 percent of the eggs in the nest. It is often said that chicks that don’t hatch out themselves cannot be saved. This is not true, but saving partially hatched chicks or slowly hatched chicks (with curled feet) will be covered in a different article.
Luckily, the hen will raise the chicks herself with little help from you. I’ve seen them successfully rear young hatched in the highest heat of summer, and when there was light snow on the ground (more than light snow can lead to chicks with frost-bitten toes). They can be moved to a larger enclosure immediately, or if the enclosure they are in is big enough you don’t have to move them at all. The chicks do not need food or water for 2-3 days as they will be living off of the yolk in their stomach, so I think it’s best to leave the new family alone for a few days. If you pick up a newly hatched chick, you can feel it’s soft belly filled with yolk. Be aware, the hen will try to kill you if you try to pick up a chick, but luckily her arsenal can only nick your skin.
If you’re not going to let the hen and chicks forage for food, they will have to be provided with commercial chick feed. In a pinch, ground cat or dog food and cracked corn will work in the short term — they can be ground fine enough for a chick in a blender. Or dog food can be soaked in water overnight and they can eat that. I don’t do any of this with chicks hatched by a hen, though. After 2-3 days, I let them go out and get their own food each afternoon, ensuring they have cracked corn and some table scraps in the morning. There is nothing like watching a hen show her chicks how to forage for food.
If you should want to move the hen and chicks from one place to another when they are loose, slowly herd the chicks with your arms spread out. When very young, they’ll generally stay together, and the hen will follow the chicks while occasionally charging you and perhaps pecking your toes. (When over ten days old, forget it, as the chicks can fly, have a lot of confidence, and will not herd.) If there are obstacles and a chick gets separated, leave it and finish moving the others. Then go back and get it. But what if you can’t find or hear it? Chicks can be crafty and when alone will often hide and go quiet, but eventually they will cheep for mom to get them, and then you will have them. Do not have any loose dogs around when you do this. Dogs are craftier than chicks, and like to feel them squish in their teeth.
The hen and chicks can be reintroduced to the flock almost immediately if the pen is large enough. Set up a shelter on the ground, and watch for bullying, which will rarely and briefly happen if the mother hen is low on the flock pecking order. I’ve never had to interfere or separate a hen and chicks from the main flock, but I have a large pen and let all of them out for several hours daily, so the chickens aren’t stressed. More stressed flocks may result in less tolerant adult birds and more serious problems. Watch them at feeding time and this should tell the tale.
The hen will stay with them for up to six weeks, but most leave them earlier. As long as the young birds have grown out their feathers, have their mates (siblings), and look like they know what they’re about, they will be fine on their own, except for predators. When young chickens are no longer protected by their mother, but are not yet close to adult size, is when I have had my biggest losses in the past due to predation. The more time young birds are penned, the fewer will be your losses (this is true for any size chicken, but much more so for smaller birds). On the other hand, the more the chickens are penned, the less happy and healthy they will be. The right ratio depends on your loss tolerance, location and predator load, and dogs — which can discourage predators or be predators themselves depending on the dog.