Working with Broody Hens:
Let Mama Do It (Part One)
Photo by Brenda Van Ness
I wrote this article for the June/July 2006 issue of Backyard Poultry Magazine, a great resource for the homestead flock owner.
I hope all readers of Backyard Poultry read Gail Damerow’s excellent “Chick Success—Start Those Birds Right!” in the April/May issue of Backyard Poultry Magazine. I have brooded dozens of clutches of chicks over the past twenty years or more using the practices Gail outlines, and can assure readers that the process is not especially mysterious or tricky—you are likely to find it relatively easy to start a clutch of chicks in a homemade brooder.
However, as I read Gail’s article, I couldn’t help but feel rather fortunate, because so many of her precautions against disaster are things I simply do not worry about. For example, she warns 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.) Gail warns about the dangers of stress, infection, and boredom if the birds become too crowded as they grow—leading to infections, toe and feather picking, 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. Gail advises us about avoiding chick diseases, especially coccidiosis, including the admonition “Brood your chicks away from older birds”—but 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. Gail gives good advice 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 Gail’s 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 two years now, however, I have not purchased any chicks at all, and am raising all my chicks (150 last 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.