Working with Broody Hens:
Let Mama Do It (Part Two)
Setting the Broody Hen
How can you tell if a hen is broody? She will first express broodiness in the nests she regularly uses to lay her eggs. You may find that she is lingering in the nest a lot longer than usual for egg laying. She will have a settled, Zen-like intensity that is hard to describe but distinctive once you learn to spot it. If you reach into the nest, she may peck your hand, or put up her back in a threatening manner and emit a loud “sqwarrkk!” All these signs are indicative only, and of course are subjective. But if you come back at night and that hen has remained on the nest rather than going to roost, there’s an excellent chance she is broody.
Once you conclude the hen is broody, move her to a separate place to brood. Trust me on this one: She cannot stay in the regular egg nest. If she does, other hens will get in the nest with her to lay their eggs, in the process breaking eggs and coating the rest with goo. She may leave the nest to relieve herself, and then return to the wrong nest. I’ve been there. It doesn’t work. Don’t do it.
If you work with only one or two broodies, it is easier simply to set up a temporary nesting area in a quiet corner, physically isolated from the other hens by poultry wire, scrap plywood, etc. She will need feed and water. Be sure to allow enough room for her to get off the nest to relieve herself—if you do so, a good broody usually has the instinct not to foul the nest.
If you rely on broody hens for a lot of hatching, as I do, it might be wise to make a set of “broody boxes” where setting hens can be isolated. To avoid losing floor space for the rest of the flock, I mount them on the wall. Each box should be at least 24 by 30 inches, and 16 inches high—that’s enough for a generous nest, feed and water, and space to stretch a bit and poop. I strongly advise a wire floor—one half inch hardware cloth is best—which is much easier to clean. (Simply use a scraper of some sort to scrape the poops through the wire.) Wire also doesn’t accumulate an inch of dust in the off season like a solid floor—a nasty cleaning job. Finally, a wire floor permits much better ventilation through the broody box, which is essential.
Prepare the nest box during the day. I use either a cardboard box I have shaped as needed with a knife, or pieces of scrap wood to make a shallow open container for the nesting material. I prefer fresh clean straw. Place a few plastic eggs in the nest. Golf balls or even smooth round stones would work as well. They do not have to be the exact shape of an egg, and you do not have to use the same number of fake eggs as the number of eggs you are going to set. (Broody hens are smart, but they don’t count.) Move the hen to the broody box and onto the nest at night (only), setting her on the nest with the fake eggs.
It is important that the hen not be infested with lice or mites—not only will they rob the hen of vitality during a period when she is unable to fend them off, but will infest the vulnerable new chicks as well. My hens prevent exoparasites on their own by dust-bathing. On the rare occasions when I’ve found mites or lice on a hen I’m about to set, I have dusted her thoroughly with diatomaceous earth before placing her in the broody box. I dusted the nest with d. e. as well.
Unobtrusively monitor her the next day. It is not unusual for the broody to be somewhat agitated the day after being moved, especially if she’s a first-timer: She thinks the nest she already chose is just fine as a place to hatch babies, and the strange nest is disturbing to her. Typically, however, she will settle on the plastic eggs by the end of the first day. If she is still restless the next morning, you can give her another day to settle. If she hasn’t settled by the end of the second day, she is unlikely to do so.
After the hen is thoroughly settled in the broody nest, I give her an additional day on the plastic eggs. Then, again working at night only, I remove the plastic eggs and replace them with the eggs I want her to hatch. Key points about hatching eggs: Obviously the eggs you set must be fertilized, so make sure that your hens have sufficient exposure to a cock. If you have no more than a dozen hens per vigorous young cock, the eggs should be 100 percent fertile. You should accumulate your hatching eggs ahead of time so you are ready anytime a hen goes broody. I keep my breeders isolated in separate breeding pens, and keep eggs from each pen separated and labeled. I constantly rotate out the older eggs (rarely more than a few days to a week old, still perfectly edible), so anytime a hen goes broody, I have the freshest fertile eggs all ready to go.
Be sure to mark the date 20 days out on your calendar, so you will know when to look for hatching chicks. Yes, I know the literature says the incubation period is 21 days—and it is, in an incubator. But my experience is that hatching is as likely to happen in 20 days under natural mothers.
A final point about which there is often confusion: Add the eggs to be hatched all in one clutch. Do not add eggs from day to day as you collect them, and do not add any more after you set the hen. The germ cell of a fertile egg is ready to develop into a chick, but it does not begin to do so until the hen sits on it—that is, maintains constant temperature and humidity at a level sufficient to trigger growth of the embryo. Thus it doesn’t matter if the eggs you set were collected on different days: All the embryos begin to grow at the same time, and they will all hatch on the same day. If you add more eggs after the hen starts incubating the clutch, however, the development of embryos in the new eggs lags behind that of the first eggs, and hatching cannot occur all on the same day—a disaster.
Once you have set your hatching eggs under the broody, she will do the rest. Just make sure to refill her waterer as needed, and provide feed free choice. As for feed, I like to change to a “leaner” feed for broodies. For example, my typical feed contains corn, peas, fish meal, flax seed, sprouted grains, and other ingredients. I find that if I simplify the mix for broodies to coarsely cracked corn and peas, plus whole wheat, there is less chance the hen will have loose, diarrhea-like poops, and the broody box remains cleaner.
Some broody hens like to leave the broody box occasionally, others never do so even if given the chance. If a hen makes it obvious she would like to leave the box for a quick outing, I generally allow her to do so. She will typically emit an explosive poop of an odd, distinctive smell, then maybe take a quick dust bath, then return on her own to the broody box, since she instinctively knows the eggs must not cool too much. (A brief partial cooling during this outing does no harm.) But if she fails to return, say by mistakenly getting into one of the egg nests to continue sitting, the embryos in the cooling eggs will die. If I allow a broody off the nest, it is only when I am caring for the general flock, and I make certain the broody is back on the nest when I leave the area.