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Working with Broody Hens:
Let Mama Do It (Part Three)

Table of Contents

Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart FourPart Five

Good Broody, Bad Broody

Since the broody instinct has been deliberately selected against in so many breeds, it is not surprising that it can be quite weak even when present. In what ways might a hen be found wanting? A good broody wants to work—once she goes broody, she is easy to move to the broody box and settles right down, eager to get on with her task. During hatch, she knows how to give the chick the space to struggle out of the shell, and to breathe as it recuperates and dries afterwards. After the chicks hatch, she is closely attentive, nurturing, and protective. A poor broody is difficult to settle. She may be fixated on the egg nest she chose, and resist moving to the broody box. She may start out sitting well enough on the clutch, then after a week or two get restless, tear up the nest, scattering eggs, even eating one or two. She may poop the nest, even though there is room in the broody box to relieve herself elsewhere. She may keep full weight on the hatching eggs, smothering some of the emerging chicks. Finally, after successfully hatching her chicks, she may not be attentive enough protecting and nurturing them. (I once had a Silver Grey Dorking who would forget all about her chicks the second the feed hit the trough.)

Only you can decide whether you want to continue working with a mediocre mother. Probably if you have only a chance broody or two, you will be more inclined to be patient with a hen who seems to have problems accomplishing the task, to give a second chance. A first-timer is more likely to have some confusion on her first attempt, and will do better on a second attempt.

I have a large pool of potential broodies in my flock now—maybe two dozen—and my standards for performance have risen accordingly. I am much more inclined these days to cull a hen immediately if she goes broody and then fails to do the job for me. I take seriously the offer of a hen to work as a mother—such a hen earns an honored place in the flock, and will never be culled to the stewpot as long as she continues to be a good mother. But if she fails me, I have no place for her in the flock—she is neither laying eggs for me nor hatching new stock—so she can serve very well in the stockpot.

Candling the Eggs

It is a good idea to “candle” the eggs midway through the incubation period. Work at night, in full darkness, right beside the broody’s nest. Remove the eggs from the nest, and, working quickly, shine a strong light through the egg. (You can buy candling lights, though I just use a strong flashlight.) At about day ten, a growing embryo will show as a small pulsing mass at the center of a spider-web of red supply veins. Keep examining eggs until you are sure you recognize a living embryo with its support system. Then it will be obvious when you find a non-living egg—one with only a yolk showing, or a dark mass. Such eggs should be discarded immediately.

It is tempting to skip the chore of candling—and admittedly, I sometimes do—on the assumption that “it’ll all come out in the wash,” come hatch day. And frankly, you can usually get away without candling in a typical clutch. But remember, a non-viable egg is a rotten egg; and the putrefaction in that egg generates gases which can sometimes cause it to explode. Not only is the resultant smell not to be believed, the remaining eggs get covered with a thick coating of goo. Egg shells actually permit gas exchange, so those developing eggs are “breathing” needed oxygen through the shells. The coating seals off the gas exchange and can smother the growing embryo. Also, the exploded contents of the bad egg carry a heavy load of nasty bacteria which can also penetrate the pores of the shells. You should candle instead.