Broody Hens for Beginners
If you've never experienced a broody hen before - and you're faced with one now - then this page is for you!
Firstly, how do you know your hen is broody?
Our Orpington hens often behave strangely for a while before they actually go properly broody - we've learnt to spot the tell-tale signs early. We're talking about bad attitude, ruffled feathers and unexplained jitters. What was a calm, clucking Henrietta can turn into a nervous squawky puff-ball overnight. This behavior can come and go for a while, but it's always the first sign that broodiness is lurking somewhere not too far away! Look for:
- ruffled feathers
- squawks and more ruffled feathers if any of the other birds go too near
- unexplained and sudden rushing around - and more squawking
Next, the stubborn broody will set in...
Your hen will find somewhere quiet and private and just sit. If your birds are kept in a run, this will usually be in a nesting box or where the eggs are laid. If your birds are free range, your hen may just disappear! They want somewhere they can hide, away from any disturbance - they want to be left in peace. You may think she's just "laying her egg" - but that egg will seem to take forever to lay! She'll sit there all day, and all night. You may notice she has spread herself flat and wide. If the other hens have laid eggs nearby, she probably has them tucked underneath her! If you try to touch her, you'll notice her feathers will ruffle up - you may even get a peck and a growl. Her motherly instincts have set in good-and-proper.
You're sure your hen is broody - now what?
Presuming you want your hen to hatch, the next thing you need is eggs. If you have a cockerel with your hens, and he's doing his job, you should have fertile eggs you can hatch.
Alternatively, you can chose to buy hatching eggs from someone else. There are lots of options for this. We sell fertile hatching eggs - and there are many available online. You may have a particular breed in mind - most importantly, we recommend you use a supplier with experience, who can provide you with advice as well and eggs!
A Safe Place
We recommend moving a broody hen to a safe place, away from the other birds. There are mixed opinions about this. Some say, leave it to nature - but you must be prepared for fighting, or even death, if you choose that route. Especially if your flock isn't completely free range.
Earlier this year, we tried leaving PomPom (a broody orpington) in the main coop with the rest of the flock. It got complicated....or maybe we just worried too much? We'll write about that in more detail another time. We ended up separating an area in the main coop, like this - and have decided to separate our broody hens from now on!
A broody hen doesn't need much space - at least, not for the sitting part. All they do is sit. With our smaller breeds, we usually provide a large cardboard box - nest area one end, food and water the other end. With a larger breed, like our Orpingtons, a rabbit hutch or "broody coop" does a good job. We have a variety of hutches and housing here and just use what we have available at the time!
Line the nest with something grippy. If you are using anything plastic your hen will have difficulty keeping her eggs underneath her. Bedding and eggs tend to slide out to the side, leaving no insulation, a stressed hen & cold eggs. Use an old towel, a piece of grass turf (our preferred method) or a deep layer of compacted hay as a base for the nest.
Settle your broody
You'll need to settle your broody in her new home before setting the hatching eggs under her. If she has been sat on eggs in the main coop, transfer those into her new nest and try to settle her on top. You'll probably find she will become quite stressed with the move - handle her as little as possible, put the eggs with her and walk away. Hopefully, she'll settle again within a few hours.
Swap the eggs
Eggs should be left standing pointy end down for 24hrs before putting under a broody. This is especially important if they have been through the post or travelled any distance.
Once you're sure your broody is settled in the right place it's time to give her the eggs for hatching. It's always best to do this at night, in the dark. Simply slip your hand under her, removing any eggs that are already there, and replace with the hatching eggs. Again - do this carefully, but as smoothly and quickly as possible - then walk away and leave her. Don't worry if the eggs aren't properly under her - she will tuck them in herself.
Mark the Calendar
If your broody hen is settled all you need to do is wait. Chicken eggs take around 21 days to form and hatch - we usually count day 1 as the day after popping the eggs under the hen.
See our day-by-day development guide to learn more about what's happening inside the eggs.
Day-by-Day Care for your broody
Day 1 & 2
Leave your broody alone for 48hrs - she will need to settle properly on the eggs without being disturbed. This will help the embryo's to start forming inside the eggs.
Day 3 - Day 17
Every day between day 3 and day 18 you will need to check on your hen and make sure she has left the nest to eat, drink & poo! Clean away any poo as soon as you can - that way you will see if she has already left the nest herself. If there is no sign that she's done this, you'll need to gently lift her from the nest and put her near the food/water. Usually we find our broodies are hungry and thirsty - they will have a quick feed/drink and do a large "broody poo". If you've never experienced one of these, you're in for a shock! Think large and very smelly! She will then settle back on her eggs. Don't worry if she doesn't return straight away - it's not dangerous for the eggs to chill for up to an hour or so. Our incubators have a cooling mode especially to imitate this natural process. More about this here.
Day 18 - 21
You're nearly there! The chick is fully formed in the shell and may have even pipped it's beak into the air sack. You may even be able to hear cheeping! This doesn't necessarily mean the chicks have hatched, but it's a good sign. Don't bother the hen at all now, until she gets up off the nest herself. If she doesn't feed and drink, don't make her move. You can put some water very nearby where she can drink without getting up - this is a good idea if the weather is hot.
As the chicks hatch, your broody will become more protective. You'll hear her cluck encouragingly in response to the cheeping. The first sign that a chick has hatched is sometimes an empty shell that's discarded. If this happens, remove the shells. If you have a placid broody, she may let you lift her wings gently to take a peek - don't be tempted to do this before day 21 though - it's a very natural process and needs as little human intervention as possible!
Between hatching and when you actually get to see the chicks can be a test of patience! The hen will remain sitting until she is sure all the chicks have hatched. They will sleep and rest in her feathery warmth until they are strong and fluffy for up to 2 days before they make an appearance. They only sign will be the cheeping. Occasionally you may see a fluffy head peek out from underneath the hen - sometimes they will climb up under the wing and poke their heads out just between the hens body and her upper wing.
Leaving the Nest
After several days of hatching, and when the hen is sure she has done her job, she will get up and feed. Any chicks under her will follow. This is a truly beautiful moment! Mother nature takes over - both hen and chicks know exactly what to do. Your broody will cluck, dip and dive at the food, dropping small bits next to the chicks. They will quickly learn that this noise means food - and the first little cluck will bring them running to mum. Sometimes the hen will even feed the chicks directly - beak to beak.
Your broody hen will continue to care for her chicks over the next few weeks. As they get older, you'll notice they will spend less time under her wings, and more time exploring. In the warmer summer months, they may only go under then hen occasionally and at night.
At some stage, usually around 6 weeks of age - the hen will stop being the mother and tell her chicks it's time for them to grow up! They will already be too big for her to comfortably brood under her wings, and she will be tired of running about after them. You may notice her giving them a sharp peck from time to time. She is not hurting them - this is her way of saying "go on, you can do this yourself now". The brooding process has ended.