Spring brings many new beginnings for everyone. The plants are starting to wake up, flowers begin to bloom. The ice on the lakes and rivers is long gone. Many animals are preparing and having babies in the spring. For our wonderful backyard hens, spring is sometimes an interesting time for them too- as some hens may decide it’s time to hatch their own clutch of spring baby chicks. The Broody Hen and What you need to Know.
Not all hens will become broody mothers. In fact, many breeds that are commonly available to the chicken pet owner have had broodiness bred out of them over time. This is because hens that go broody stop laying eggs, and so breeders selected to hatch eggs only from hens that rarely, if ever, sat on eggs. However, this isn’t a set rule. Hens are individuals and occasionally a leghorn will decide to sit on her eggs and she may make a fantastic mother. However, common breeds that do go broody and make good mothers include silkies, bantams, and cochins.
When a hen decides it’s time to incubate and hatch eggs, this is called going broody. A hen that is incubating eggs is called a broody hen. Many chicken keepers will encounter a broody hen or several each spring. It’s good to know if or when this is happening to your hens, and how to care for your hen during this process (or stop the process all together). Here’s what you need to know about the broody hen in your backyard.
Signs that your hen is broody
You may notice your hen is acting strangely this time of year. Here’s what a broody hen normally acts like as she prepares to sit on a clutch of eggs:
Broody hens usually become reclusive and they hide and become very grouchy as the hormones begin working in their bodies that make them want to sit on a clutch of eggs.
Hens preparing to sit on eggs will steal eggs from other nest spots and move them into a nest spot of her choosing.
A broody hen will sit on a group of eggs (or objects she thinks are eggs) day and night in a puffed up fashion.
Broody hens may pluck many or all of her chest feathers out and use those feathers to soften her chosen nest spot.
A hen that’s broody will only come off of her nest once or twice a day to eat and poop, and sometimes take a quick dust bath.
How to stop a hen from being broody
Broody hens stop laying eggs for the duration of the incubation and during the time she’s rearing chicks. This is not only hard on her body; it limits the amount of eggs you’re going to be getting for breakfast. And remember, a hen will go broody and attempt to incubate eggs whether a rooster is present or not, and a hen incubating eggs that aren’t fertile can cause eggs to rot and rupture, which is a messy, stinky, and potentially dangerous mess.
The good news is, you can encourage a hen to not go broody. The best method is to simply pen your hen in a wire bottom cage or in a pet crate that has no bedding or towels or anything in it that she can set on. Provide food and water in the cage and usually in 3-5 days a broody hen will stop being broody.
Caring for the broody hen
If you have decided to let nature take its course and you have potentially fertile eggs under your broody hen, you have to watch her and take special care of her so she stays as healthy as possible as she incubates and rears her baby chicks.
If possible, it’s sometimes recommended that broody hens and their clutches be moved into a separate private enclosure away from the flock. This protects the mother, gives her free access without competition to the food and water she needs, and protects the newborn chicks from aggressive flock mates. It’s easiest to move mom and her clutch all in one move if you want to move her elsewhere. If you can move the whole nest site at once, that works. You can also create a nest in a new place and quickly place the eggs in the nest and place the mother over the new nest- a broody hen will usually quickly settle into her new spot seamlessly.
Feel free to spoil your broody with the best food you can offer. She won’t eat much and what she does eat should be very high quality food with lots of energy to spare. Try feeding an “All Flock” raiser or gamebird feed and offer lots of scratch grains. You can treat with foods like tuna fish, yogurt, mealworms, scrambled eggs, and cottage cheese. Make sure she has plenty of fresh clean water at all times. Try offering a suet block too- the type you feed to wild birds is just fine. Better if it has bits of cracked corn and peanuts in it!
Broodies may need some help leaving the nest for a second to eat, drink, and poop. You can lift your broody off of the nest and bring her to her food quickly, which then she’ll decide whether or not she wants to eat. If you have a broody that’s not leaving the nest, some encouragement to at least drink water is a good idea.
Mites and lice can be a problem for broodies since they aren’t dust bathing as often. Dust her a little with poultry dust, and when she’s off of the nest, give the nest a little poultry dust to keep the mites and lice away.
Some say that adding fresh herbs to the nest will help keep away lice, mites, and improve circulation of the blood and boost the immune system of the mother. Try Monarda, lavender, and rosemary.
Once the chicks hatch under your hen, let her take the lead on rearing the chicks. If you’ve penned your hen into her own enclosure, wait for her to begin wanting out of the enclosure to rejoin the flock- she’ll usually know when this is best.
Enjoy your new babies! Share the chicks with friends if you can’t keep them yourself. Broody hens make great mothers and you’ll have a great time watching the miracle of life happen in your own backyard!