How to Get a Broody Hen to Hatch Eggs

 

Cochin with chicks
Cochin with two Buff Orpington crosses and a Orpington/Cochin cross (He turned out to be a rooster and a fiesty one at that.  I’m going to keep him to try to breed more broodiness into the flock (Cochins are VERY broody)

If you have chickens but have not had the pleasure of watching a hen successfully sit and hatch a clutch of eggs, then you’ve only half explored the joy that these productive, valuable creatures can bring. Broody, refers to a hen’s inclination to sit on, incubate, and hatch a clutch of eggs.  It is believed that the desire is induced by prolactine, a hormone secreted by the front lobe of the hypophysis, or pituitary gland, but other hormones like progesterone and estrogen may also factor in.  The condition can happen at any time, but typically occurs when you would expect that it would, the spring and summer months when weather is most conducive to raising young (Although, as of December 17, the Japanese bantam finally hatched out a clutch!  Two adorable males (!) from a clutch of 4 eggs (not sure what the problem was with the other two…too much cold for her body to incubate well?) and as of this 20 degree January 22nd I just caught her trying to hatch out a clutch of 5 more eggs (I took them from her…it’s too cold!!!))

chicken and chicks
Buff Orpington.  Typically I get one or two of this breed going broody per season.  The bare spot on her back is called a ‘rooster track’, the result of countless mating encounters.   The males mount the hen and try to balance on her back while positioning their cloaca to come in contact with her’s.  While doing so, their claws grasp at her back feathers and strip them away.

Will My Rooster Fertilize all of My Hen’s eggs?

Provided you have a rooster in your flock, it is likely that eggs of your hens are all fertilized.  In my flock, all but the smallest Japanese bantam (ironically the one that is the most broody) have been ‘ridden’ by the males.  Watching chicken’s  copulate is not for the faint of heart.  After luring the hen close by pretending to have something tasty to eat, the rooster will shuffle his feet together quickly, grab the hen by the back of his neck with his beak, jump upon her back and press his cloaca down over the rump of the hen.  At the same time, if the hen is cooperative, she’ll raise her cloaca up to meet his.  Once they touch, the male injects a small, but highly potent, amount of sperm into her.  The entire event is over in less than 10 seconds.  This one encounter stockpiles enough sperm inside of the hen to last for weeks!  Every egg that comes out of the hen during this time period will be fertile.  This does not change the taste or appearance (not overtly anyway) of any egg that you collect from your flock, provided it has not been incubated by a hen.  My research online says that one rooster can fertilize the eggs of as many as 20 hens (though whether he chooses to mate with all hens is up to him)

What a look at the difference between a fertilized and non-fertilized egg?  Here’s a great blog on the topic.

How Do I Know If My Hen Is Broody?

After a certain number of eggs have been layed (with the broody cochin shown at the top of this article, she only required three eggs!) and the right amount of hormones are present,  the hen is induced to stop laying and to start incubating the clutch.  Once this change occur, the hen becomes torporous.  She will seem catatonic as she sits immobile upon her clutch.  She’ll leave the nest only once a day to drink and eat and defecate a large, smelly stool, then return dutifully to the clutch to sit.

Can My Hen Hatch Out Eggs Successfully?

To date, I’ve had four hens successfully sit on a clutch of eggs, but it hasn’t been all wine and roosters…errrr roses!  Mostly, broody hens try to sit and the other hens ruin the process by trying to lay in the same nest. In another case, I had a RIR that became broody and, because she was so secretive about where she laid her eggs, she only sat on her eggs.  Unfortunately, she was the one hen that the rooster never mated with so her er entire clutch was sterile.  She sat upon her five eggs for 24 days before the lot literally exploded with rot.  What a mess!

baby louis
The next one to go broody was the Buff Orpington shown above.  Her broody cycle was perfect. I had already set up some nesting boxes in private pens in the barn.  She favored one, along with the rest of the chickens, and some time in July of 2014, she began brooding a mass of eggs laid by her and some of the other chickens.  Because the box was in a private pen, I could secure her away from the other chickens and prevent them from laying more eggs in the same box or pushing her off her nest (not that I think she would have let them…she is a powerful bird).

Steps to Get Your Broody Hen To Hatch Out Eggs

But let’s get to it!  Here are the steps to get a broody hen to hatch out some eggs for you.

  1.  Get a rooster.  An egg won’t hatch unless it’s fertilized.  One rooster will go a long way and will keep as many 20 hens fertilized at any given time.
  2. Get a breed that’s likely to go broody. Of my chickens, the bantam breeds (my cochin and the Japanese fan tail are the most likely to sit.  The Orpington and Rhode Island Red only go broody once a year, but the other two will go throughout the year.  If they successfully hatch out a clutch, they can go broody again within another 6 weeks, even before their previous young ones are fully grown!
  3. Set up a nesting box for the hen where the other hens can’t bother her or lay on top of her clutch.  She’ll need food and water in this area and the box you set her in should be quiet, dark and allow the chicks, after they have hatched, to walk to where the food and water is kept.  The latter is not mandatory.  I’ve had a cochin lay in a community box, hatch the eggs, then call the chicks down to her, but one chick had difficulty making it out of the nest and had I not been around, we might have had a catastrophe.
  4. Move the broody hen into the nest box at night.  Chickens have trouble seeing in the dark so they are less likely to put up a fuss in the pitch of night.  Just go into the hen house with the lights out, slowly pick her up from her area, and place her gently down in her new box.  If she is truly broody, she should settle into her new digs like a stoic blob.  When moving the hen, I’ve tried to pre load the new nest box with eggs from the other hens that were laid that day, but have had the best luck when I move the hen onto her new nest and then go back to her first nest, gather the warm eggs she has been sitting on, and slip them under after the move.  She may peck at you, but stay calm and move slowly.  Keep the eggs from getting pecked and broken by cupping them in the palm of your hand and leaving the back of your hand exposed to the bird’s head in case she pecks.  If you want to add a few more eggs at this point, you can do so, but in my case, if I tried all new eggs , the chicken abandoned the nest.
  5. Wait.  Gestation time for the eggs is 21 days, but I swear in two cases, the clutch took 23.   A lot of videos instruct you to candle the eggs, check the hen, etc.  None of this is necessary.  If you have a rooster, it’s likely that the hen is sitting on fertile eggs.  If this is the case, they’ll develop.
  6. Experience the joy of hatch day!  Some time around the 21st-day-mark, you’ll look in on your broody hen and little baby chick will look out at your from beneath the mother and you will be overcome with joy, love and wonder.
  7. Monitor the hen and the brood.  The mother will want to get the brood to food and water within 24-36 hours of hatching.  She will jump from the nest and cluck to the her brood to join her.  Make sure you’re regularly checking on the clutch at this time to ensure that all chicks can successfully get out of the nest box and follow mama.
  8. If you have a polar chicken like I do that insists on hatching out chicks in the dead of winter, set up a heat lamp some distance away from the nest, but near the food and water, that can be turned on after the chicks hatch out.  This way the chicks can forage in the broody pen without getting too chilly.

 

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