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Working with Broody Hens

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By Harvey Ussery

February 7, 2013

I hope all readers of Backyard Poultry read Gail Damerow’s excellent
introduction to brooding chicks in the April/May issue. I have brooded dozens of
clutches of chicks over the past twenty years or more using the practices Gail
outlines, and can assure readers that the process is not especially mysterious
or tricky—you are likely to find it relatively easy to start a clutch of chicks
in a homemade brooder.

However, as I read Gail’s article, I couldn’t help but feel rather fortunate,
because so many of her precautions against disaster are things I simply do not
worry about. For example, she warns that the brooder must be draft free and that
it must be kept at 95 degrees the first week. But my first chicks of the
season—a week out of the shell—are out on the pasture even as I write. The
temperature is 45-50 degrees, and there is a 20-mile-an-hour wind—too chilly for
me to be outside without being well wrapped. The chicks are scooting around like
little waterbugs. (The temperature last night was 29 degrees.) Gail warns about
the dangers of stress, infection, and boredom if the birds become too crowded as
they grow—leading to infections, toe and feather picking, even cannibalism.
Sounds pretty horrifying—but my little chicks have a large plot of pasture at
their disposal. They are hardly crowded, and certainly show no signs of being
bored. Gail advises us about avoiding chick diseases, especially coccidiosis,
including the admonition “Brood your chicks away from older birds”—but I don’t
even think about coccidiosis, and I don’t know that I’ve ever had losses to
disease of any sort among my chicks on pasture—who are with the adult laying
flock from day one. Indeed, the loss of a chick to “misadventure” of any sort is
a great rarity. Gail gives good advice for avoiding “pasting up”—an outcome
devoutly to be wished, as I can attest after picking sticky goo off the rear end
of many a distressed chick in the past. These days?  I never, ever have a
case of pasting up.

The broody hen exhibits a palpable focus, a Zen-like intensity on the nest.
The broody hen exhibits a palpable focus, a Zen-like intensity on the nest.

So what is the difference between Gail’s carefully-managed brooder and my
easy-going attitude toward week-old chicks?  I decided long ago that a
mother hen is a lot smarter than me when it comes to raising chicks. Thus the
smart thing for me to do is: Let mama do it!

I have never used an artificial incubator, preferring to hatch new stock
under broody hens—though as said, I have artificially brooded many clutches of
purchased chicks. For two years now, however, I have not purchased any chicks at
all, and am raising all my chicks (150 last year) using broody hens exclusively,
from eggs out of my own breeders.

Where Are The Broody Hens?

I meet many poultry enthusiasts who would like to use broody hens, but who
are frustrated. They want to know my secret for making a hen “go broody”—that
is, get into the “mood” to incubate eggs and raise chicks. The true secret,
though, is that we (human keepers of poultry) have made it emphatically clear to
modern hens that their mothering instincts are not welcome. That is, we have
considered “broodiness” a big nuisance (since a hen who is brooding is not
laying; and we’ve decided that managing broody hens is a lot of trouble), so
have selected against this natural instinct in modern breeds. If we make going
broody a capital offense, it doesn’t take long for the hens to get the point!

If you do a lot of hatching with natural mothers, install a set of 'broody boxes' for the setting hens. This unit is mounted on the wall (to maximize floor space) and contains six generous broody boxes.
If you do a lot of hatching with natural mothers, install a set of “broody boxes” for the setting hens. This unit is mounted on the wall (to maximize floor space) and contains six generous broody boxes.

The result is that in most breeds developed in the past hundred and fifty
years, the broody instinct is either entirely lacking, or “hit-or-miss” at best.
Hens of some breeds—Cochins, Buff Orpingtons—are more likely to express the
trait than most, but even in these breeds, emergence of a good working broody is
more the exception than the rule.

So my secret for getting lots of broody hens to do my hatching?  Revert
to the older, historic breeds among whom broodiness is the norm rather than an
oddity. Old English Games, for example, express the trait at virtually 100%, and
the hens are accomplished, attentive, and fiercely protective mothers. Note that
I am not recommending basing one’s entire flock on a broody breed. A broody hen
is indeed less productive where egg laying is concerned—while incubating eggs
and raising her chicks, she does not lay. But one can establish a sub-flock of
reliable working broodies, based on historic breeds much in need of
preservation, to do all one’s hatching and brooding chores. (In addition to Old
English Games, consider Kraienkoppes, Malays, Shamos, Asils, Madagascar Games,
Silkies, and some strains of Dorking.)

Once my sub-flock of working broodies is established, I permit them simply to
mingle with the flock until they indicate they want to be mamas. Only at that
point is it necessary to do anything special with the broody hen.

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.

This broody box is one of six installed over the breeding pens, for maximum utilization of space.
This broody box is one of six installed over the breeding pens, for maximum utilization of space.

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 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% 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 broody box in the six-box unit. Hen has all she needs for her work: nest, water, feed, and space to leave the nest. Note easy-clean wire floor.
A broody box in the six-box unit. Hen has all she needs for her work: nest, water, feed, and space to leave the nest. Note easy-clean wire floor.

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.

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.

Hatch Day

Plan ahead for the hatch. If the nest has sides that might prevent a chick
who has fallen out from getting back in, place a little straw around it to give
it something on which to climb back in. A chick who cannot get back under mama
will chill and die.

Hatch day!
Hatch day!

Check progress on the expected hatch day without being too intrusive. With
most broodies, you can slip a hand gently under the hen and feel the eggs. If
you feel a crack in one of them, pull it out and examine it. The first stage of
hatching is “pipping”—the chick cracks open a little hole from the inside. (At
this point, if you hold the egg up to an ear and tap with a fingernail, you hear
the chick peeping inside. Kids love this.) Later the first crack extends around
the entire shell, which breaks open into two neat halves, the wet, exhausted
chick sprawled between. After an hour, the chick will be dry and fluffy, and
surprisingly active. During the day you can remove the broken egg shells from
the nest as more chicks hatch.

Remember that the embryos all started development at the same time. However,
their rate of growth varies sufficiently that the first chick may be out of the
shell 16 hours earlier than its slowest sibling. The hen has the wisdom to know
that she must not leave the nest early, and is quite patient in waiting for the
last chick to hatch. The early arrivals hatch with the last of the yolk material
in their systems, and are thus able to wait awhile without feed or water. In
practice this means that one typically waits until the following morning for the
last chicks to hatch. Any egg showing no sign of pipping at this point is
unlikely to hatch. If you shake it gently, you may hear a liquid gurgle
inside—proof of a non-viable egg. Even if there is pipping which has not
progressed, if you tap on the egg and hear no peep, it is clear that the embryo
has died attempting to hatch. Such failed eggs should be removed from the nest,
and the hen encouraged to leave and start caring for her chicks.

Sometimes a chick is unable to break free of the shell on its own, and it is
tempting to intervene and help it out. This apparent kindness is ill advised.
Breaking out of its shell is difficult for the chick, but that difficulty itself
is nature’s first challenge for the new life. If it is not strong enough to meet
that challenge, and you give it a boost it would not otherwise have had, it is
likely to start its life weak. Perhaps it is lacking in vigor, a trait you would
not want to pass on to offspring. Better to let it make that first big step or
fall on its own. Like the hen, you should focus your efforts on the vigorous
chicks in the clutch.

Grafting Chicks Onto A Broody Hen

If my description of the advantages of a broody hen over the artificial
brooder sounds good to you, you might conclude that it would be great to give
purchased day-old chicks to a broody hen to mother. Will a broody accept such an
offer?  Maybe. Most of my attempts to “graft” purchased chicks onto a
broody hen in this way have been successful. However, never assume that success
is certain, and be prepared to brood the chicks yourself if the hen doesn’t
cooperate. The hen should have been on the nest a couple of weeks—she is
unlikely to accept a “graft” if she has been broody only a couple of days. But
you can “hold” a willing broody on her nest with plastic eggs for 4 or even 5
weeks until your purchased chicks come in. The hen is not counting off days on a
mental calendar—she moves on to the next phase when she hears live chicks under
her.

To make a “graft,” you should again work only at night. Remove the plastic
eggs and slip the chicks (who have been kept quiet in their shipping carton
through the day) under the hen. Check on them later that night, and again at
first light. Chances are excellent the hen will be delighted to welcome “her”
new babies into the world. I have only a couple of times had a hen reject
grafted chicks, but in the worst case, the hen killed a few of the “intruders.”
Monitor closely and be prepared to intervene.

My most spectacular success grafting chicks occurred with a White Jersey
Giant hen named Hope. Hope came off the nest with only six chicks of her own.
Shortly after I put her and her chicks in a section of the poultry house, I
bought in 42 day-old chicks, and set them up in a brooder in the next section.
Believe me when I say that Hope asked to be mother to those new chicks, and when
her “request” finally penetrated my thick skull and I opened the door between
the sections, Hope rushed in and began busily mothering them.

But that is not the end of the story. That night I tried grafting ten
purchased goslings onto a broody goose. The goose was willing, but the goslings
wouldn’t “fix” on her, wouldn’t recognize her as mother, and kept wandering off
through the dew-wet grass. By morning, goslings were going down like dominoes.
In desperation, I scooped up the remaining seven and prayerfully offered them to
Hope. She didn’t even blink.

The mother hen and her new chicks go directly from the nest to the pasture. For the first couple of days they are in a 'halfway house,' a low pasture shelter.
The mother hen and her new chicks go directly from the nest to the pasture. For the first couple of days they are in a “halfway house,” a low pasture shelter.

Breaking Up A Broody Hen

As said, a good broody wants to work. Indeed, some broodies will set a
second, or even a third, clutch of eggs in a season. But her willingness to do
so may outstrip your need for chicks. Hens who go broody after you have closed
the breeding season must be “broken up”—i.e., must be gotten out of the mood to
incubate. Actually, management of a determined broody you want to return to
productive work in the laying flock is much like management of a broody you are
going to set: Isolate her from the rest of the flock, with feed and water, but
in this case without a shred of nesting material. My broody boxes have a wire
floor—if I take the nest box out, there is nothing suggestive of nesting. I
usually leave the broody in the bare box until she lays an egg, signaling the
end of broodiness, then return her to the laying flock.

Another way to break up a broody hen is to isolate her with a vigorous young
cock, whose undivided “attentions” will disrupt her urge to brood.

Care Of The New Brood

I have found that two hens coming off the nest at the same time may be
fiercely aggressive toward each other. (In worst cases, I’ve even had to remove
one hen to another location and allow her opponent to adopt her chicks.) I have
also concluded that the best thing I can do for new chicks is take them directly
from the broody box to the pasture. Thus my current practice is as follows:

I schedule my first hatches for about the first of April (northern Virginia,
Zone 6b). I take the new clutch with the mother hen from the nest to a “halfway
house,” a low pasture shelter divided into two sections with a wire partition
between. If there is another hen coming off the nest at the same time, that
clutch goes into the other section. The two hens get used to each other’s
presence, but cannot fight. After a couple of days I release both clutches to
the open pasture, and there is rarely any aggression. (Note that the only
problem of aggression is with other mothers. No member of the general flock
would ever be so foolish as to threaten a mother hen’s brood.)

During the two weeks these chicks have been on pasture, daytime temperatures have sometimes been 45-50 degrees with 20 mph wind, waterers have frozen at night. No problem for a good broody hen.
During the two weeks these chicks have been on pasture, daytime temperatures have sometimes been 45-50 degrees with 20 mph wind, waterers have frozen at night. No problem for a good broody hen.

The weather in early April can of course be chilly and breezy, certainly
nothing like Gail’s 95 degree brooder. But Mama knows when the chicks are
getting chilly, and gathers them under her wings and breast for a warming
session before continuing foraging. She gets them under shelter if it rains.

Since the new clutches are on the pasture with the general flock, there are
special considerations for feeding. As Gail pointed out, young growing chicks
should never be fed commercial laying feed. I make my own feeds, omit any heavy
boosting of calcium, and offer crushed oyster shell for the laying hens as a
free-choice supplement. The feed itself is 16% protein, which any poultry book
will tell you is not nearly enough for young chicks. However, the mother hen
works diligently at finding live animal food for her brood—earthworms, insects,
etc. I think the presence of live food in the diet—food of a quality superior to
anything I can offer them—is the main reason my chicks are so healthy, and why
there is never any pasting up. Also, I have a second low pasture shelter set up
as a “creep feeder.” That is, the doors are covered with slats 2-5/8 inches
apart—the young birds can enter between the slats, but the adults are excluded.
I give high-protein supplemental feedings for the chicks—crushed hard-boiled
eggs, earthworms from a large vermicomposting project, Japanese beetles—inside
the creep feeder. I open the creep feeder at night as an additional shelter.

I hope you have the chance to give a willing broody hen a try. Especially if
you have young children, to see her hatching and nurturing her brood is to
celebrate together the miracle of life.

Harvey Ussery and his wife Ellen live on 2-1/2 acres near the Blue Ridge in
northern Virginia. They produce much of their own food—including all their eggs
and dressed poultry from a mixed pastured flock—and offer their homestead as
model and inspiration to others aspiring to the homesteading life. Harvey has
written for publications of American Pastured Poultry Producers Association,
Virginia Independent Consumers and Farmers Association, and other
homestead/small farm organizations. He recently presented his talk “Achieving
Food Independence On the Modern Homestead” at the annual conference of
Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. Visit his website at www.themodernhomestead.us.