Four weeks ago we brought home a brand new batch of fluffy baby chicks. There were six of them in all, five Easter Eggers and one Blue Laced Red Wyandotte. We knew from prior experience that the best way to raise chicks is to let a broody hen do all the work while we sit back and relax, but what we couldn’t figure out was, how do you go about introducing chicks to a broody hen?
Chicks raised by a broody hen tend to integrate into the flock more easily and generally catch on to the tricks of chickendom better than if they’re being taught by a clumsy human. It’s really the ideal situation for raising chicks, but the trick is, how do you get a broody hen to accept chicks that she didn’t hatch herself?
Well, we found out.
At the time of our chick acquisition we had three broody hens in the coop. Two of them- Little Carl and Rosie, had been broody for almost three months and we really needed them to stop. I had heard stories of broody hens sharing the duties of caring for a batch of chicks so I thought it may work to simply hand the chicks over and let them figure it out between them. I was reminded within one minute that this is NOT the way go about introducing chicks to a broody hen.
For a little background (and defense) of this stupid decision: We hatched out chicks in April in our incubator, and handed them over to our broody hen, Mokey when they were day old babies. She accepted them without a moment of hesitation, clucking gently for them to scurry under her for warmth. Everyone was happy. She raised them up perfectly and then re-joined the broody hen club currently residing in our coop.
For some reason, I thought this introduction would be the same. Not so much.
Introducing chicks to a broody hen: the wrong way
I brought the box full of babies out to the coop to meet their three prospective mommas. My (delusional) hope was that the three moms would be so ecstatic at the sight of these precious babies that they would whoop for joy and everyone would live happily ever after.
Sometimes I forget that chickens aren’t people.
Though these ladies were desperate for babies, they didn’t have any understanding of what was going on. For the first several seconds the moms just glared at the babies. One of the chicks walked up to Little Carl and peeped expectantly up at her. She just reared back with a look of disgust on her face. I’d never seen a look of disgust on a bird, but there was no mistaking her repulsion at this creature.
Another chick approached Mokey who grumpily squawked at her and turned her back on the orphan.
Worse yet was Rosie, who was so upset that these tiny babies were in her midst that she pecked one of them in the face.
Exasperated and frustrated I loaded all of the babies back into the box and took them back inside.
Later, I told the whole sob story to my husband about the poor orphans who were rejected by not one, not two, but three moms. We talked over our options. We decided to try again using only one mom that we know and trust and stealthily give her babies under the cover of darkness. In case you didn’t know, chickens are easy to trick in the dark.
We chose Little Carl to do the deed, due to the fact that she had raised chicks before and had been broody for far too long.
Introducing chicks to a broody hen: The right way
I was skeptical that it would be possible to introduce chicks to these wannabe mommas, but figured we may as well give it one more shot.
That night we brought Little Carl into the house while she was still sleeping and placed her in a spare rabbit cage. We let her get settled, then started sneaking the tiny chicks under her one by one. Each time she groggily looked at us like she was surely dreaming because she didn’t remember chicks coming into the world this way. She didn’t seem to find offense with this approach, but was quite bewildered.
We stayed up late, checking on them frequently. Each time everyone was sleeping contentedly. I was a little worried about three stragglers who were sleeping next to her instead of under her, but decided to let it go until morning.
I barely slept that night, I dreamt of finding the chicks beaten to a pulp, with their monstrous would-be mother standing over them with a look of pure rage and glory, much like a gladiator defeating its beast.
When the sun started flowing through our bedroom curtains the next morning I groggily recounted my dreams then remembered the box of babies in the bathroom. I sprang out of bed and rushed downstairs to check on everyone. The teeny babies were climbing all over their new mom and scurrying around in the box. She looked as content as could be and proudly showed off her new offspring. Once again, all was well in the world of chickens.
Fast forward two weeks to when we let Little Carl and the chicks outside to join the rest of the flock. It had become clear that Rosie had only continued her broody stint because of Little Carl (the little copycat) as she had stopped the day after we brought LC inside.
Mokey, however was still stubbornly sitting on that nest. Mokey had just finished raising five chicks of her own, but being a Silkie, she goes broody every other month, like clockwork. I didn’t anticipate Mokey’s broodiness being an issue with the new chicks since she had rejected them two weeks ago, but there’s no way I could have known what was coming.
For the next week, every night Little Carl would march the little babies into the coop at 7:00 sharp (their bedtime is much earlier than the rest of the flock) and they would settle down under and around her. The spot that she chose to sleep every night was directly next to Mokey. I tried not to worry too much and checked on everyone before bed every night to make sure they got settled without issue. What I saw over the next several days really surprised me.
The first night the chicks stayed right under Little Carl. The next night one of them slept in between Little Carl and Mokey. Mokey tried her hardest to ignore this epic pile of cuteness sharing her space. The night after that the chick inched closer to Mokey and wriggled under part of her wing. Mokey still seemed disgusted by this, but didn’t make any effort to stop it. The third night that chick was completely underneath her and another had squeezed under her wing. Before the end of the week, half of the chicks were sleeping under Mokey and half of them under Little Carl.
Mokey snapped out of her broodiness and started following the little family around all day. She got closer and closer to them until she was part of their mini flock, just another mom, helping to take care of the chicks.
The chicks loved her as much as they did Little Carl. I could hear her making her little tut-tut-tut sounds to the babies when she found good food to share. Mokey would follow them all to bed at night and settle in next to Little Carl to keep their babies warm. She had proudly taken the role as second mother to these babies, and was constantly on watch to protect them from predators. It was this second set of protective eyes that would save their lives just a week later.