A broody hen is an ideal way to hatch eggs and raise baby chicks naturally. The broody hen will do all the work for you, and her success rate will be higher than yours.
Even though the hen knows what she is doing, she can still use a little support from us to hatch eggs and raise her chicks. Use these tips for helping a broody hen hatch eggs the next time you want to increase your flock of backyard chickens.
What is a Broody Hen?
A hen goes “broody” when she develops the natural impulse to hatch eggs and raise chicks.
A broody hen will suddenly start spending all her time on the nest, only getting up once or twice a day to eat and drink. A hen may be broody if she becomes more aggressive towards other birds when she moves off the nest. She may also become hostile towards you as well, puffing up her feathers, growling, and pecking at you if you try to reach into the nest and remove the eggs.
Helping a Broody Hen Hatch Eggs
A reliable broody hen is a blessing if you plan on adding new chicks to your flock. Hatching eggs using a broody hen is much less time-consuming than using an incubator. The hen keeps the eggs at the ideal conditions for hatching naturally.
When the chicks hatch, the hen raises the baby chicks by keeping them warm, teaching them to eat and drink, and showing them all the skills of being a chicken.
Broody hens are determined to be a mom and always put the health of their eggs before their own needs. Once you have identified that your hen is broody, and decided to let her incubate eggs, here are some ways you can help her hatch eggs and raise chicks successfully:
Get Fertilized Eggs
A hen that goes broody has a deep craving to sit on eggs and hatch babies. It doesn’t matter if they are her eggs, eggs from her flock mates, or if the eggs are even fertilized.
Provide your broody hen with quality, fertilized eggs for a successful incubation. If you have a rooster in your flock, there is a good chance the eggs are fertile. If you don’t have a rooster, you can source hatching eggs from a friend, local farmer, 4H club, or mail order from a hatchery.
Large breed hens can brood up to a dozen full-size eggs. Be sure to account for duds that are not fertilized, damaged in transit, or have other development issues.
More tips for sourcing, storing, and candling fertilized eggs for hatching are outlined in the following article:
Don’t worry if it takes some time to gather the fertilized eggs. Just keep your broody hen happy by placing a few eggs, or even fake eggs under her until the eggs arrive. This is a good way to test her broodiness. If she is truly broody, she’ll be happy to incubate the temporary eggs for a while.
Provide a Safe Environment
When a hen goes broody, it is natural for her separate from the flock and go off by herself. Her goal is to find a safe area to lay and incubate eggs. Once she finds a spot, she will lay one egg almost daily until she has a clutch of about a dozen eggs. Then she stops laying eggs, and sits on them for about 21 days until the chicks hatch.
When the flock is confined to a coop and pen, you will likely discover your hen is broody when she chooses one of the nesting boxes to settle into. If you allow the broody hen and eggs to remain in her chosen nesting box, she will be able to interact with the rest of the flock, but they might bother her. Plus there is a danger of trampling eggs, or even hens attacking the chicks when they hatch.
The first time we let a broody hen hatch chicks, we allowed her to remain in the coop in a closed-off corner. She and the rest of the flock could still see and hear each other, but she and her eggs were safe from being disturbed.
All was fine while the broody hen sat on her nest incubating the eggs. Things were still ok after hatching and while the chicks explored their little corner and stayed close to mom. However, when it was time for mom to lead her chicks out into the world, it became very stressful for everyone. There was only one door out of the coop and one pen for all to share. The flock was curious and mom was very protective. Feathers flew.
I find it considerably easier to avoid all the drama by moving a broody hen into her own brooding coop to hatch eggs and raise chicks. It seems much calmer for the broody to raise her chicks when she doesn’t have to deal with other adult chickens.
Set Up a Brooding Coop
A brooding coop doesn’t have to be fancy. Broody hens like a dark and well-ventilated area that is protected from wind, rain, and predators. A brooding coop about 3×3 feet should provide enough room for a nest, waterer, feeder, and space for the hen to leave the nest, stand and stretch her wings a bit.
Once the chicks hatch, your broody hen will also need access to a secure pen, so she can show them the world and teach them the art of chickendom.
Divide the Coop: If you have a large coop, it may be as simple as dividing the coop to allow the broody hen and her chicks can live close to the flock, but protected from the flock. You may need to cut a separate exit door and build a small secure pen for momma and her chicks to explore outdoors as they mature from fluffy chicks into pullets (or roosters).
Mini Coop: We built a small coop that we use as a brooding house, grow out coop, and sick bay. It is a simple 4×4 size and has access to a small run where the broody hen can raise her chicks for 5-6 weeks until she is ready to re-join the flock.
Also consider using the pre-fab coops that are available at farm stores. These are not usually large enough for a flock or full-grown chickens, but they are ideal as a brooding coop. Be sure to add locks and hardware cloth to secure the doors and make it predator proof.
Whatever you choose for the brooding coop, prepare it ahead of time by providing a nesting box filled with clean bedding, and fresh water and food. Place the food a little ways away from the nest to encourage the broody hen to get up, stretch, poop, eat, and drink before returning to the nest to continue incubating the eggs.
If your coop is near your house and has electricity, consider installing a wifi camera to keep an eye on your broody hen without disturbing her.
Move the Broody Hen
Move the broody hen at night, she won’t try to go back to her old spot. If she is sitting on eggs, move the eggs to the brooding area nest as well. Carefully check under her wings before moving her to be sure she doesn’t have eggs tucked up under there. Move the eggs first, and then set her down near the eggs, not on them. You don’t want her to freak out and accidentally break the eggs.
Moving a broody hen can be stressful. Try not to bother her too often the following day. She may be restless for a day or two after the move. Let her continue with the original eggs, and don’t give her any other fertilized eggs until she calms down.
Sometimes hens go broody when there are no eggs in the nest. If the hen has not laid eggs yet but is acting broody, move her to the new nest, and wait one week before adding fertilized eggs. You can add fake eggs under her to urge her to stay broody. If she remains on her nest for one week, it’s a safe bet that she is still broody and will sit on the eggs long enough to hatch them.
She might refuse to sit on the eggs after the move. If you have fertilized eggs that you want her to hatch, it is a good idea to have an incubator ready just in case her broodiness breaks.
Adding Fertilized Eggs
Adding fertilized eggs to a broody hen’s nest is easy if you time it just right. Number the eggs with a pencil to make it easier to keep track of the progress throughout the incubation period.
Wait until night or when the hen gets up off her nest to eat and drink, and then add the new eggs. She’ll likely incubate the eggs the same way as if she laid them herself.
Caring for a Broody Hen While Hatching Eggs
Once you have your broody hen set up in a safe place, it will take about 21 days for the eggs to hatch. The hen will do all the work, and all you have to do be concerned about her health.
Keep Food and Water Available
A broody hen doesn’t eat or drink much while she is incubating eggs. Change the water daily and keep the waterer clean.
Change the food to an 18-20% high protein chick starter feed. A broody hen doesn’t need the extra calcium that layer feed provides since she is no longer laying eggs. She will benefit from the extra protein found in chick starter feed. Plus that is what the chicks will eat when they hatch.
Observe your hen to confirm she is getting off the nest at least once a day to eat, drink, and poop. Some broody hens are so dedicated to their task that they will not leave the nest. If you have one of these committed hens, gently pick her up off the nest and place her in front of the food and waterer.
Candling the Eggs
During the few minutes she is off the nest is a good time to candle the eggs. Wait until she has been sitting on the eggs for about seven days, and then hold them in front of a candler. If you see veins and/or an embryo, the egg is good and developing properly. If the egg is clear or smells bad, or has a ring of red inside (which indicates a dead embryo), it’s not good and should be discarded.
Normally a broody hen knows which eggs, if any, are bad and will kick them out of the nest herself. However, removing the bad egg is just another way you can help a broody hen hatch eggs.
Clean the Brooding Area Daily
Keeping the nest and brooding area clean is important to keep the eggs and hen healthy. When the broody leaves the nest, scoop out any poop, change the bedding, and get rid of any cracked, broken, or fowl smelling eggs that may be in the nest.
Preparing for Hatching Day
Generally, chicken eggs take about 21 days to hatch. Some chicks can hatch earlier and some later. Your hen will need lots of peace and quiet in the days leading up to this time, so she can concentrate on the final steps before hatching.
Plan on completing your final check-in around day 17. Make sure the feeder is filled with chick starter feed. Fill the waterer and add marbles to the bottom so the chicks cannot accidentally drown. Say your good-byes to mama hen, and then simply let nature take its course.
It is important to leave your broody hen alone and let her do her job. During this time, she needs to concentrate on her babies. She will position the eggs, and adjust her body over the nest to regulate temperature and humidity for an optimal hatch. She will listen and talk with her peeps while they are inside the eggs, and as they hatch.
This is where a wifi camera can come in very handy. It will allow you to observe your broody hen without disturbing her.
The egg hatching process can take several days. Mama hen will not leave the nest during this time, instead she will continue to focus on hatching her eggs and keeping her chicks warm.
The chicks will hatch, and dry out under your broody hen over several days. The only way you will know when this is happening is when you see a chick peeking out from under her, or see eggshells outside the nest. The hen will remain on the nest for days, or until all the chicks have hatched and dried out.
When your broody hen decides that hatching is complete, she will get up, and lead her chicks out of the nest towards the waterer and feeder.
Once the broody has left the nest with her chicks, it is unlikely she will return to sitting duties. If there are eggs left in the nest, they are probably not viable. Wait a little while to see if the hen returns to the nest to continue incubation. If it is clear she it finished, remove the nest and replace it with clean bedding.
In rare cases, the broody hen may abandon her chicks. Plan on having a brooder setup and warm just in case you need to gather the chicks and care for them yourself.
How to Care for a Broody Hen and Her Chicks
The broody hen will take care of the chicks once they hatch. She will keep them warm, teach them how to eat, drink, and scratch and peck for tasty treats. Your job is to make sure there is food, water, and a safe area for the new family to live.
All that scratching will result in shavings in the water and food dishes. Clean these out often so food and fresh water are available at all times. Remove wet bedding and replace with fresh as needed.
During the first few days, the chicks will spend most of their time under the broody hen. At about 2 weeks, the chicks begin to explore and spend more time away from their mother only returning to her when frightened, for warmth, or to sleep.
If the weather is warm, open the door to the coop and let the broody hen go outside into the predator-protected pen as she wishes for a time-out or dust bath. Eventually, she will bring her chicks outside and continue to teach them to scratch for food.
It takes about 5-6 weeks for a chick to feather out fully and no longer need supplemental heat. Your broody hen will continue to care for the chicks during this time. She may suddenly decide enough is enough and want to return to her flock mates. She may or may not want the chicks to follow. The chicks will be ok in the brooder coop as long as the weather is at least 50˚F at night. If it is cooler, they will need supplemental heat for a few weeks.
The way you manage the reunion will depend on the dynamics of your flock and personalities of your hens. Let the flock free range around the broody pen so the birds get used to seeing each other through the wire. Eventually, let the broody hen out without her chicks to free range with her flock mates. Expect a bit of squabbling at first, as she may need to reestablish her position in the pecking order. Let the hen stand her ground.
I have had hens that simply decide they are done raising chicks and join her flock during free ranging and return to the main coop without looking back. Others have become stressed when separated from their babies for too long and want to go back to the broody pen instead. Either way is fine.
The chicks can be left in the brooding coop and pen until they have grown larger and are ready to join the flock. Or you can let the chicks out with mama and see how the flock reacts.
Hatching and raising chicks with a broody hen is my favorite way to add to the flock. It is much less work than hatching eggs with an incubator and brooding chicks inside for the first six weeks. Plus watching a mother hen raise her baby chicks is one of the most heartwarming experiences.
A hen that has proven to brood, hatch, and raise chicks is likely to do so again in the future. Plan well and you can add to your flock each year.
Sources and Further Reading:
- Hatching & Brooding Your Own Chicks by Gail Damerow
- Raising Chickens for Dummies by Kimberly Willis
- Storey’s Guice to Raising Chickens by Gail Damerow