Hatching chicks by letting broody hens do the job is easy, satisfying and rewarding, if a little unpredictable – you don’t really have a way of knowing when a hen will go broody, and there is only so much you can do to encourage it. Here is what we do in our coop.
Provide enough nesting boxes – hens tend to sit where they are used to laying, and when one goes broody, you don’t want other competing with her for space. I know some people remove the broody and her eggs and place her in a different location (such as a secure enclosed section of the coop), but from our experience, this might make the broody abandon the eggs, so we just let our hens sit in the nesting box. Since we have plenty of boxes, this usually isn’t a problem.
We used to let hens accumulate a clutch of eggs in the hopes they would begin sitting, but it only resulted in a lot of mess and many spoiled or broken eggs. Now we collect every egg as soon as it is laid and, to encourage broodiness, provide a clutch of plastic dummy eggs (can be bought cheaply at a toy store or on e-bay). Note: we’ve had some hens begin sitting even without a clutch. Once the broody instinct kicks in, they’ll just do their thing.
Keep your fresh eggs in a cool, dry place (not in the fridge!), turning once a day, so you’ll always have some to give a broody when you have one. We don’t recommend using eggs that are over a week old.
Once a hen displays characteristic signs of broodiness (sitting over a chosen spot with puffed-up feathers, overnight as well as during the day, clucking in a characteristic manner and pecking anyone who gets too near), choose some of your freshest eggs to give her, or get some from another breeder. Your broody won’t know or care whether she’s sitting on her own eggs, eggs from another hen, or even duck or turkey eggs.
The number of eggs a hen can comfortably cover will depend on her size. On average, we give 6-7 eggs to a small to medium sized hen, and 8-10 to larger hens. I know many people let their hens sit on much larger clutches, but we have found this may result in uneven coverage and low hatching rates, as well as some chicks getting squashed during or shortly after hatching. We personally prefer to have fewer chicks with a higher survival rate.
Number your chosen eggs with a permanent marker, such as used on CDs. Don’t worry; this doesn’t damage the eggs in any way. This is important to keep track on the eggs – if any new ones happen to be added to the clutch (such as, if the broody steps down to eat and drink and another hen lays an egg in the same spot at the time), you’ll know to tell them apart easily.
Carefully slip the eggs under the broody, preferably after dark when she’s sleepy and less alert to any disturbances. You might wish to wear protective gloves if the hen pecks. Make sure she is settled and covers the eggs well. Mark the date on the calendar to avoid confusion; chicken eggs take 21 days to hatch. Don’t trust your memory because things happen and you might forget and plan a weekend trip just when the chicks are due to hatch.
Step back and let the broody hen do the job. Don’t worry if she doesn’t step down to eat and drink very often, but do allow her access to food and fresh water at all times.
Sixdays after the hen begins sitting, it is possible to see a developing chick’s heartbeat by illuminating the egg with a flashlight in the dark. This is called candling. It’s possible to do this easily by going into the coop at night, gently taking the eggs from under the broody one by one, and observing them against a flashlight. Discard any eggs that hadn’t developed.
Near day 21 (the day when the chicks are supposed to hatch), keep a close eye on your broody and soon-to-hatch eggs. It is possible to briefly peek under the broody to see if the hatching process has started. Do it really quickly to avoid loss of heat and moisture. If the eggs have begun hatching, carefully remove the hen to a safe location where she can remain with her chicks for the next few days (at this point, the hen is highly unlikely to abandon her eggs, even when moved). We use a large cardboard newspaper-lined box inside the house for that purpose. Don’t forget to provide food and water in a shallow tray. You don’t need to provide heating or teach the chicks to eat or drink – the mother hen will take care of that.
If the majority of the eggs have hatched and one or two show no signs of progress, candle them. If you see no sign of life, remove them to encourage the hen to get up and dedicate herself to caring for her new chicks.
Once the chicks are a couple of days old, we introduce them to the flock – under their mother’s protection and our supervision, of course. If we see no one is picking on them and all is fine, we let the mother hen and her brood out in the yard during the day. If other chickens display aggressive behavior, we lock them up and make sure they stay away from the chicks.
This post was an excerpt from my book, Your Own Hands: Self Reliant Projects for Independent Living.
Anna Twitto’s academic background in nutrition made her care deeply about real food and seek ways to obtain it. Anna and her husband live on a plot of land in Israel. They aim to grow and raise a significant part of their food by maintaining a vegetable garden, keeping a flock of backyard chickens and foraging. Anna's books are on her Amazon.com Author Page. Connect with Anna on Facebook and read more about her current projects on her blog. Read all Anna's Mother Earth News posts here.
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