There are four main ways you can obtain chicks: from a mail-order hatchery (almost year-round), from a local farm store (mostly in spring), by placing fertile eggs in an incubator (anytime), or by placing fertile eggs under a hen that has “gone broody” (usually in spring). If you decide to order by mail, you can find hatcheries near you in our online Hatchery Directory. If you want to buy from a store, the Tractor Supply Co. chain offers a great selection of chickens and ducks during its annual Chick Days each spring. The stores will even process special orders so you can choose the breeds you want and also select “straight run” chickens (males and females) or females only.
Now, on to working with broody hens. What follows is an adaptation from poultry expert Harvey Ussery’s terrific book, The Small-Scale Poultry Flock, which gives advice on pretty much everything you’ll ever need to know to raise your own chickens. — MOTHER EARTH NEWS
Using a broody hen to raise your chicks provides several additional benefits to both the chicks and you. The mother forages natural foods — mostly insects — for her chicks, keeps her young ones warm even while ranging on pasture and through cooler weather, and provides devoted protection from predators. The flock-keeper who chooses to foster broodiness (the inclination for a hen to hatch her own eggs) will be rewarded with a healthy, self-sustaining flock.
Modern Breeding vs. Broody Hens
Commercial hybrid breeds lay lots of eggs, but they aren’t a good choice if you want hens that will go broody. In today’s era of mass production of chicks via artificial incubation, broodiness is considered not merely an unnecessary nuisance but an economic calamity. After all, a broody hen ceases laying eggs when she’s incubating eggs and caring for chicks. Thus, a major component of modern poultry breeding has been to select against the broody trait in favor of hens that simply lay their egg per day, having forgotten that doing so has any relation to reproducing the species.
Even hens of most heritage chicken breeds cannot be relied on as mothers. Hens of some breeds — Cochins, Brahmas and Buff Orpingtons — are more likely to brood than others, but trying to find good broodies among such breeds is hit-or-miss at best. To be assured of hens with sound mothering instincts, obtain a breed listed in “Best Broody Chicken Breeds,” below. My favorite breed for a working-broody subflock is the Old English Game. Other game breeds are also likely to have strong instincts to make good mother hens. Dorkings are an ancient breed, and the hens will likely brood for you. Bantams as a class are apt to retain the broody trait, but because of their small size, they are more limited in the number of eggs you can set per hen.
Best Broody Chicken Breeds
Asil • Dorking • Kraienkoppe • Madagascar Game • Malay • Nankin • Old English Game • Shamo • Silkie
How to Spot a Broody Hen
There is no set time for onset of broodiness — some hens may wait a month or even longer into the spring breeding season before making it obvious they want to be mothers. Another trait with a big range of variability is whether the hen returns to broodiness later in the season — many will not, though some will hatch a second or even a third clutch of chicks.
The broody hen does not usually make a new nest for incubating her eggs. There can be exceptions, as when a hen that is completely free-ranging hides a nest and assembles a clutch of eggs (a set of eggs she lays over the course of many days, preparing for incubation) with no intervention from you. Typically, however, the hen will go broody in the same community nest where she and her sisters in the flock normally lay eggs.
The key to spotting broodiness is to notice when a hen decides to set the nest full time. Don’t assume that a hen is broody simply because she is spending a lot of time on the nest — some hens linger a long time when laying eggs. But a broody hen won’t leave the nest to go to roost at night. She also takes on a deeply settled, Zen-like intensity. An exploratory hand will draw forth a flattening of the hen in the nest, a fierce raising of the hackle feathers, and an outraged Skraaaawk!
After you’ve determined a hen is broody, remove her from the egg-laying nest. Many beginners try to leave the broody hen in the regular egg nest she has chosen to hatch her chicks. But the hen may leave the nest to relieve herself and then return to the adjacent nest box by mistake, leaving her incubating eggs to chill and die. Or, other hens may enter the nest to lay their own eggs.
Creating a Brooder Box
When you move a broody hen, you must do so with as little intrusiveness as possible. Move her at night only, to a previously prepared nest that’s isolated and physically separated from the other flock members. You can let her set on her own eggs, or you can set her initially on some fake plastic or wooden eggs, on which she can settle in the new nest. (You could also use golf balls or perhaps even smooth stones — anything loosely suggestive of an egg in shape and size.)
As for the isolation area or broody box, any out-of-the-way corner will do. Give the hen enough space for a nest, feed, water, and room to stretch and poop. Use cardboard, scrap plywood, wire screens — whatever is convenient to establish a barrier to exclude other hens (see Build a Low-Cost Mobile Brooder Box).
If you decide to do a lot of hatching with broody hens, you will want to install permanent chicken broody boxes. I prefer mounting them on the wall so no floor space is lost for the rest of the flock. Each box should be at least 24 by 30 inches and 16 inches high. Use wire mesh — half-inch hardware cloth is best — rather than solid floors. The wire increases ventilation through the unit and is easy to clean by using a scraper to push the poop through.
As for the nest, you can use cut-down cardboard boxes, which make a good mulch at the end of the brooding season, or scrap lumber or plywood. Make the sides about 4 inches high to retain the nest materials: burlap, straw, wood shavings and the like.
It is not unusual for a hen to be somewhat agitated the day after you transfer her to the broody box. She may move about restlessly inside, as if trying to find her way back to her chosen nest. Most often, however, she will settle on the fake eggs in the new nest by the end of the day. If she fails to do so, you might leave her in the broody box an additional day. If she still fails to settle, she’s unlikely to do so. You might return her to the main flock and see whether she returns to broodiness. Especially in the case of a first-timer, she may settle with less resistance on a second attempt.
Setting and Hatching Chicken Eggs
After a broody hen is thoroughly settled, you’re ready to set the hatching eggs from your chosen breeders. If using fake eggs, work at night to remove the fake eggs from under the setting hen and substitute the eggs you’ve reserved.
How many eggs do you set? The actual number is strictly a function of the body size of the hen, the size of the eggs you are setting, and, to a lesser extent, the point in the season. During incubation, the hen will continually move the eggs around in the clutch. If she sets more eggs than she can cover, there will be a chill zone around the edges of the clutch in which embryos fail to maintain incubation temperature and die. When the hen rotates those eggs into the center of the clutch, and rotates eggs with viable embryos from the center out to the edges, those embryos may also chill and die.
If you’re setting standard-breed chicken eggs, you might set five or six under a bantam, nine or 10 under an Old English Game, and up to 15 under a big, matronly Wyandotte, Brahma or Buff Orpington. If in doubt, err on the side of setting slightly fewer.
When you set the clutch of eggs under the hen, you should mark the expected hatch date on your calendar. Incubation of chicken eggs takes 21 days in an artificial incubator. In my experience, however, hatching of eggs under natural mothers is as likely to occur in 20 days. Make it standard practice to staple on the door of every broody box a note that specifies the broody inside (name or other identification), how many eggs and which mating she is setting, and the earliest possible hatch date (20 days out).
Keep in mind, however, that the mother hen is not tracking incubation period with a calendar. Her setting behavior will end not after a given number of days but when the sounds and movements of chicks hatching under her signal the end of incubation. Only then will she begin the next phase of mothering the new chicks. For that reason, if you need to schedule a hatch to your own convenience, you can keep a settled broody fixed on a clutch of fake eggs for a week, maybe up to two weeks, before you set hatching eggs under her. She will set the additional three weeks with marvelous patience.
Managing the Broody
After you have set your hatching eggs under the broody, she’ll do the rest. Check on her unobtrusively each day — she won’t be disturbed if your movements are quiet and gentle. Refill her waterer as needed and provide free-choice feed. Broodies usually eat some feed each day, but it’s not unusual for a broody hen to have little interest in food during this period.
Candling the eggs midway through the incubation period is a good idea. Work at night to remove the eggs from the nest and quickly shine a strong flashlight through each egg. On about the tenth day, a growing embryo will show as a small, pulsing mass at the center of a spiderweb of red supply veins (see an illustration of a growing embryo in an egg). Keep examining the eggs until you are sure you recognize a living embryo with its support system. Then it will be obvious when you find a nonliving egg — one with only a yolk showing, or a dark mass. Such eggs should be discarded immediately.
Check progress on the expected hatch day without being too intrusive. The early arrivals hatch with the last of the yolk material in their systems and are thus able to wait 48 hours (and up to 72 hours) without feed.
Typically, I don’t wait any longer than the morning after the first chicks hatch, however, for the last chicks to make an appearance. Any egg that shows no sign of pipping (cracks made by the chick) at this point is unlikely to hatch. Such failed eggs should be removed from the nest, and the hen should be encouraged to leave the nest and start caring for her chicks.
The Mother Hen and Her Chicks
I let my flocks range on pasture, and my practice is to move the new family directly from the hatching nest to the pasture. If that seems drastic to you, consider this: The first time I did so, the mother hen went onto the pasture in the last week of March with nine chicks. Daytime temperatures ranged from 40 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit, with sharp winds up to 25 mph. Water froze in the waterers at night. In contrast with pampered chicks in a brooder, these chicks were out foraging in challenging conditions from day one, enjoying superior natural foods found by the hen and warming sessions with Mama as needed. She didn’t lose a one.
A good broody is fearless in defense of her young. That same fierceness is directed at any member of the flock so foolish as to show a lack of respect for a broody’s babies, which ensures that she and her chicks can run with the main flock on pasture right away. If you keep your birds confined, you may want to keep the hen and chicks in a second pen until the chicks are larger and less vulnerable to harassment from other hens.
If new chicks are on the pasture with the general flock, there are special considerations for feeding. Young growing chicks should never be fed commercial layer feed, which contains extra calcium that can harm the chicks. Buy or make a starter feed that everybody can eat. Offer crushed oyster shell for your egg-laying chickens as a free-choice calcium supplement, which the chicks will ignore.
A mother hen breaks the bond with her young when they are ready to thrive on their own. The exact point when a mother will break the bond varies enormously from one hen to another. Some hens go their own way early on, roosting with the other hens at night and foraging for themselves. Others maintain the bond much longer — in extreme cases, until the chicks are half-grown.
I hope you have the opportunity to give a willing broody hen a try. I predict you’ll experience a joy and intimacy more intense than in any other part of animal husbandry. If you have children, it’s especially gratifying to be able to share with them this miracle of new life and motherly love.
Hatching Chicks With an Egg Incubator
There are a number of good incubators on the market that you can use if you don’t have a broody hen to hatch eggs for you. Most egg incubators allow you to adjust temperature and humidity as needed for best results. You can use an incubator to hatch a variety of poultry eggs, including ducks and turkeys. Additionally, incubators have no “broody season,” meaning you can conceivably hatch eggs during any season throughout the year. You can learn more about incubating chicken eggs and hatching chicken eggs in an incubator by reading Expert Tips for Incubating Chicken Eggs. Brinsea sells incubators in a variety of sizes, including the small countertop version shown at left. If you’re a hands-on, DIY-type flock-keeper, you can save money by building your egg incubator. Check out Build a Homemade Incubator.
This article was adapted from the book The Small-Scale Poultry Flock by Harvey Ussery. Ussery has spent decades developing his whole-systems poultry husbandry, and he maintains a website on all things homesteading at TheModernHomestead.us.