Mother hen teaching her chicks to eat. Photo by Kat Ludlam
Is it possible for a broody hen to raise chicks purchased from the store and/or hatched in an incubator? Yes! Using a hen to brood chicks means less work for you and a more natural experience for the chicks. We find that the chicks that we let our hens raise learn to eat and drink sooner and have a lower chick mortality rate. It also helps when it is time to integrate them with the flock, as the mama hen will protect them and help them integrate into the group.
There are a few things to keep in mind before trying to get your hen to adopt chicks.
Be Willing to Brood the Chicks Yourself
Before you undertake this process, you need to be willing and able to brood the chicks in case it doesn’t work. You can’t count 100% on the hen. So be sure you have what you need and are able to brood the chicks yourself if things don’t go well.
Use an Experienced Hen
Next, you need to make sure the hen you choose to use has successfully hatched and raised chicks on her own before. This ensures that she knows how to raise chicks and decreases the chance that she will abandon or reject the chicks.
Also, the hen needs to be in the mood to set and brood. You can’t just bring chicks to a hen that has raised them before and expect her to take them. She needs to want to set. Since you are using a hen that has set before, you should be able to tell when she is getting serious about setting. Some typical behaviors include spending most of the day, day after day, on the nest, and puffing up her body and being aggressive when you try to mess with the nest. Watch her for a few days to be sure that she is really serious about setting – you don’t want her to quit halfway through. Also, be sure that she is set up in a nest that is safe for chicks. It needs to be at ground level and there needs to be space around it for her and the chicks to move around together.
Mother hen with chicks. Photo by Kat Ludlam
Once you are sure that your hen is going to set, give her fake eggs (you can buy ceramic or wood ones at most feed stores). Let her set on them for about 2-3 weeks so that her body can go through the process of an incubation, even if it is a “fake” incubation. An actual incubation of chicken eggs takes about 21 days. Meanwhile, order your chicks, or get the incubator going – lining everything up to have the chicks ready after the 2–3-week period of fake setting.
You need to give her newly-hatched chicks. You can’t give her older ones or she is likely to reject them. Over about 3 days old is probably not going to work as well.
Be sure her living quarters are safe and set up for chicks. The nest needs to be on ground level. Set up food and water dishes that are designed for chicks, and put chick starter feed in the food dish.
Once the chicks are ready you can carefully remove her eggs and gently put all the chicks under her at the same time. Some people say to do this at night so that she is sleepy, but I have not found that to be best. It is important to keep an eye on things until you are confident that it will work. I prefer to give the chicks to her in the morning or midday so I can watch closely until they are bonded, and so they will be bonded before night comes.
It should be clear pretty quickly whether she plans to adopt them or not. If she is going to adopt them, she should be in the “broody hen” body posture, which is kind of squatting with her wings slightly out from her body so the babies can go under her and under her wings. She will start talking to them in a voice that is specific to a mama hen clucking to her babies. If she becomes at all aggressive with them you should remove them immediately and brood them yourself.
Hen in broody posture, squatted down with wings out slightly.Photo by Kat Ludlam
If she seems wishy-washy about the situation, then just stay close by and give her time to decide.
At first the chicks will be confused because they didn’t hatch under her and aren’t exactly sure what a Mama is yet. We watch them, and if the chicks are wandering around, we gently put them back under her every so often and encourage them to stay near her. If it is cold out, we stay with them until we are confident that the chicks know to go to her for heat – we don’t want any wandering off and getting chilled. If it is hot out, we stay long enough to be sure that Mama hen wants them, and then we check back often to be sure everything is going well.
By the end of the first day, they should be bonded and at this point the hardest part is done! Let her raise them just like she would raise chicks she hatched on her own.
Using your broody hen to raise chicks from your incubator or chicks that you buy at the store will make raising the chicks much less work for you, help integrate them with the rest of your flock, and give both the hen and the chicks a more natural experience.
Kat Ludlam spent 14 years homesteading at high-altitude in the Rockies and now is building a new homestead in the high plains of Colorado. She and her husband, Daniel, are the owners of Willow Creek Farm, where they breed both long-wool and fine-wool sheep, milk sheep, Nubian goats, chickens, ducks, and crops that thrive in their location. Kat loves to feed her family from their land, and teach others to homestead as well. Check out Kat and Daniel’s custom fiber-processing business, Willow Creek Fiber Mill, and read all of Kat’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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