Broody hens can occasionally be an inconvenient situation that requires you to intervene and break the cycle. However, having a broody hen in the flock can also be an advantage in the right circumstances.
Identifying a Broody Hen
A hen that can be classified as broody is a hen that is dead-set on hatching chicks, even when it proves to be an impossible task. Broodiness is often thought of as a springtime affair, but with chickens, it can happen during any season at any time of year.
The state of broodiness is brought about by several factors, including lighting levels, hormones, and instinct. When you let a broody (the colloquial term for a broody hen) do her own thing, the usual process is for her to lay a clutch of eggs, and then stop so she can put her full attention towards caring for the eggs for 21 days, give or take a day or two. The arrival of the new chickens is the trigger which breaks her out of the cycle.
The desire to brood will pop up on occasion in most chickens, but some breeds tend to produce more brooders than others. Silkies and Australorps regularly generate cranky and protective mother hens whose sole focus in life is to perpetuate the species. Likewise, bantams often produce mother hens who periodically set their minds towards hatching new chicks.
If mucking about with an incubator (Chicken Egg Incubator – Australian Beginners Guide) seems like it would be too much trouble and you would prefer to keep everything as nature intended, then a broody hen is the best way to hatch a new batch of chicks, but it’s not without its challenges.
How to Know When You Have a Broody Hen
Broody hens aren’t hard to spot. If you see any of your girls seeking out quiet secluded areas away from the flock or notice a hen has suddenly developed a preference for dark, isolated areas, then you most likely have a chicken who is actively pursuing planned parenthood.
Broodies will also pluck their breast feathers so they can get their warm skin directly against the eggs. A nest with more than the usual number of loose feathers, and a hen looking a bit sparse around the breast area feather-wise are further indications you may have a chicken in a motherly way.
When you approach such a chicken, you will probably receive further confirmation that she has turned into a brooder because she will hunker down, growl and shriek, puff out her feathers, and may even attempt to peck you as she valiantly defends her nest and eggs from intruders.
She will stay with her nest all day, leaving only occasionally to eat and drink, attend to her bodily functions, and have a dust bath. Poop from a broody chicken is another giveaway that you have a brooder in the flock; it’s large, foul-smelling, and quite disgusting.
How to Break the Broody Hen Cycle
Unfortunately, broody hens operating on instinct will continue to sit on a nest for weeks at a time, even when there are no fertilised eggs, and often longer than the usual 21 days it takes for them to hatch.
Broodies will toilet only once a day and eat less than 80% of their usual amount of feed. Her feathers will lose their lustre, there will be signs of weight loss, and her combs will become pale.
A healthy hen can cope with all these challenges in any isolated 21-day marathon. However, let the chicken go beyond that, and there may be severe risks to the hen’s health because of a downtrodden immune system.
Broody hens like cozy dark areas to do their thing, so the best way to break the cycle – called breaking her up in chicken lingo – is to have a broody cage on standby. A broody cage forces the chicken to spend time in an area that is the exact opposite of the environment they prefer when brooding.
The cage should have an open mesh bottom, contain no nesting material, and be located in the most well-lit spot you can find. She will need to be let out once a day to take care of her bodily functions, but once she’s done, back into the cage she goes.
Three days is usually enough to break the cycle, but if the chicken makes a beeline straight for the nesting boxes as soon as you free her, then she needs to go in for another stint. On rare occasions, some birds will stubbornly persist in their broodiness for up to ten days.
Managing a Broody Hen
You can’t tell if a broody hen has what it takes to be a good mother just by looking at them. The only real test to finding out if a hen has a well-developed maternal instinct is to throw her in at the deep end of motherhood.
Introducing Eggs to a Broody Hen
Chickens aren’t watching the clock while they are sitting on eggs because they have no idea how long it takes for them to hatch. You may never know when a broody is going to be available, but they can be handy to have around. If you have a batch of eggs in the incubator, you could always make room for more by letting the broody take over, because she doesn’t care how far along they are.
If the chicken quits sitting, destroys the eggs, ignores the new chicks, or even worse, goes on a rampage and kills them, then you’ve found a hen which makes a lousy mother and should boot her from the roster of potential future carers. Unfortunately, you can only tell if a hen will be any good as a mother by letting her try at least once.
Introducing Chicks to a Broody Hen
If one of your chickens has gone broody, and you want to grow your flock, you can take advantage of her broodiness by introducing her to new chicks.
A formal meet and greet during the day isn’t the way to go and probably won’t work. Instead, wait for the cover of night, and while she’s dozing snuggle the chicks in underneath her. She will wake up with the knowledge of a job well done and won’t even question the true origin of the chicks. For more tips on introducing new chicks or chickens (Introducing New Chickens To Your Flock)
You will need to keep a couple of things in mind when using this strategy; ensure the chicks are less than five days old and keep a watchful eye on the new mother and her brood. Keep a fully kitted out brooder on standby just in case, as you won’t get any warning that your tactic hasn’t worked as well as it should, and the chicks could become abandoned at a moment’s notice.