Sunday, January 20, 2013

Broody Hens - Nature's Incubators. Your Questions Answered!

By Tom Bel -

Broody Hens. Natures incubators. The way chickens have done things since there were chickens. Until relatively modern times all chickens came from a broody hen.

I'm fairly new to the chicken keeping world. My wife and I got our 1st chickens 9 years ago. Everything and I do mean everything I have learned about broody chickens I learned from my hens (from here on out just referred to as The Girls). It did not take me too long to figure out that they knew how to do this and what was best, if a chick wasn't going to make it, and basically how to be chickens. Chickens are better at being chickens than humans are.

We have a decent sized flock - in the neighborhood of 80 chickens and 11 ducks. The actual number of chickens can vary week to week, who was culled, who was born or who was sold. Only a small percentage of our birds were born to an incubator. Nearly all came from broody hens. Nature at work. Enough back ground. Let’s get on to discussing broody hens. Be prepared for a story or 2 to make a point.

My broody endeavor started when I got Sumatra's. Sumatra's are an Asian breed of Game bird. They are excellent at brooding and excellent mothers. This I have learned. As a matter of fact nearly every broody I have had from any breed was a good mother. There were of course a few exceptions, just like in humans. 

My approach to broody hens... Hands off. I try not to get involved at all other than to watch and enjoy the show. As long as the girls choose a safe spot to brood, indoors where I can lock them up to keep them safe from predators they can raise their brood there. I have never provided a separate broody area. They roam and live with the rest of the flock.

The girls will choose the silliest places to hatch their eggs. Every place from the favorite nest box, to my work shop, to their favorite place… my shed. My shed has been taken over by my Sumatra's and now many who were born there call it home. Sometimes they will choose a nest 18 to 24 inches off the ground. No problem at all. My first girl to do this was Mama my best Sumatra broody. She is 5 years old and raises 4 broods a year. She has earned her name. 

The first time she brooded on a raised nest was on a shelf in my shed. I intervened a little on this by simply adding a board to the edge of the shelf so lil ones wouldn't fall off the shelf. Mama had her hatch and I knew the morning of day 3 (since the hatch started) that Mama would want to take her lil ones out to meet the world. I set the alarm and got up early to take the nest off of the shelf. Mama had other plans. I opened the shed door that morning and there sat Mama with her 7 lil ones. Off the shelf, waiting to go outside. That same year another one of Mama's nests was 24 inches high, on another shelf, inside a box. I was fortunate enough to watch Mama jump out of the nest and call her lil ones down. One by one, they all jumped and flapped and came down to their mama. Lesson learned. Mama knows best.

Now in these circumstances of course the girls can not return to the nest they hatch in. If they have had their hatch in the coop I just let them chose their own new spot. They will find a spot they like for themselves and their lil ones and usually stay in that spot until it is time for the lil ones to roost. If they are in a spot like a shed that the entire floor isn't nesting material like shavings, then I provide an enticing nest. A box of pine shavings with the front cut out low works great. 

These were examples of unfenced girls raising lil ones. So what about penned birds? I do the same. Let the girls do it. They pick the nest and do the work. Last summer I had 2 girls go broody in the same week in a coop/pen setup. There are 2 roosters in that coop. No problems with roosters or other hens bothering the mama's and their lil ones. No one bothers a broody hen.

Some of my other girls have joined into the broody business. 3 RIR's joined in last year. The 1st one took me by surprise. I was trying to lure 2 Sumatra's laying eggs in the coop into going broody (more on that later) and a RIR who I have had for years decided to go broody. I gave her 6 eggs - she hatched 4 healthy lil ones. At 3.5 weeks old a fox took her and one lil one. We watched the lil ones all day going about their lives as little chickens. My wife was really concerned. I kept telling her that their mama taught them well and as long as they went in the coop on their own at night, they would be fine. And they were, and still are. Two of the 3 are roo's and they share rooster duties in that coop, and the hen is a beautiful blue Sumatra. Their mama taught them how to be chickens. Human raised chickens at 3.5 weeks old would never survive on their own. But a broody raised chick knows everything they need to know about being a chicken by then. 

And let’s not forget about the ducks. We had a Fawn and White Runner (Penelope) go broody a month after we got her. She sat on 8 eggs and hatched 6 healthy lil ones. She was a really good mama. Looking forward to her and/or her offspring doing it again.

I'll try to cover the commonly asked questions. The main question is always "how do I make my hen go broody?" Simple answer is, “you can't.” But you can encourage broodiness in the girls. Most important if you wish to use hens to incubate and brood chicks, is to pick a breed known for broodiness. All game hens (obviously including Sumatra's) and Silkies are no brainers. They love to brood. But the instinct is still there in some hens of any breed. So here is what I do. I leave false eggs in nests at all times. With Sumatra's I take an egg and leave a golf ball. I continue this until I'm either up to 6 golf balls or the girl goes broody. After 6 I just remove the egg. Once she is sitting for 2 or 3 days on the warmest golf balls you have ever touched I swap golf balls for hatching eggs. For the LF girls and the ducks I have fake large eggs. Same process. Take and egg, leave a fake egg. This method has enticed many girls to go broody. Including many RIR's and even a White Leghorn. And of course Miss Penelope.

"Do I need to add heat?" is a common question. “No,” is my answer. Mama hen can provide all of the heat needed. Christmas day 2012. A broody girl and her 3 day old chicks. 23 degrees F for a high.
It was 7 degrees below zero F a week later. Mama kept the lil ones warm.

"What do I need to do for broody and her babies?"
Provide a safe coop, give them chick starter feed and have water available. Mama will do the rest. Just monitor them and enjoy the show. Mama hen will handle the stress, you don't need to.

"My broody isn't eating!"
Broody hens don't get up off the nest every day and when they do, it is for a short time. Ten to 20 minutes is typical. It is easy to miss your broody getting off of the nest.

"How long does a broody sit to hatch eggs?"
Chicken eggs take 19 to 21 days typically to hatch. Late hatches on days 22 and days 23 are not unusual. Always remember that eggs are not on a timer and that chickens can't tell time and do not have calendars. Just like with humans, some babies come early and some come late.

"How long will my broody sit after her hatch starts?"
Typically a broody hen will sit for 36 hours after the 1st chick is born. After that point, even if all of the eggs are not hatched, she will need to get off the nest to feed her lil ones. At this point some hens are finished sitting. I have had other hens feed their lil ones then return to sitting. Hens vary in behavior. The former is more common than the later.

"I have a broody hen but don't yet have fertile eggs."
If you would like to have your broody hen hatch eggs but do not have fertile eggs, give the broody hen either real unfertile eggs, fake eggs, or even golf balls to sit on until you get fertile eggs. There are several ways to get fertile eggs. There are several venues online to purchase fertile eggs. My preferred way is to check locally. Check Craigslist, check local farms. If all else fails ask your mailman who has chickens.

"How long will my broody take care of her chicks?"
That varies hen to hen. Some hens are done raising them when the chicks are 4 weeks old. This is really nothing to worry about. Mama Hen has taught them how to be chickens. Other hens take care of their lil ones for 12 weeks or any length of time between. 

"My broody hen is mean and is attacking me!"
No, she is doing her job of protecting her babies. Even you are a threat to her at this point in time. She will trust you again.

"I think I have a bad broody. It is pouring rain out and she is out in the run sitting on her babies instead of being in the coop."
No this is a good mama hen. She got caught in the rain and will sacrifice her own comfort to keep her lil ones dry and safe.

"I have eggs due in the incubator about the same time mama will hatch. Can I give her extra chicks?"
Normally yes. It almost always is successful to do this while the hatch is going on. And within 2 or 3 days (max) of a completed hatch. Monitoring mama hen is a must. More often than not she will just accept them. Sometimes she will KILL them. Watch mama. Giving her the chicks while it is dark is best. Put them right under her. Wear gloves as you may get pecked - broody hens can draw blood.

These are some of the most commonly asked questions. Feel free to ask me any questions you may have about broody hens. My FaceBook page is

As I have said, I believe in the human hands off approach to broody hens. There are of course times to intervene. A baby escaping from the pen is a common one. Give the baby back to mama and fix the fence.

Until about a week old many chicks have trouble with ramps. Put on gloves and eye protection and help the babies in the coop. (Wear the gloves and eye protection as mama hen will most likely attack you.)

Baby got lost. It happens. Pick up the baby and return it to mama.

The "Should I intervene?" portion:
The best answer almost always is NO! As I said earlier, chickens survived thousands of years without human help and let’s face it… chickens know how to be chickens better than humans know how to be chickens.

Common "Should I?" questions:

"Should I help the chick out of the shell?"
My answer is “No.” Here is my thought on it: If a chick is not strong enough to get itself out of the shell, it wasn't supposed to be born.

"My chick is shrink wrapped!"
There are ways to get the chick out, but here is what I have found from experience. When you do intervene and get the chick out, it often has either a crooked neck (which is permanent), or has a serious leg deformity. If mama kicked it out and it is shrink wrapped, she did it for a reason. Don't help. You can not save every chick.

"My hen is kicking eggs out of the nest. Should I put them back?"
No. Hens know if an egg has quit, didn't develop etc. Trust your hen and toss the egg.

Broody hens know what they are doing. Always trust your broody. 99% of the time they know exactly what they are doing. A broody hen is an amazing thing to watch. Sit back and enjoy the show. Only intervene if ABSOLUTELY necessary. This is truly a time where "mama knows best." Everything I learned about broody hens, I learned from my girls - just by observing them. At first I felt the need to intervene and quickly learned my first year with broody hens (10 broody hens that year as I recall) that mama knows best. The chicks I helped hatch were the first to die. The shrink wrapped chick I assisted was deformed and I had to cull it anyway. Mama knew best. Trust your broody. She really knows what to do. 


  1. Great information. Thanks so much.

  2. Such great information!! I love it! Thanks for sharing your knowledge. I never thought of gleaning info from the mailman, but makes absolute sense! ;)

  3. Great article! Makes me want to have chicks this year.


  4. Thanks, Stony! Great article and beautiful photos too!


  5. Really great article. I am hoping for a broody when I get my hatching eggs this spring so I can try that as well the incubator to compare and contrast. I will be using your golf ball method for sure!

    I love your blog and appreciate that you impart such knowledge without feeling the need to use technical or scientific mumbo-jumbo that no one cares about anyway, but instead write in such easy to follow language without talking down to anyone either. Love it!
    Fresh Eggs Daily

    1. Lisa -
      I'm lucky to have such great folks who contribute their knowledge and experience to this blog - - like Tom, Vicki, Sue and Karen. Although I write many of the articles based on what I have learned from others, it has been a wonderful thing to have folks with lots of first-hand experience lend their own words, pictures and thoughts to the blog!

      Is your mud drying out? Loved the pictures you posted on your blog after the snow storm!

  6. great article, you answered questions I didn't even know I had! Can't wait to have a broody hen this spring

  7. very nice article from someone who incubates.... a LOT! I may have to try this to keep the flock renewing. I just don't like different pens for different breeds.


  8. I really enjoyed this article. So much practical information without being technical. Very easy read. I learned a lot and can feel comfortable now if any of my hens go broody.

  9. I really learned from this. Thanks

  10. Great article! Thank you so much! I have 6 assorted eggs under my Sizzle due Feb. 1st. Very nervous...this my first hatch but her second. Do I need medicated feed for the chicks?

    1. To answer your question about medicated chick feed, check out This Article. Best of luck with your broody hatch!

  11. great article, Tom - Mama knows best...

  12. Wow now I am really siked up. First time hatching. My broody hen has been sitting on two eggs from other hen. I wasn't sure about moving her or the eggs out to another area. But after reading your article and observing her more I think I'll let nature take it's course. The other hens don't even bother her or the eggs when she's out. No rooster in with them. Hoping I candled correctly... we should have eggs hatch around the 29th/30th. Thanks for the great info.

    1. Exciting! I just had my first broody hatch on Dec. 30 and the kiddos are now 16 weeks old.

      You'll have to stop back and let us know how it goes!

  13. great advice, i feel prepared for my hatch in a weeks time now.

  14. Stumbled across this while googlng. I have a few chicken setting cluches right now. Im
    Following your advice and letting them do their thing! Thanks!

  15. So helpful, this is just what I was looking for!

  16. I have chicks hatching right now. Thanks for info! It helped a lot!!!

  17. Left a message for you on your FB page. Hope you're able to offer me some advice.

  18. I am so grateful for all of your information! I have been going through everything and I stumbled onto your story. I have a broody sitting on eggs right now and is due to hatch March 2 and it is so cold here. I have been so worried that it would be to cold for the chicks and you have put my mind at ease. Also the part you said about your broodies laying in high up nests helped to ease my mind also. Mine is in the top tier of a nest box and I was concerned about that. Thanks so much for making my life a little easier. I seem to have a very good chicken and I checked her eggs today and could see lots of veins and lots of movement. I can't wait. Thanks again!

  19. chickens that are broodyJune 15, 2015 at 5:05 PM

    awsome but what happens if you bother the hen i have four broody hens

  20. I came home from work to 8 baby chicks I have 1 rooster and one chicken it's raining heavy and she sat outside on the chicks is this normal

  21. I came home from work to 8 baby chicks I have 1 rooster and one chicken it's raining heavy and she sat outside on the chicks is this normal

  22. I came home from work to 8 baby chicks I have 1 rooster and one chicken it's raining heavy and she sat outside on the chicks is this normal

  23. We have a broody hen who has nestwd in our shed. I will leave her to her business, but being its the middle of december, i worry. Once her babies hatch, can i move them into the coop with the others? We have 2 rir roosters n 16 other rir hens. Or should i move them somewhere seperate? This is my 1st time raising free range hens. When we got these birds, they were only a few weeks old n we kept them in a tote in our house with a heat lamp. My husband says we should do that with our new arrivals coming. What do you suggest?

    1. Much depends on mamma. Usually the mammas decide when it's time to integrate their babies with the flock. If you are in a place that gets a lot of snow, this could be difficult. If not, let mamma decide when to march her babies over to the coop if it's possible. Usually there will be no trouble at all. A few of the older birds may express curiosity but usually mamma will chase them off until her babies are older.
      Very, very rarely there may be a bird that is nasty to the chicks. In my years raising chickens, I've only had one - and the chicks were only in danger if they got separated from their mother.
      Let mamma do as much as you can let her do. Check to see that the babies don't get separated (some ramps up to coops can pose an issue for little chicks - or if mamma suddenly wants to jump up into a nest box that her babies can't reach...) but more often than not, everyone will be fine!

  24. The Person With A Broody Silkie.January 3, 2016 at 4:21 PM

    Great article! I have a broody silkie sitting on eggs right now. I know now not to interfere. Thanks!

  25. Very helpful, had 4 new chickes hatched today by a broody ...i did not know what to do...your article is very uesful and helped me alot...thanks alot
    It is a great pleasure to watch them coming out ...i was worry why she stay in her nesting with her babies under her..i gave them chick starter and water and block so non of the folck bother her ...i am thinking to open for her tomorow

  26. Great article! I've raised chickens for just a year now. My broody just hatched 2 chicks yesterday. We don't have a roo so I got her 3 fertile eggs from a friend. She seems to have abandoned the 3rd one. But the two seem really happy and healthy and Mama is very proud. Almost as proud as me!


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