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.