Broody Hens: The Ultimate Mothers
It is not possible to force a hen to go broody. If you need to be able to control when and how often you hatch eggs, your best option is to invest in a reliable incubator. By following the advice offered in this article, you can increase your chances of acquiring a broody hen, but it will not be possible to guarantee results.
What Is a Broody Hen?
A broody hen is simply a hen whose hormones have convinced her to sit on a nest of eggs, hatch them, and raise the chicks. There are many advantages to allowing your hens to brood. First and foremost, it eliminates the need for an incubator, as the hen will be able to evenly and consistently heat an average of 12 eggs or so without the help of electricity or thermostat. Secondly, a broody hen will serve as teacher and protector, keeping chicks warm, alerting them to danger, and teaching them how to find food and water in their environment. She will also help them integrate into the flock, delivering a furious barrage onto any other chickens foolish enough to abuse her chicks.
Broodiness is a hormonal state that may manifest at random, or in the presence of certain environmental triggers. Not all hens will go broody in their lifetime, while others will go broody repeatedly in the course of a single year. Some hens can be convinced to go broody by manipulating their environment, while others will be utterly unpredictable in when they decide to set. In some rare instances, roosters have even gone broody, taking to a nest of eggs to rear them without any help from a hen.
Choose Your Breed Wisely
Not all breeds are created equally when it comes to the instinct to hatch and brood chicks. Because hens who are brooding will not lay any new eggs, the tendency to go broody has been largely bred out of most production varieties, and is virtually nonexistent in breeds developed for egg production. On the other hand, ornamental breeds are not expected to perform as prolifically as their production counterparts, and their brooding instinct has been left largely intact. To a lesser extent, this is true of many dual-purpose breeds as well, though breeding lines that have stayed true to old standards are more likely to produce broody hens than chicks purchased from hatchery stock.
The important thing to remember is that any chicken of any breed may decide to go broody in her lifetime, even if only once. Although they are known to be extremely unlikely to brood, varieties like polish, leghorns, and sexlinks have been reported to go broody on occasion. Your best bet remains to go with breeds known for the trait, though there is always a chance one of your production breeds may decide to go broody if the mood strikes her.
Breeds and Broodiness
Extremely Likely to Brood
Reasonably Likely to Brood
Unlikely to Brood
Old English Game Bantams
Easter Egger Standard
Easter Egger Bantams
Rhode Island Reds (Hatchery)
Red or Black Star (Selxinks)
Naked Necks (Turkens)
New Hampshire Reds
White Faced Black Spanish
Rhode Island Red (Breeder)
Please Note: Although they are not officially recognized as a broody breed, anecdotally, Ameraucanas have proven to be consistent and determined broodies, and they have raised several clutches of chicks in my own flock.
Please note also the distinction between ameraucanas and Easter Eggers. Most "ameraucanas" and "araucanas" sold in feed stores and hatcheries are actually Easter eggers.
Recognizing a Broody
Many of the normal nesting behaviors performed by all hens are commonly mistaken for being broody activity. If you see your hen lingering in a nest, pulling nesting material over her back, or growling ferociously at those who approach while she is nesting, know that these are all perfectly normal behaviors for any laying hen, broody or not. They do not indicate that your hen is considering hatching a clutch of eggs.
A broody hen will adopt a very unique demeanor, and the first time you witness it, you will immediately recognize it as different. For starters, she will stop laying eggs, and will establish herself on a nest. Usually, broodies will prefer to set on a nest with eggs in it, but if you collect eggs regularly and she has no eggs to set, she will set up shop in an empty nest instead. She will remain on the nest day and night, refusing to roost with the other chickens, and getting up only to eat, drink, and poop. When she does get off the nest, she will puff herself up larger than normal, fan out her tail, and make irritated noises at any chickens who get too close to her while she is eating and drinking. She will move as though on fast-forward, in a hurry to get back to her nest (empty or not) where she will once again settle into a trance-like state and remain until her next constitutional.
Caring for a Broody
Generally speaking, broody hens will get off the nest once or twice a day to see to their needs, but if you notice that your broody hen has started defecating in her nesting box, it means that she is not getting up to relieve herself, and probably isn't eating or drinking, either. It may be necessary to remove your hen from the nesting box once a day and set her down on the floor so that she will be snapped from her trance long enough to eat, drink, and relieve herself. If in doubt, you don't need to wait for her to soil her nest to prove that she's neglecting her needs. There is no real harm in gently removing the hen from the nest once a day to make sure that she is taking care of herself.
This daily constitution is also a great opportunity for you to check on the condition of her eggs. Other hens love to deposit new eggs in a broody's nest, so you will want to mark her eggs with a pencil or other non-toxic writing tool so that you can easily identify and remove new eggs that are added to her clutch after she started setting. It is very important to remove new eggs, as they will not hatch when the other eggs do, and she will abandon them to the elements a day or two after her first chicks hatch. A crowded nest also increases the risk of eggs becoming soiled, damaged, or uneven incubation--if a hen cannot cover all of the eggs in her nest sufficiently to warm them, then many of them will likely fail to hatch.
Relocating a broody
Sometimes a hen will choose to nest in an unfavorable location, such as a nest outside of the protected coop and run, or in the other hens' favorite nesting box where she will be trampled and her eggs damaged. If it is necessary to move a broody to a new location, do not attempt to relocate her directly. Instead, transfer her nest--eggs and all--into a box, tote, or crate, and then place it back exactly where it was. Allow her to get used to her nest being inside of this container, and after several hours of her setting in the new nest, you will be able to relocate her, nest and all, to a new location. Attempting to move a broody's nest without taking these extra steps will result in a distressed mother hen who will abandon her new nest (and her eggs) in her effort to return to where she thinks her nest should be. Even if her old nesting box is empty, she will go back to setting in it, and abandon her eggs to die, so the extra step of transferring it into a tote or other container is crucial for success.
When you can't relocate a broody...
Sometimes hens will brood in inaccessible places. Either you can't react them at all, or there is no room to transfer the nest into a box or tote. If this happens, and you are concerned about predators finding and killing your hen, there are a few things you can do to help her out. If possible, put up a barrier around her like a fence or cage. If she is under a shed, perhaps line the bottom of the shed with wire to keep other critters out, and leave food and water for her inside the barrier. If you cannot cordon off the region and you cannot relocate the broody, try placing dried, strong-smelling herbs like mint around her to mask her scent. This isn't a guarantee that she will be safe, but with no other options, it may be your best bet at protecting her.
If chicks are not to be...
Broodies will not eat or drink much while brooding, and as a result, will lose a considerable amount of weight. Allowing a hen to brood indefinitely on an empty nest could result in her declining health, or even death. If you do not wish to allow your broody to raise chicks, it is extremely important that you break her of being broody as soon as possible, so that she can go back to a normal, healthy routine.
"Broody Breakers" are wire cages with no bedding or nesting material for the hen to get comfortable on, forcing her to snap from her trance and hopefully emerge from her broody state. Some chicken keepers report putting a frozen bottle of water under the hen will also break her of being broody, but results are mixed with this method.
Triggering broodiness in your hens
Although it is impossible to force a hen to go broody, you can encourage one who's on the fence about it by leaving a nest full of eggs. Using either real eggs or fake ones (fake is my preference), leave 6-12 "eggs" in a nesting box for a few days and see if any of your hens start trying to set them. If you have used fake eggs to trigger broodiness, you can now swap them out for real ones, or just let your hen set fake eggs until the chicks you want to give to her arrive. Be forewarned, however: one of the greatest triggers for broodiness is witnessing another hen going broody. If you successfully convince one hen to brood, be prepared for every other hen in the flock with such an inclination to join her. The upside is: hens who brood together will work together, and teams of broodies are often more effective at raising chicks than one hen by herself.
Giving Eggs to Your Broody
The greatest advantage to having a broody hen is that she will hatch eggs for you, foregoing the need for an incubator. If you wish to have your broody hatch eggs and she isn't already setting a clutch, you can select eggs especially for her to hatch. The eggs you give her should be clean and not overly porous. There should be no cracks or defects in the shell, and the eggs should be no older than 10 days since they were laid for optimum viability. If the nest is in the coop with the rest of the flock, mark the eggs with a pencil, crayon, or other non-toxic writing tool so that you can identify any new eggs that might be added to the clutch by other hens. Remove new eggs daily to avoid overcrowding of the nest or staggered hatch dates. As was mentioned above, hens will abandon the nest and any unhatched eggs a day or two after the first chick has hatched, so eggs laid after she has begun incubating the clutch will not hatch in time and will subsequently be abandoned to die.
A general rule of thumb for broody hens is that they can comfortably incubate about twelve of their own eggs. Therefore, a bantam hen could accommodate either twelve bantam eggs or six standard-sized eggs. A standard hen could incubate twelve standard eggs, or a larger number of bantam eggs. Some hens can handle more, but it is best not to test the limits of your hen, as hatchability and health of the eggs decreases significantly once her ability to warm them is surpassed. When ready to give your eggs to the hen, you should be able to place them in front of her in the nest, and she will be happy to roll them under her body and begin incubating them.
Candling the eggs periodically to remove duds and quitters is not a bad idea. The best time to do this is at night while the coop is dark and the hen is less likely to be distressed by your handling of the eggs. Use a bright LED flashlight shone into the large end of the egg to check for signs of life, such as movement, strong veins, or a clearly-defined embryo. Eggs that appear cloudy, show no signs of movement, or which show distinct signs of a "blood ring" are likely quitters that should be removed to prevent them from going rotten and contaminating the other, healthy eggs.
One important thing to note: your hands should always be clean while handling the eggs. Although they will inevitably be exposed to bacteria on the mother hen's feet, and although they are designed to resist infection, it is still best to mitigate the risk as much as possible.
Giving Chicks to Your Broody
If you don't have fertilized eggs to offer your hen, or if you're already planning on acquiring chicks and want your hen to raise them for you, you can usually provide your hen with chicks and she will adopt them as her own. After your hen has been broody for a week or two, you should be able to introduce the chicks to her. Some hens will accept chicks the moment they go broody, and some will actually go broody precisely because they saw chicks. To be on the safe side, however, your best bet is to wait for the hen to have been broody for a week or more, to ensure that she is committed to the task.
Some hens will allow you to place chicks under and around them in broad daylight, and will accept them without hesitation. Other hens may reject the chicks and attack them if they don't believe they hatched them themselves. The most prudent course of action is to place the chicks under the hen at night, when it is dark and she is the least likely to observe what you are doing. Check on her in the morning to make sure she has accepted the chicks. If you have a proven broody that you know will adopt any chick she sees, feel free to skip the hassle and offer her the chicks in the daytime.
Whether you give your hen eggs or chicks, make sure the new babies will have access to food and water. Adult-sized chicken feeders and waterers are not accommodating to baby chicks, and they will not be able to reach the food and water they need to survive. If your hen is brooding in the main coop, it may be helpful to put their food and water inside of a space that is accessible only to them so that the rest of the flock can't ransack their feed. I solve this issue by creating a small, screened area of the coop with a chick-sized door. Once the mother hen has taught the chicks to eat and drink, I place the chick feeder and waterer in the "chicks only" zone so that they can eat and drink without being overwhelmed by the adults.
If your broody hen is in an isolated pen away from the rest of the flock, you can allow her to eat and drink from the same feeder and waterer as her chicks. If you choose to give your chicks medicated feed, it is perfectly safe and acceptable for the mother hen to eat it as well.
Broodies Raising Different Species
It is not uncommon to hear stories of broody hens incubating, hatching, and raising other species of fowl, including turkeys, ducks, or even geese. Obviously, the capacity of a hen to hatch an egg is limited to what she can keep warm under her body, but also keep in mind the duration of the incubation period. While chicken chicks hatch in three weeks, a muscovy egg takes about 35 days to hatch. You will need to take extra care with your broody to make sure she is getting enough to eat and drink during this long incubation process if you decide to have her hatch such eggs.
Broody hens will happily raise any bird species that will follow their lead. Guineas, peafowl, turkeys, ducks, geese, and other species of pheasant and waterfowl should adapt well to having a chicken as a mother. Take note, however: waterfowl chicks cannot produce the oils necessary to prevent them from becoming waterlogged and drowning. Normally, the mother bird would use oil from her own oil gland to waterproof her offspring until they are able to do so themselves, but chickens do not have this instinct nor ability. If you are fostering waterfowl with chicken broodies, avoid bodies of standing water so that your babies don't accidentally drown themselves.
Alternatively, waterfowl may hatch and attempt to raise chicken eggs, but this is not recommended. If you find your chickens have been slipping eggs into your duck or goose nest, remove them promptly. Not only will this prevent the mother bird abandoning her eggs to care for the chicken chick (who will hatch as much as two weeks before the waterfowl eggs), it will avoid a situation where there mother bird tries to lead her brood into water--a death sentence for a baby chicken. Although some have had success with waterfowl raising chickens, there are far more efficient methods to incubate eggs and brood chicks.
Broodies of Other Species
Chickens are hardly the only species that go broody. Turkeys, ducks, geese, peafowl, guineas, and virtually every other species of bird you could raise in your backyard may occasionally decide to indulge in their mothering instincts. As mentioned above, you should avoid allowing waterfowl to raise non-waterfowl species, but otherwise there is a great deal of versatility in inter-species rearing. Follow the tips above for broody hens for the best results, but proceed with caution when approaching nesting geese or swans for obvious reasons. Do not attempt to meddle with the nests of birds who do not fully trust you, or you could end up on the receiving end of a mother's wrath.
There Is Always More to Learn
If you have any questions or would like to contribute your own experiences and wisdom, please feel free to leave a comment below.