Backyard Chickens: Managing a Broody Hen
It’s not uncommon to find a chicken in one of the nesting boxes when I go out to collect the day’s eggs. But this week, as I reached underneath this normally docile bird to gather the bounty, I realized she was having none of it. Feathers puffed out, she protected the clutch, pecking at my hand and squawking angrily. While a peck from a chicken doesn’t hurt much, it can be startling. It’s hard to blame her for the outburst though. She’s just doing her job. Motherly instincts are serious business when a chicken goes broody.
In many breeds, the instinct to hatch their eggs (a process known as brooding) has been bred out. But for those inclined to brood, for a few weeks perhaps several times a year, it becomes a singular obsession. Leaving the nest only to eat, drink and defecate, they will spend day and night keeping those eggs — any eggs — warm, often pulling the feathers from their underside to offer increased humidity to improve hatching conditions.
Brooding chickens stop laying eggs completely until brooding subsides. It doesn’t matter if the eggs are hers or that the lack of a rooster on the premises means there is no hope of an actual hatch. They are not particular. In fact, the chicken that defended her charge so aggressively this week was actually protecting a golf ball left in the box to encourage the birds to use the nesting boxes to lay. Still, you have to admire her pluck. What’s to be done when a hen goes broody?
Wait It Out
The typical brood lasts about three weeks. As long as she is consistently leaving the nest for short intervals to feed and hydrate and is not preventing other chickens from accessing nesting boxes in which to lay their eggs, there is no harm in allowing her instincts to subside naturally. During this time, you’ll have to do without the eggs she usually provides.
Increase the Flock
The instinct to brood is not without its benefits. Although incubation is a reliable solution when hatching eggs to increase the size of your flock, doing it the “old fashioned” way can be a lot of fun. If there is a rooster on site, she may be left alone to hatch the eggs without intervention. For many of us a rooster is not practical, but fertilized eggs may be borrowed from another coop or purchased locally or online. Slip the viable eggs under your broody girl and allow nature to take its course.
“Break” the Brood
If your hen isn’t feeding regularly due to an aggressive brooding instinct or if you just miss the eggs, the inclination to brood can be discouraged. For some chickens, it takes little more than removing eggs on which to sit (this includes golf balls). When breaking the brood, it is necessary to visit the coop frequently to gather any freshly laid eggs. If the broody bird still sticks to her guns, repeatedly removing the bird from the nest helps break the inclination to mind the clutch.
In extreme cases, separation from the general population may be necessary. A day or two in an enclosed pen should do the trick. While the space should be nest-free, make sure the accommodations are appropriate. All chickens, even those in solitary confinement, must have access to food and water at all times.