So I’ve realized I have yet to write a blog about broody hens and my experiences with broodiness. I think it’s a pretty interesting situation, one that not everyone is so lucky (or unlucky) to have happen.
Broodiness is when a hen of laying age decides to attempt to incubate and hatch eggs instead of just laying an egg and leaving the nest box. She will generally lay a clutch of 5-10 eggs over the course of a few days, and then she will begin to sit and incubate. For chickens, general incubation takes 21 days. When a hen is broody, you can often put any eggs underneath of her as long as they are comparable to her size (ie. the quail eggs we put under Elsa did not survive because she is too large and crushed them; a silkie would likely have issues incubating large turkey or duck eggs). A good rule of thumb is that a hen can generally incubate around 12 eggs comparable to the size of her own eggs, a couple more if the eggs you want her to hatch are smaller, a couple less if they’re larger.
Broody hens will generally only leave the brood once, maybe twice, daily to eat, drink, and poop. Activity levels and food consumption drop by around 80% during incubation. If you do not have a rooster and do not plan to provide viable eggs for her to hatch, it is best that you remove all eggs and try to get her off the brood, as it causes a very large drop in body condition.
Now, if this is your hens first time going broody, it is also not advisable to spend lots of money on some rare breed hatching eggs. Some hens will just stop going broody a week or so in, and you’re left with partially incubated eggs (it’s a good idea to have an incubator on hand should this happen). Your hen may also decide to kill any chicks that do end up hatching, often called homicidal broodiness. Generally, hens that do either of these things; abandonment or homicide; should not be allowed a second attempt at raising a brood, they will generally repeat their actions.
As with my hens, if more than one hen goes broody at a time, they can and often will co-parent. They will take turns sitting on the eggs and leaving the nest with the already hatched chicks. They provide double protection.
Some folks prefer to remove broody hens from the flock and put them in their own brood pen. I do NOT do this for a couple of reasons. First off, this makes it more difficult to re-introduce the hen and chicks back to the flock. Secondly, a brood pen turns a relatively hands-off process into a hands-on process. I have let nature do its thing, for two years now, and although Elsa (and now Elsa & Francis) have not produced many chicks, I’m fine with it and they seem to enjoy the experience. It’s an interesting process to watch.
Make sure that you do not let your hens brood for too long (ie. by sitting on bad or unfertilized eggs), as their body condition will continue to drop. I finally pulled the plug today on two eggs that Elsa was still attempting to hatch, and lo and behold, one was VERY bad. I tossed it into the compost bin and it exploded with a loud bang, the smell was terrible. The second egg was recently laid by our hen Penny, and would have had a long ways to go before hatching. Now, Elsa is out & about with Francis and the chick (who we’ve named Pepper 2 aka Pepper).