Anyone who keeps chickens is likely to occasionally have a hen go broody. She’ll make a dramatic mood change, stop laying, fluff her feathers, change her vocabulary, and spend all day and night in the nest. Her life’s goal is motherhood.
We can consider broody hens either a problem or an opportunity. Since they don’t lay while in the mothering mode, a broody is a problem for someone who needs plenty of eggs. Yet, watching her incubating eggs and raising chicks is a fascinating, especially for children, and an easy way to add replacement layers to the flock.
Broody hens perpetuated chickens for most of the thousands of years they’ve been domesticated. Before artificial incubators, they were the only way to hatch eggs.
In those pre-incubator days chicken keepers needed some hens to go broody and raise a new generation. It worked, but was woefully inefficient. At best a broody can hatch and raise only about a dozen babies, making mass production of chickens and eggs impossible. Because of this inefficiency eggs and chicken meat were scarce, expensive and only served on special occasions.
The ancient Egyptians figured out that eggs could be artificially hatched if kept at just the right temperature and humidity for their 21 day development. For hundreds of years in those pre-modern technology days they used incubators to hatch chicks. In the rest of the world broody continued to do the work.
Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit helped launch today’s chicken industry by inventing the mercury thermometer in 1714. Sealed in a glass column the liquid metal expands when warmed and contracts when cooled. A scale on the mercury column enabled a person to accurately measure temperature for the first time in history.
Eggs must be kept precisely between 99 and 102 degrees to hatch, so accurate thermometers and thermostats were essential technologies needed to make an incubator work. It took a while for them to be perfected. The first successful incubator was produced 167 years after Fahrenheit invented the thermometer. That invention changed chicken culture and the American diet forever.
Today’s modern hatcheries use massive incubators to hatch tens of thousands of chicks every week. Fertile eggs are kept at precisely the right temperature and humidity and nearly all hatch. Most chicks coming off incubators end up at either massive egg production or broiler facilities that house thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of birds. Even smaller hatcheries that sell diverse breeds directly to customers hatch them in incubators.
With the coming of incubators broody hens became obsolete and a problem for commercial egg farms. They wanted high egg production, and since a broody stops laying, she’s not adding to the bottom line. Poultry scientists used their understanding of genetics to develop breeds and hybrids that rarely go broody. So huge incubators combined with non-broody hens enabled mass production of chickens and eggs, and broilers for consumers. Today these are the most inexpensive protein for sale at the grocery store.
Broody hens aren’t needed anymore to perpetuate chickens. So, have incubators given them the pink slip? Maybe not.
Scan a hatchery catalog or website and breeds will be described as “broody” or “non broody.” If customers want maximum eggs, they can buy non broody types, but many people keeping just a few hens in the backyard can choose broody breeds to help them enjoy one of the most enjoyable aspects of chicken rearing. Broody hens are as fascinating as they are educational as they hatch, protect, and educate their babies. Broodies are just plain fun.
Hens can become broody at any time of the year and once in awhile one is downright silly and tries to bring babies into a frigid January world, but it’s more likely in spring and summer. Older hens are somewhat more likely to be broody than young pullets and generally classic brown egg laying breeds are more prone to have the mothering instinct than small agile white egg laying breeds. But there are always exceptions. Sometimes a non-broody hybrid, like a California White Leghorn, decides she wants to be a mother and becomes broody. It’s rare but happens and sometimes breeds described as being broody decide they want nothing to do with mothering and refuse to incubate eggs.
Breeds famous for broodiness are Silkies, Orpingtons, and Brahmas. Most of the larger bodied brown egg breeds have a tendency to hatch eggs and raise young. Brown egg laying hybrids, like ISA Browns and many white egg laying breeds and hybrids tend to not go broody, but the important word is “tend.” Exceptions rule.
Preparing for a Broody
Managing a broody is a fascinating experience for anyone raising a small flock in the backyard. Nothing’s quite so endearing as seeing a peeping baby chick poking it’s head out of its mother’s fluffy feathers or watching mom teach her babies how to find food and stay out of trouble. It’s a great process for children to be part of.
To enjoy the brooding experience, choose some chicks of breeds that tend to be broody. Usually a young hen will lay for several months before the mothering instinct kicks in. Be prepared to help her successfully hatch eggs and raise babies by doing these things:
- Have a nest box ready and a place where it, with the broody hen inside, is separated from the rest of the flock. A large hen, like a Plymouth Rock should be able to incubate about a dozen fertile eggs.
- Put a small feeder and waterer near the nest. The broody won’t eat or drink much but needs a snack and water once in a while.
- Have chick starter mash and a chick feeder and waterer ready for when the babies hatch.
If all goes well, eggs will hatch 21 days after mom started incubating. Chicks will soon scamper all over the coop. Continue to keep them separate from other chickens, and let the mother hen care for her babies. She’ll keep them toasty warm, even on cold nights, and give them a better lesson in survival than any human can.
What If I Don’t Have a Rooster?
Infertile eggs won’t hatch but a broody doesn’t know that and will sit on them anyway. Fortunately, she can’t count so doesn’t know how many days elapse. This gives a helping person time to do one of two things:
- Get fertile eggs from a friend or neighbor or order them immediately. Many hatcheries sell fertile eggs, which are also available on eBay. While waiting for the fertile eggs to arrive put golf balls under the hen. She won’t know they aren’t eggs! Or, let her sit on infertile eggs until the fertile ones arrive.
- Keep the broody on golf balls and in two to three weeks buy chicks at a farm store. Or, as soon as she goes broody place an order at a hatchery for delivery in two to three weeks. When the baby chicks arrive bring them to the broody after dark. Gently remove the golf balls or infertile eggs under her and replace them with live chicks. She’ll immediately adopt them as her own.
Incubators have given broody hens the pink slip for commercial chicken production. They just aren’t needed anymore, but a good old fashioned broody is ready to both raise chicks and give the flock owner a fun and educational experience watching her bring babies into the world and raising her chicks. No pink slip for her.