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Working with Broody Hens

By Kelly Klober

The two big problems with broody hens are their somewhat limited capacity to cover eggs and the simple fact that they don’t always go broody when you need or want baby chicks. I know of no way to make hens go broody although it has been said that if the trait is in them it can be sometimes be triggered by switching them to an all grain ration in warmer weather.

A clutch of hatching eggs traditionally measures fifteen, an unusual number even for our non-metric system. It is the near ideal number for a good-sized hen to fully cover and then brood successfully.

brooding hen
Some old hands will trust their most needed and valued eggs only to proven broody hens.

Some standard bred hens can have this number bumped up to about eighteen eggs and some bantams will do best with just eight to ten large eggs. The tendency to have a broody nature has now been bred out of a great many breeds and strains within breeds. Although I have heard reports of even the odd Leghorn going broody over the years, the trick now will be finding dependable setting hens. Most who use broody hens now maintain a special small flock that has been selectively bred just for this trait. There are a few Standard breed varieties offered as retaining the broody instinct, but wade into those waters rather carefully. If you do find a line in which the hens will take to the nest and hold to it consistently by all means propagate them. However, good setters are generally not high output layers.

One of the few good reasons for a smallholder to do much in the way of crossbreeding is to develop a small flock of dependable, broody hens. An acquaintance has a set of hens based largely on some old line Buff Orpingtons that will even hatch peafowl eggs and go on to breed and rear the peachicks. The best foundation birds for a flock of broodies may be best drawn from the bantam sector.

Silkies have a reputation for trying to hatch everything including doorknobs. I have seen Silkie hens go broody after laying as few as a half dozen eggs and they are truly staunch on the nest. They can handle up to twelve eggs and with a small flock kept just for broodies you can selectively breed for larger sized hens. Some will cross Silkies with other bantams to produce a somewhat more vigorous flock of broodies.

Silkies are very gentle, do not fly, and are the classic “floor” birds. They fall into a category of their own somewhere between bantams and standard birds although they are most often seen and shown with the bantams. Due to their truly gentle nature they should not be penned with some of the more aggressive breeds.

Silkies will raise almost anything in an egg, including geese and even turkeys.

Some have opted to keep a small flock of purebred Silkies with which to do their hatching and maintain the purebred theme of their other flocks. They always sell well, too. Some will say that the only true Silkie is the White variety with its very dark, mulberry colored skin. It is a highly valued table bird in some Asian cultures and is also esteemed for certain medicinal properties. It is seen in a number of other colors and patterns than just white, but as I have handled them I have noticed that nearly all had at least a few hard feathers.

Cochin bantams have been used often for natural incubation, but with their feathered legs there can be problems with cleanliness and even eggs being pulled from the nest. They may be more useful for this purpose if crossed with a similar, clean legged, larger sized bantam such as the Wyandotte. Among the standard varieties some lines of Rocks, Wyandottes, and Orpingtons retain broody tendencies. It is a trait that seems to manifest itself stronger in the rarer and minor strains within some of these breed categories. Blue Wyandottes and Buff Rocks may have been among the broodiest large breed birds we’ve owned, but birds from a different strain may not be nearly so strong to the nest. Standard Games often retain quite strong broody character and can be real chick raisers, but they can be quite aggressive toward other birds.

brooding hens in nest boxes
Before trusting a hen with a clutch of rare and very valuable eggs make certain that she will hold fast to her nest. To do this, test her with a nest egg or two for a minimum of forty-eight to seventy-two hours. 

The containment for brooding hens should be some distance from other birds to keep the broodies calm and to prevent other hens from laying to their nest. A quiet, darkened area is best and many once built small, broody hen coops. They were, essentially, a two-wide stack of nests made of solid construction to a height of six or seven feet. Often they have a house-type door with some screening for natural ventilation.

The hens would be let out for an hour or so each day. The birds would be supervised and the nests then be checked for broken eggs, parasites, and soiled nesting material. Most now just partition off a darkened corner of a larger building or use a small outbuilding to contain broody hens shown to be solid to the nest. Such setting hens can be penned together if their nest sites are clearly established and they can get off the nests to feed and water themselves. Their nests will still need to be regularly inspected.

For best results broody hens should be healthy and free of parasites. Nest boxes should be size appropriate for the birds being employed. Nest size can range from twelve inches by twelve inches by eighteen inches to a full twenty-four inches by twenty-four inches by twenty-four inches.

Such nests will need some preparation before introducing the hen and eggs. It should have been cleaned thoroughly — including a scraping of all surfaces. Treat the surfaces with a miticide if there have been a previous problem with them. Old timers will apply a lime-based whitewash to all surfaces before each new use. Organic producers might want to look into using MiteGard for mite control.

Apply a layer of cedar chips or shavings to the bottom of the nest box. These contain a natural insecticide. Over them apply a layer of clean straw or other nesting material to a depth of two to four inches. As time passes this material may have to be supplemented and badly soiled spots removed carefully.

hen with brood
If given the needed space and protection, a broody hen can be entrusted to raise her chicks, also.

Allowing a broody hen to raise her chicks will require added time and facilities and will have a hen out of lay for many weeks. A great many prefer to pull the clutch of chicks once hatched and brood them in regular chick brooding units. This does give an added element of control over how the birds are fed and tended.

By removing the chicks it is possible to have a broody hen bring off two or even three clutches in a single season. Some will even have Silkie and Silkie-crosses incubate two clutches of eggs in succession. I once had a little Silkie hen take up residence on a bare nest on Labor Day and hold to it until Christmas Eve.

For those who want true and natural simplicity, the broody hen may still be the way to go. They lack a certain predictability as well as time and volume controls, but they do have longstanding history and old Mother Nature on their side.

Source: Talking Chicken