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Broody Hens and What To Do With Them

Broody Hens and What To Do With Them

What is a Broody Hen? What to do if you have one

It's springtime! And that means broody hens.

It is a question that all backyard chicken keepers encounter - what to do about a broody chicken. This handy article outlines the symptoms that characterise a broody hen and what you can do to get your hen off the nest and back to her normal self. If you don't want to hatch eggs under her, that is!

A broody hen is nothing if not determined. A few years ago, one of our customers told me that she thought she had lost her white leghorn. The bird had vanished without a trace and she was sure the chicken was the victim of a hawk. But after more than a week without seeing the chicken, she encountered the hen bolting down the yard in a whirling dervish of white feathers, squawking and scattering other birds left and right. The hen hit the chicken feeder, ate like it was starving, and was gone again in less than a minute. She thought she was hallucinating: this was the missing, presumed dead, leghorn!

Any backyard chicken keeper who has had chickens sit on eggs will be familiar with the "starving hen" routine. This customer's naughty leghorn had not been eaten: she was broody.

What is a Broody Hen? 

A broody hen is a hen that has decided it wants to raise chicks. Normally, broody hens choose a nest, lay a clutch of eggs, then stop laying and sit on the eggs until they hatch.

Almost anything can make a hen broody, but hens most commonly become broody in the springtime. When the weather begins to warm, hens know it is a good time to raise chicks and naturally become broody.

In the chicken coop, broodiness is also contagious. Once one hen starts sitting on eggs, it seems like they all want to! 

Signs of broodiness

So how can you recognise a broody hen before it goes MIA? If you recognise the signs of a broody hen, you should take action as soon as possible, regardless of whether you are going to set eggs or not!

The first sign of broodiness at our house is decreased egg production. This does not mean the hens are not laying. It just means they are no longer laying in their nesting box. Nesting boxes that were perfectly acceptable are suddenly too public and a broody hen will often decide that she prefers a more secluded spot. This might be under a bush, in the garden or in a clump of grass. And, of course, if one chicken decides they have found a better spot to lay an egg, the whole flock wants in on the action. So if egg production decreases in your coop in spring, when it should be amping up, check all of the likely spots for a broody's nest before you decide that production is down!

Other signs of a broody chicken include:

  • Spending time sitting in the nesting boxes
  • Building nests in dark, secluded spots
  • Spending the night in the nest, wherever it is, rather than roosting with the rest of the flock
  • Clucking or growling if you try to collect eggs from the nesting box
  • Not leaving the nest at all

Broodiness is more common in some breeds than others, although any hen can become broody. Heritage breeds do have more of a tendency to become broody than modern hybrids that have been bred purely for egg production, such as ISA Browns. 

Are broody hens a problem?

If you want chicks, then broody hens are great news. Our customer had a rooster, which meant the eggs were fertile, so she chose to let her naughty leghorn continue to sit. But if you aren't hatching chicks, then broody hens are a problem.

Broody hens can be a problem because:

  • They stop laying
  • Broodiness can be contagious, so not only will broodiness spread but egg production will decrease overall as more birds become broody
  • Broody hens sometimes steal other hen's eggs or may not let others use the nesting box, forcing them to lay elsewhere or causing fights that lead to broken eggs
  • All broody hens will sit on infertile eggs - they don't seem to be able to tell the difference, at least initially - and if the eggs don't hatch on time, some hens will stay on the nest waiting for months 
  • Broody chooks rarely eat or drink, they don't dust bathe or take care of themselves. They are sacrificing their health for the needs of their eggs. But if you aren't hatching chicks, it is better not to allow your hens to compromise their health by sitting for extended periods.
  • Not all chickens make good mothers - just because a chicken sits on eggs, doesn't mean she will see it through. The hen could leave the nest too early, suffocate the newly-hatched chicks or even kill them.

If you do want to hatch chicks, choose the broody hen carefully. Some chickens are better mothers than others. This is partially genetic, but a chicken raised by a hen is often a better mother herself. While some breeds, such as Silkies and Australorps, are known for their mothering instincts, a lot of brooding success comes down to the individual hen. Our customer's naughty leghorn was a stellar mother despite the breed not being particularly known for it! From her sneaky clutch, she successfully produced and raised 18 chicks!

What to do when hens go broody

If you want to expand your flock with some chicks, having a broody hen is excellent news. If you have a rooster, you can just let the hen sit, although most chicken keepers like to select the eggs she sits on. 

If you don't have a rooster, you buy fertilised eggs to put under the hen and she will happily raise the chicks. But you do need to set the eggs as soon as you can after the hen has become broody, because some hens will leave the nest after 3-4 weeks if the eggs haven't hatched, even if the eggs were fertile!

If you don't want to hatch chicks, you will need to 'break' your broody hen as soon as possible. This means to stop her being broody, and is not as brutal as it sounds. Breaking a broody hen is better for the hen's health and also means better egg production from your flock.

How to 'break' a broody hen

The less time a hen has spent sitting, the easier it is to convince her to give up the nest and return to normal flock life. 

There are loads of ways to break a broody hen, and everybody has a favourite. The first step in any method, of course, is to take away the eggs! Many chicken keepers swear by the BBB - the Broody Breaking Box.

The boomerang method

This technique is highly effective only in the very early stages of nesting.

  1. Remove the hen from the nest multiple times daily. 
  2. Take the hen far away from the nest, so she might become distracted, and so that she exercises while returning to the nest.
  3. Use bribes or treats to help keep the chicken off the nest.
  4. Move the hen out of the nesting box and onto the roosts at night. Usually they are too timid to make their way back to the nest in the dark.

The lock-out method

This method can work, but a determined hen will usually just make a nest somewhere in the run instead, just like the customer's missing, presumed dead, leghorn.

  1. In the morning after eggs are laid, lock the hens out of the coop for the day. Make sure they have adequate food, water and shade as well as protection from predators.
  2. Blocking off the nesting boxes may also work.

The cool-down

Cooling a hen's body temperature can help convince them that they are not broody, as the heat is essential for the eggs. There are many ways to do this, some kinder than others. Some people bathe their birds in cool water on a warm day. Others suggest placing ice cubes or frozen water bottles in the nest.

This method is not recommended if the weather is cold.

Chicken boot camp

Increasing a bird's activity also help decrease the hormones that make them broody. The lock-out method relies on this. You can also use the boomerang method but take the hen as far as possible from the coop so there is lots of activity, as well as distractions, before they get back to their nest.

The BBB - broody-breaking box

This is probably the kindest as well as the most reliable method of breaking a broody hen. The idea is to place the hen somewhere that they can’t nest. You could use a hospital pen or a bird cage. 

The broody-breaking box should be raised and have a wire floor, so that air can pass underneath and cool the hen. Ensure the wire floor is thick enough that it doesn’t damage the hen’s feet. There should be no nesting material as well as no dark corners in the pen. Provide food and also ensure adequate water, even add a roost if you like. 

After a couple of days, let the hen out. She should re-join the flock, but if she's been broody for a while or has extra strong instincts, she may go back to the nest, in which case leave put her back in the box for a bit longer.

Remember, whatever method you choose, the sooner you deal with a broody hen, the easier it will be to convince her to leave the nest!

Happy chicken keeping!

Rachael at Dine a Chook