Setting a broody hen
Setting a hen means putting eggs under a broody hen for her to incubate and hatch. It is common to assume that hatching eggs is a straightforward, natural process. But chickens are domesticated animals and hatching eggs under a hen successfully requires good management on the part of the chicken keeper.
This quick guide lays out all of the requirements for hatching eggs under a hen.
Is setting eggs the best option?
Setting eggs under a hen can be great fun. But incubating chicken eggs and raising the chicks yourself can also be a magical experience for the whole family!
Not sure what is the best way to grow your flock? We compare the pros and cons of setting eggs under a hen versus incubating so that you can make the best decision for you. Click here.
Already decided? Read on!
Choosing the hen
Not all chickens are suited to motherhood. In fact, the mothering instinct has been pretty much bred out of some modern hybrid egg layers! So choosing the right hen for motherhood is the first step to successfully raising chicks.
Poor mothers often lose interest and leave the nest after a week or so, letting the eggs get cold and die. Others squash the chicks by accident or have no interest in mothering once the chicks hatch. It is not unheard of for a mother hen to even kill her own chicks!
These tips can help you pick a good mother:
- Choose a broody hen that stays on the nest all day and all night
- Hybrid layers like Hylines and ISA Browns are less likely to have good mothering instincts than heritage breed hens
- Look for breeds like Silkies, Orpingtons and Wyandottes, which are known for being great mothers
- Heavier breed hens also have a reputation for being better mothers than lighter breeds
- Determined broodys, who keep returning to the nest even when you are trying to break them, are often better mothers
- A chicken that was raised by a mother hen is more likely to be a good mother than one that wasn't
- Avoid chickens with a track record of being broody for a week or two and then giving up
- Just because a hen is sleeping in the nesting box doesn't mean she is broody: it could be preference, or a leg injury
- Sitting on eggs takes a physical toll, so avoid hens with health issues, low weight and poor feathering
Chicken keepers can often tell you which breeds in their flock have made the best mothers, so ask around. For us, Welsummers have been hopeless. The best mother was a White Leghorn; she had several clutches and once surprised us by wandering out of a bush with 26 chicks and raising all of them successfully!
Sourcing fertilised eggs
Once you have the right hen for raising chicks, and she is broody, you need fertilised eggs.
If you have a rooster, you can use your own eggs to hatch. Alternatively, you can source fertilised eggs from elsewhere. This article goes through the pros and cons of different sources of fertilised eggs.
Even if you are hatching your own eggs, it is best to choose the eggs your hen sits on rather than leaving it to chance. In order to have the best possible flock:
- Your rooster should be unrelated to your hens
- Hens are most fertile in their first 24 months, so use eggs from younger layers
- Only use clean eggs that are free from any deformities (wrinkles, pimples etc.)
- Avoid weak-shelled eggs
- Use fresh eggs
- Hatch eggs from your best birds: the healthiest, the best layers, the best foragers, the best mothers
- Choose the best eggs, for example, the richest brown Welsummer eggs and the bluest eggs from your Araucana
- Choose eggs from birds that show the best characteristics of their breed and any traits you want to establish in your flock, for example the correct colouring in Marans but also the largest eggs
Can you hatch other eggs under a chicken?
Most broody hens will happily accept eggs that aren't theirs. Chickens will happily hatch eggs from other hens, other chicken breeds and even other poultry species, like ducks and guinea fowl.
But they do teach their chicks to behave like chickens. For example, guinea fowl naturally don't scratch the ground, which makes them great additions to orchards and gardens that chickens would destroy. But guinea fowl keets raised by a chicken will learn to scratch! And ducklings raised by a chicken will need to be taught to swim!
Creating a nesting pen
Sitting hens should be moved to a special nesting pen as soon as possible.
Although some chicken keepers will leave broody hens in the chicken coop, it isn't a good idea because:
- Chickens will fight over the nesting box, leading to broken eggs or forcing the brooding hen off the nest and letting the eggs get cold
- Because hens will continue laying in the nesting box with the broody, eggs will accumulate and you won't know which eggs are being incubated
- Roosters and other hens may kill new chicks
- Broodiness is contagious, so leaving a broody in the pen will cause more broody hens and decrease egg production
The best nesting pen for broody hens
A nesting pen could be a separate coop or a corner of the main coop. We've even seen a chicken tractor placed over a nest made by a sneaky hen out in the chicken run!
Key features of a nesting pen are:
- It's protected from predators and other chickens
- The nest is quiet and cosy, so the sitting hen feels safe
- The nest is located on or near the ground, so newly hatched chicks cannot fall out
- There is food, water and a dust bath
- The sides have only small holes so little chicks will not be able to stick their heads out or escape
Cheap DIY nesting pen options include:
- A cardboard box, e.g. a washing machine box, in the corner of the coop with wire over the opening and feed and water inside
- A corner of the coop blocked off with wooden pallets
- An old rabbit hutch
How to move a broody hen to a nesting pen
Move your broody hen to the nesting pen as soon as possible.
There are a few things you can do to ensure your hen accepts the move:
- Move the hen at night
- Take the eggs and nesting material (or the whole nesting box!) with you
- Make the new nest as similar to the old nest as possible
- Cover the opening of the new nest with a dark, breathable material, e.g. cotton, for the first 24 hours. Keeping the hen in the dark like this can reduce stress. It is best if they are initially confined to the nest, so they don't try to leave.
- Ensure the hen is not able to return to the old nest.
If you are setting different eggs and moving your hen, make the move first while you are still sourcing eggs. Then in a few days when you have your eggs, your hen will be settled in and less likely to be disturbed.
Setting eggs under a broody hen
Once your broody hen is in a suitable nest, she needs suitable eggs. If you are using the eggs your broody has chosen, you don't need to do anything.
Always set eggs under a broody hen within a week of her becoming broody. Few hens will stay on the nest forever and most will leave the nest after 3.5-4 weeks when the eggs haven't hatched. There is nothing more frustrating than losing a clutch a few days before the hatch date because your broody has lost interest!
Most sources recommend setting 6-8 average eggs at a time under an average-sized hen, so she is big enough to keep them properly warm. Adjust the number of eggs you are incubating for the size of the egg and chicken, for example 3-4 standard eggs might be enough for a small Silkie hen.
To set eggs under a broody hen:
- Set the eggs at night
- Work from the rear of the hen with torches to avoid disturbance as much as possible
- Remove all of the original eggs
- Place all of the fertile eggs under the hen with one or two original eggs (mark these so you can recognise them later)
- Give then hen 5 minutes to settle and ensure there are no eggs showing. If the eggs aren't completely covered by feathers, there are too many and you should remove a couple.
- In 2-3 days, remove any original eggs you don't want to hatch
Monitoring the nest and caring for the hen
Broody hens still need to leave the nest. Most will make a quick trip to eat and drink every day or so. They may even dust bathe a little on a warm day!
But if there is no poo in the nesting pen and you haven't seen your broody leave the nest, you will need to encourage her. Gently remove the broody from the nest, being careful to ensure there are no eggs stuck to her skin or feathers. Drop her gently to the ground from no more than 20 cm high and she should poop. If the hen returns immediately to the nest, offer her food and water from a dish.
If you have a very stubborn hen who won't leave the nest, you will need to encourage her to poop, as above, every day or so.
Hatching the chicks
Chicken eggs take 20-21 days to hatch.
Around day 20, you should start listening for little peeps and looking for signs of chicks. If nothing is happening, check the nest at night, gently feeling the eggs and looking for cracks.
If there is an issue, like the hen is squashing the chicks, you can try to hatch the chicks in an incubator or brooder and then put them back under the hen. It is risky though and you may end up rearing them yourself.
A chicken will usually stay on the nest with her chicks for at least a day, sometimes two. Once her chicks are ready, a mother hen will start taking them on longer and longer trips away from the nest.
Use one of these early trips, which will likely be quite short, as an opportunity to replace the nesting material and remove dead chicks and broken eggs. You can leave unhatched eggs, but the chances of them hatching after the mother hen has left the nest are almost zero.
Once the chicks are big enough to follow their mother around, you should try to give both the chicks and the mother hen an opportunity to forage and roam in a larger space. Most mothers are excellent at protecting their chicks from other chickens and predators, and know when they need to call their chicks under their feathers to keep warm.
Here are some other handy blog articles about raising chicks:
Rachael at Dine a Chook