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What is a Broody Hen? What to do

What is a Broody Hen? What to do

What is a Broody Hen? What to do

It is a question that all backyard chicken keepers encounter - what to do about a broody hen. 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.

Two weeks ago, one of our customers told me that she had lost her white leghorn. The bird had vanished without a trace. She had checked all fences and found no apparent way for the chook to break out of the run. After convincing herself the chicken was the victim of a hawk, she came into our store after bird netting to predator-proof the chicken run.

After going to the effort of adding the extra measures, this same customer came back into the store yesterday to let us know she had seen the missing, presumed dead, chook. The hen was bolting down the yard in a whirling dervish of white feathers, squawking and scattering other birds left and right. It hit the chicken feeder, ate like it was starving, and was gone again in less than a minute. She must have 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? Signs of broodiness

Almost anything can make a hen broody. But warm weather definitely helps. There's a certain time of year, usually in spring, when, all of a sudden, all the locals have broody hens. Once one hen starts sitting on eggs, it seems like they all want to. So how can you catch a broody hen before it goes MIA?

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 suddenly 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 chook decides they have found a better spot to lay an egg, they all want in on the action. So if egg production decreases, check all of the likely spots for the broody's nest before you decide that production is down!

Other signs of a Broody Chicken include spending ages in the nesting boxes, as well as building nests in dark, secluded spots. A sure sign is if the chooks start spending the night in their nest, wherever it is, rather than roosting with the rest of the flock. Now is the time to take action.

Broodiness is not linked to a particular breed more than another. However, 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. That said, if you want to raise chicks, these heritage breeds are often better mothers!

Are broody hens a problem?

If you want chicks, then broody hens are great news. Our customer had a rooster, so she chose to let her naughty leghorn continue to sit. Fortunately, the hen had already proven herself as a good mother! But there are pitfalls to broody chooks, and especially if you don't want chicks!

Broody hens can be a problem because:

  • Broody hens stop laying.
  • Broodiness in one bird can also decrease egg production overall, as it seems to be contagious. Once one bird wants to sit, several will. 
  • Broody hens sometimes steal other hen's eggs or may not let others use the nesting box, forcing them to lay elsewhere.
  • Broody hens will sit on eggs that aren't fertile (I've even read about them sitting on golf balls!). Eggs take 21 days to hatch, but that doesn't mean your bird will leave the nest on day 22. It could be there 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. There is a lot of advice about which chickens make good mothers – our leghorns have been stellar, and australorps and bantams, particularly silkies, are said to be particularly competent. The mothering instinct is genetic, so many modern cross-breeds and commercial breeds like ISA Browns, have had it bred out of them. The general rule seems to be that a chicken raised by a chicken, rather than an incubator and brooder, will be a better mother. 

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. Otherwise, if you catch the hen in the first few days you can beg or buy fertilised eggs to put underneath her. Don't put fertilised eggs under a hen that has been broody for more than a week, as she is unlikely to see the incubation period through at that stage.

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 her health and also means better egg production from your flock.

How to stop 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

  1. Remove the hen from the nest multiple times daily. This technique is highly effective in the early stages of nesting.
  2. Use bribes or treats such as dried mealworms to help keep the chicken of the nest.
  3. You can also 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

  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 for the day is also useful. However, a super-determined hen will build sneaky nests in the run as well, just as the customer's leghorn did

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.

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 relies on placing the hen somewhere that they can’t nest. You could use a hospital pen or a bird cage. The containment 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. They should re-join the flock, but if they’ve been broody for a while or have extra strong instincts, they may go back to the nest, in which case leave them 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!

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Also read: What are signs of Egg Binding?