A broody hen is either a blessing or an irritant, depending on whether or not you want to raise chicks. These days, most eggs are hatched via incubators in commercial hatcheries. Broody hens hatch eggs the old-fashioned way -- by setting on them for three weeks at a time. That mothering instinct is great if you want to deal with chicks, but a bother if you want hens strictly producing eggs.
When a hen goes broody, she'll spend a lot more time in her favorite nesting spot. She sits on a clutch of eggs -- even if not all of them are hers. She rarely leaves the nest, even to eat or drink. If she free-ranges, you might not see her for some time and expect the worst. In the best-case scenario, the hen shows up a few weeks later with her chicks in tow. Hens can go broody whether or not there's a rooster around. If there's no rooster, you know those eggs aren't fertilized even if she doesn't.
Broody or Not?
It's not always easy to tell if a hen is broody. Some hens just naturally spend a lot of time in the nest box. If you can easily remove the eggs she's setting on, odds are she's not broody. She might squawk and appear irritated, but that's fairly typical hen behavior whenever you interrupt them. If the hen refuses to leave the nest and goes into attack mode, that's another story. If you visit the hen house at night and she's still in the nest rather than roosting, that's pretty good evidence that she's broody.
Once you're sure a hen is broody, separate her from the non-broody flock. If you have more than one hen going broody, you can keep them together. If you don't separate her, other hens might decide to lay eggs in the nest on the rare occasions the broody hen leaves to eliminate -- she won't foul her nest -- or she could return to a different nest with eggs in it. Just because a hen is broody doesn't mean she must hatch her own eggs. If you have non-broody hens exposed to a rooster, you can take their fresh eggs and place them under the broody hen to hatch. However, all the eggs must be placed in a clutch at one time.
Be ready for hatching approximately three weeks after the broody hen sets on her clutch. Once the first chick hatches, the others should follow within 16 hours. Any eggs that don't hatch after this time period probably aren't viable. Make sure the hatched chicks are able to get under the hen. They need access to her warmth, or will easily chill and die.
If you don't want to raise chicks but want your broody hen to continue laying eggs, you've got to nip the broodiness in the bud. The only true way to prevent broodiness is by choosing a breed that almost never goes broody, such as the white leghorn. If you're dealing with an unwanted broody hen, keep collecting her eggs and move her out of the nest. If repeated attempts to move her don't work, try some tough love. Place her in a cage with food and water but no nesting material for a day or so. Put her back with the flock at night, when they're sleeping in the hen house. This should break the cycle, although you might need to isolate her in this way more than once for a successful outcome.
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