That first little 'peep peep' from under the wing of your favorite hen, a chick the hen hatched, is something you'll never forget.
That sweet little face is the culmination of the hours and days and weeks that you've put into raising your backyard flock. In our case, my son strangely knew exactly which of our 14 girls would be the first broody hen - it would be Lucky Wattles, he said, and he would name the first baby 'Pip'. And so it was.
The Benefit of Broody Mamas
I wasn't sure I wanted to raise chicks this year. Our hens are only slightly more than a year old and because they're pretty happy and healthy, we've likely got another year or so before their egg production begins to drop off (or so all the books say). So when suddenly it was May and my son asked if we were still going to raise a small batch of chicks this year, I cringed a little. No, a lot. Not only do we not have room for a big brooder, but the idea of having to deal with thermometers and washing water founts every day made me want to run back to the city. Well, not really, but you get the picture.
Now, conveniently, we had two hens go 'broody' right around that time. I have to admit that I didn't do a lot of research - it was one of my rare 'dive right in' moments. We stopped collecting eggs for a couple of days, crossed our fingers that some of them were fertilized courtesy of our big Buff Orpington rooster, and hoped for the best.
21 days later, we had our first chick. A day later, another 2 sweet little fluffballs. All tolled, we ended up with 6 live chicks from 14 eggs between the two hens - 2 babies died when their eggs were broken before they were ready to hatch, and the rest either didn't develop fully or weren't fertilized in the first place.
And now, 11 days post- the first hatch, everyone is doing great and we're well on our way to revitalizing our flock with new egg layer for next year. That is if they're all hens, of course.
To say this has been an adventure is an understatement. There are things I should have known before we started (like the challenges of having two mama hens with chicks in the same flock), and things I'm glad I didn't know (like the fact we'd find dead pre-hatchlings in the nest). Mostly, it's been a great experience (my son loves it), but it's also been a lot of work.
Here are a few things to keep in mind if you decide to give your broody hens the opportunity to do what hens are meant to do. It's not an exhaustive list, and I'm not an expert, but it's a good place to start!
- Separate the Hen(s) - In the days leading up to the eggs hatching, I asked experienced chicken raisers on our Modern Homesteading Facebook page what their best advice was regarding separating the broody hens from the rest of the flock. As is always the case, we got a lot of different opinions. What I learned was this: there is no one-size fits all solution. What will work for you will depend on a number of things: the breed and size of your flock, the temperament of your birds, the size of your chicken house, your nest box set-up, how much time you have to keep an eye on your new additions, and so many other little details. But in our case, I should have separated the hens when they started sitting on their egg clutches - not after the babies hatched. What happened was that some of the other hens were hopping into the broody hens' nesting spots and depositing their eggs, which at first added more eggs to the clutch than I originally wanted (hence why we had two hens incubating the eggs - I couldn't tell which ones were the originals and which ones had been recently deposited), and necessitated me marking each of the 'sitting eggs' with an X. Then when the babies started hatching, we lost a couple, I'm assuming due to other hens stepping around in the nest boxes in a way nowhere near as carefully as the broody mamas and cracking the egg shells before the chicks were ready to hatch. I tried to keep them safe with chicken wire set up around those two nest boxes (with water and food there for the mamas), but it didn't work very well. In the end, after the babies hatched, I set up one of those folding dog fences on the floor of the coop, configured into two compartments - one for each new little family. Unfortunately, that didn't work so well either, as the two hens were at each other through the wire fencing, knocking over their food and water in the process and stepping on the chicks. The set up now is one pen using the dog fencing for one family, and a large dog crate for the other, complete with food and water. Everyone seems happier (myself included).
- Smaller Clutches are Better than Large - Our Lucky Wattles started out sitting on 14 eggs. That's WAY too much for a tiny little hen. So instead of disposing of eggs, we moved 6 over to the other broody hen, Miss Snooty Pants (yes, we called her that for good reason), and hoped for the best. Next time, we'll make sure to only allow a certain number of eggs in each clutch (I'm thinking 8 is a good number) - it increases the chances of successful incubation and I assume is much less stressful for the mama.
- Mama Hens Know What They're Doing - Compared to the constant diligence required when brooding chicks without a hen (or even more so, when incubating eggs in an incubator), letting hens look after eggs and chicks is a breeze. There's no need for thermometers or brooding lamps (unless it's really cold), or showing the chicks where the water is - mama hen does all that and more. Ours have been out free-ranging with their mamas since about Day 4 and it's fascinating to watch her show them what's edible, what's not, where the water is, and keeping them warm. Bottom line? Mama definitely does know best.
- Other Hens Can Be Nasty - I was warned (thanks Facebook friends!) that part of the reason for separating the mamas and babies from the rest of the flock is because other hens can be brutal with chicks, even killing them. Since I didn't really want that, I made an effort to keep them all separate. But other people say that they just let the mamas defend the babies right from day one. I'm not quite ready to risk a dead chick - not after all the work I've put into them - so I'll be waiting til the chicks are older, wiser, and bigger and can fend for themselves a bit.
- You Don't Necessarily Need Special Food - We're feeding non-medicated chick starter and free-ranging somewhat, but I've heard from a number of people that they have their chicks out free-ranging with the mama hen right from day 1 and don't use chick starter or any grit. You'll need to assess how much food is available for them while free-ranging to determine if there's 'enough' for their quickly growing bodies. As for me, I'd rather be safe than sorry and will continue to offer both to our 6 little cuties. Note: chicks apparently can not eat layer mash, so it's important to ensure they don't have access to it. Formulations for laying hens contain far too much in the way of minerals (calcium in particular) for chicks, so if you're not free ranging your babies or making your own feed, you'll need chick starter (preferably as 'natural' as possible, ideally 'organic', and if not, then at least non-GMO - it does exist). Here's a relatively updated list of organic chicken feeds in the US and Canada: Organic Chicken Feed Suppliers.
We've learned so much more than this, but these 5 points stick out as important for the first week or two. We'll definitely keep you posted as things progress...
One of our Facebook friends said that there's nothing cuter than a mama hen out with her babies, showing them the world and clucking softly. Now that I've experienced it first-hand and spent a lot of time out in the rain observing our new little 'families', I'd have to say I couldn't agree more.
Have you ever raised chicks with a hen doing most of the work? Is there anything I missed in this article that you think would be important for new chicken raisers to know? Are you new to this gig and have questions about hens raising chicks? If so, share it in the comments below! We'd love to hear your experiences!