When I first became interested in getting chicks the old-fashioned way, I was surprised to find that helpful advice could be hard to come by. Perhaps this is because farmers have culled broody hens for centuries. After all, broody hens don’t lay eggs, and that costs farmers money. Because of this culling practice, modern hens aren’t well wired to hatch eggs.
In general, consider heritage breeds if you’re selecting for broodiness. Heritage breeds have a greater tendency to go broody, because they haven’t had the trait bred out of them to the same degree as modern hybrids. Still, you’re not guaranteed a broody hen from a heritage breed, or a non-setter (a hen that won’t go broody) from a modern breed. And to complicate things further, there’s no way to tell ahead of time if a hen will go broody; you’ll just have to wait and see.
Thankfully, some breeds are more apt to go broody than others. Breeds that top the list include Brahmas, Cochins, Orpingtons, Silkies, and Sussex. Even so, not every hen among these breeds will bother to hatch eggs, because many factors influence broodiness, including genetics and environment. And I’ve learned not to judge a hen too quickly; some don’t go broody until they’re at least 2 years old.
Finding Fertilized Eggs
If you live in an area where roosters are allowed, there are a couple of benefits to adding a male to your flock: He’ll protect your hens from predators, and he’ll fertilize their eggs. Young roosters may provide spotty fertilization, so you might want to wait until your roo is at least a year old before trying to hatch any eggs.
If you don’t want, or can’t have, a rooster, there’s still hope. Many homesteaders sell fertilized eggs; look for local ads on sites such as Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace.
Some seasons are better than others for successfully hatching eggs. In particular, it’s more difficult for chicks to thrive in extreme temperatures, so avoid the hottest stretches of summer and the coldest weeks of winter.
To encourage hens to get broody when you want them to, leave eggs in the nesting box overnight rather than collecting them promptly. Some homesteaders report success using golf balls or fake eggs. You’ll know you have a broody hen if she returns to the nest after being shooed away, refuses to leave the nest when you collect eggs, and spends all day sitting on the nest. After a few days, the hen will pluck feathers from her breast, and her body temperature will noticeably rise.
Preparing a Nest and Collecting Eggs
You can allow the hen to create her own nest, but I recommend creating one for her away from the rest of the flock. Otherwise, when the broody hen gets up for a quick drink or bite to eat, other hens may lay in her nest. This can lead to broken eggs, or some eggs hatching later than others, which is problematic because some hens refuse to leave their unhatched eggs to care for their chicks. Create a nest in a separate cage that’s predator-proof, provides shelter from the weather, and has enough room for the hen to sit near food and water. A rabbit hutch or small chicken run works well. Make sure there’s plenty of bedding.
The easiest option for gathering a clutch of eggs for your broody hen to sit on is to allow eggs to accumulate in your henhouse nesting boxes for a day or two. The broody hen will be naturally attracted and begin sitting on these eggs. The downfall to this method is that any disturbance, such as moving the eggs to a separate nest or cage, may discourage a slightly broody hen from sitting.
A more calculated method is to gather all the eggs before you let the hen start sitting, and then move both eggs and hen to a prepared nest. To do so, carefully collect eggs as you normally would, examining each for flaws, such as cracks, holes, and odd shapes or sizes. Gently place the best eggs in an egg-keeping box that’s been washed in hot, soapy water. (Previously used cartons may transfer bacteria to the eggs.) Don’t wash the eggs; washing removes their natural bloom, which protects the chicks from bacteria. Set the eggs point-side down and store in a cool location out of direct sunlight, ideally 55 degrees Fahrenheit with 75 percent humidity. To help prevent embryos from sticking to the eggshells, place a book under one end of the carton; once a day, move the book to the opposite end of the carton. Don’t let the eggs sit too long before beginning the incubation process. Each day an egg goes without incubation it becomes a bit less viable, declining rapidly after seven days.
How many eggs to collect depends largely on your needs and what your hen can comfortably incubate. If you’re unsure, collect more eggs than you think you’ll need and remove the excess once the hen is sitting. As a general rule, most hens can sit on up to 12 eggs of the size they naturally lay.
When you’ve collected the number of eggs you’d like to hatch, transfer them, along with the hen, to the prepared nest. Don’t be alarmed if the hen doesn’t immediately sit on the eggs. She can take up to a day to begin sitting in earnest and still have a successful hatch.
Note that red mites and lice can potentially kill sitting hens, so examine your hen carefully before you give her a clutch of eggs. If your flock had red mite problems in the past, it’s a good idea to dust the hen with red mite powder before introducing her to the eggs.
Ensure the hen has enough water and food, but don’t be surprised if she doesn’t drink or eat much. It’s not uncommon for hens to lose weight while sitting on eggs, which is why they should raise only one or two clutches per year, allowing their bodies recovery time between hatchings. Also monitor how much the hen is sitting. Some hens start out very broody, but lose interest and don’t sit enough to keep the eggs warm. If that happens, you’re out of luck and will need to throw away the eggs.
Some people like to candle eggs to ensure the hen isn’t sitting on any bad ones. But remember, every time you handle eggs, you increase the risk of hatching problems. The benefit of candling is that you can remove any eggs that lack developing embryos; these will rot if you leave them, and make a stinky mess if they break. Always remove any smelly eggs or eggs the hen rejects.
If you choose to candle, handle the eggs gently, removing and replacing them one at a time. Wait to candle eggs until day seven. After day 15, don’t handle the eggs again.
The chicks should begin hatching at about day 21. They’ll typically hatch out within a few hours of each other, but it can take anywhere from 12 hours to 3 days for the entire clutch to hatch.
After a few chicks are born, the hen will do one of three things: She’ll hop off the nest to care for her chicks, leaving the remaining unhatched chicks to die; she’ll remain on the nest and not do much for her chicks (this is OK if the hen is isolated and still allows the chicks under her); or, most likely, the hen will tend to her babies, leaving the eggs for a short time but returning to sit if she senses the chicks within are still viable.
Once all the eggs have hatched, make sure the hen is a good mother. In rare instances, she might peck and kill the chicks, or ignore them altogether. In addition, you’ll need to put a chick waterer and feeder in the cage. Within days, a good mother will show her chicks how to use them.
I recommend keeping the hen and chicks separated from the flock for at least a week. Some people transfer the mother and babies to the main henhouse right away, but mother hens aren’t always good at protecting their chicks, and if you have a henhouse that’s raised off the ground, chicks may fall off the house ramp and die.
I put the mother and chicks in an old wire run placed inside the main chicken run, and cover the run with a tarp at night. This gives the mother and babies their own space, while also allowing the rest of the flock to become familiar with the chicks.
It’s a good idea to keep newly hatched chicks and their mother hen away from other chickens for at least a week. Photo by Susy Morris.
When you integrate the mother and chicks into the flock, stand by and make sure the other chickens don’t harm the babies, though it’s normal for them to peck the chicks out of curiosity. A good mother will chase off any bird that comes near.
If all seems well, leave the flock for a half-hour, then check them again. Check periodically throughout the day until you’re satisfied the mother can protect her chicks from the flock.
The mother hen will continue to do most of the work of raising the chicks, but you should ensure there are plenty of water sources available, since full-grown chickens may occasionally bully chicks away from waterers. Also pay attention to the height of your waterers; if chicks can’t easily reach them, set out supplemental chick waterers.
If you’ve been giving the chicks medicated starter feed, you’ll need to switch to a non-medicated variety when you integrate them into the flock, because adult chickens love to eat chick food. At around 8 weeks, the chicks are ready for grower feed, which ups the protein they consume, ensuring optimal growth. Another option is to switch directly to flock feed once the chicks are integrated into the flock; some experts say this doesn’t provide enough protein for chicks, but this is less of a problem if your flock gets some free-range time. Whatever feed you select, don’t give chicks layer feed, because its high calcium levels can be harmful. A good rule of thumb is to switch to layer feed at 18 to 20 weeks.
Kristina Seleshanko has been raising chickens since she was a child. She’s the author of 25 books, including The Ultimate Dandelion Cookbook.