When it comes to hatching and raising baby chicks, there are a few different ways to go about it.
The original method is to have hens sit on fertile eggs for about three weeks, hatch the eggs, and raise the chicks themselves. Modern-day alternatives include hatching eggs in incubators and purchasing chicks from hatcheries.
Most incubator and hatchery chicks are raised by people, in brooders outfitted with heat lamps to keep the chicks warm and dry. But another option is to introduce tiny chicks to broody hens and let the mamas do what comes naturally.
Two years ago we raised hatchery chicks in a brooder in the barn. Last year we used an incubator and had two hens hatch a few eggs.
This year, three of our hens went broody in the same week. April was settled in her own nest, while Hedwig and Piggy brooded in tandem. A month later, none of their eggs had hatched. I was ready to order a batch of hatchery chicks anyway, so I thought I’d try to see if any of the broody hens would adopt the chicks.
After a trip to the post office to fetch a box of day-old chicks, I got the little peep-peepers settled in an indoor brooder with heat lamp. All of the chicks looked healthy and active.
That night, when all was dark and quiet at the chicken coop, my hubby Jim and I put two chicks under each broody hen. We checked back and forth for a while and all seemed well—mamas clucking softly, babies snuggled underneath the hens.
The next morning three proud mothers were doting on their chicks. All was well.
So that night, we put the rest of the chicks in with the mothers. Over the next several days we watched as the hens capably cared for their chicks.
Four weeks later, it appears that our foster adoption worked like a charm. The hens have been contented, nurturing mamas; the chicks are healthy and strong.
So what are some secrets to successful adoption? Of course every experience will be different, but here’s what worked for us.
1. Make sure the hens are actually broody, having sat devotedly on eggs for at least a couple of weeks. Most hens--even experienced mothers--will have no interest in raising chicks unless they are already broody. On the other hand, there are exceptions--some hens will readily adopt chicks anytime!
2. Get each broody hen (or brooding team, in Hedwig and Piggy’s case) settled in a private crate or nest box with her eggs and fresh bedding at least a few days before introducing the chicks. While it’s fine to just let broodies remain with the masses, many chicken owners say the hens are more relaxed if they have solitude.
3. Be prepared to get the chicks started in a brooder and to brood them completely if necessary. Set up your brooder and have it warm (95 degrees F.) when the chicks arrive. Have chick starter feed and a chick waterer waiting.
4. When you receive hatchery chicks or take chicks from the incubator, check for “pasty butts” (dried feces) and clean the little rear ends with a damp soft cloth if necessary. Show each chick how to drink by dipping its beak in water. Put the chicks in the warm brooder.
5. Put chick starter feed and a chick-accessible waterer in the mama’s pen. Remove any layer feed that the chicks could reach. It’s fine for the hen to eat starter feed—and the extra protein will do her good--but layer feed has too much calcium for young chicks. If you’re providing only a chick feeder, make sure the hen can get her beak inside the openings.
6. On the first night, well after dark when your hens should be drowsy or sound asleep, quietly place one or two chicks under each hen’s breast or snuggled under her wing. Remove an egg or two while you’re there.
7. Watch and listen. Good signs are the chick staying under the hen, the hen using her beak or wing to nudge the chick under her, and the hen clucking softly to the chick. If the hen seems aggravated or doesn’t know what to do, remove the chick and try again later.
8. Check first thing in the morning and throughout the day to make sure all is well. Hopefully you will not find a dead chick, but know that it is possible. Sometimes chick and hen don’t bond quickly enough; sometimes a hen will consider the chick an imposter.
9. If mama and chick seem to be bonding well, place the remaining chicks under her that night and remove the rest of the eggs. A standard hen can easily keep 12 or more chicks warm; a banty can cover several. Again, watch hen and chicks for a while till they are settled.
10. Repeat your visual checks the next day just to make sure the mama is handling all the chicks well and all the chicks are thriving in their new arrangement.
It’s possible that you may still need to raise chicks in a brooder if the hen will not care for the chicks or if you have more chicks than your hen(s) can handle. Be watchful, and take some or all of the chicks back to your indoor brooder if necessary.
If the chicks are more than a few days old they may not bond to the hen even if she is willing. If they won’t take refuge under the hen when the air is chilly, they may die of exposure. One solution for this is to keep a brooder lamp in the brooding area, preferably with a small accessible box under it. Chicks that don’t attach to the hen can huddle under the lamp as they would in an indoor brooder.
Having a hen raise chicks takes some of the workload from your shoulders. You’ll still need to provide plenty of feed and fresh water, but mama will keep the chicks warm and cozy. You can just sit back and enjoy watching her teach her little ones to scratch in the dirt and take a proper dust bath.
It's just another delightful adventure in rural living!
Readers: Do you have other suggestions for hen and chick adoptions?