By fortuitous circumstances one of our Plymouth Barred Rock hens set on 10 eggs in our egg mobile this summer. She somehow evaded daily morning egg collection. Instead of laying in the nesting boxes, which we access from outside the egg mobile, she hid in the corner away from sight. She’d gone broody.
Natural hatching has always intrigued me. Before purchasing our heritage breeds, I had read about the varying levels of broodiness in the different breeds of hens. Plymouth Barred Rock hens have a tendency to go broody and make good mothers.
Allowing a hen to go broody and hatch eggs involved special care and attention. Hens can sit on 8 – 12 eggs respective to their breed. Our broody hen naturally incubated 6 out of 10 eggs. All eggs were candled (shine a light on them in the dark) to show full development inside the shell so I am uncertain as to why the last 4 eggs did not pip or hatch. I didn’t keep the nest as clean as I could have so it is possible that there could have been some bacterial contamination. It is important to keep the bedding dry and clean.
Broody hens are easy to identify. Stick your hand inside their nesting box and feel the power of the beak pinch and the alarming shreak of terror. These are unmistakeable characteristics of a broody hen. Broody hens have a tendency to leave the nest at the same time of day to relieve themselves, eat, run around, and dust bath. Their fecal deposits are ginormous, for lack of a better word, and you will observe them dance around their nesting area. I liked the fact that we used our egg wagon as a shelter for our hen (having moved our layers to another housing) as it allowed Hen-rietta to get outside, do her business in the sunlight, and then get back to incubating. The incubation process takes approximately three weeks (18 – 22 days) and the hens will fulfill their mothering duties for up to 5 weeks when they begin to lay again. The last three days of the hatch usually find the hen locked into the nest until the hatch completes.
Broody hens should be left alone as much as possible so they can go about their business. I kept a small margarine dish of chick starter and a chick waterer near to the nest (in a dark corner of the egg wagon) to make sure that the hen stayed hydrated and nourished. Broody hens consume far less feed than laying hens so high protein chick starter or pullet grower in place of laying mash or pellets works well. Some may even need prompting to feed and drink as they become entranced and entrenched into never leaving the eggs.
Normally, a hen would be encouraged to go broody in mid-Spring, however, our broody hen decided to go broody in August. Given the late discovery of her developed egg cache in a dark corner of the egg wagon and my refusal to discard the eggs, Hen-rietta was able to bring 5 beautiful chicks onto the farm. As they say, a chick hatched via a broody hen has a much higher likelihood of becoming broody as a laying hen so here’s hoping that more natural hatches can happen in the Spring with our Plymouth Barred Rocks, Black Australorps, and New Hampshire Red crosses. I’ll probably invest in a couple of Silkie hens by then as they are top notch broodies.
This was my first experience facilitating a broody hen hatch. Next time around, Spring 2016, we’ll have a hatching pen set up inside one of the chicken barns so that multiple broodies can hatch at the same time. A temporary nesting box in the form of a pet carrier, bucket, milk crate, or box in isolated pens will serve as a maternity pen set-up.
The most important lesson I learned in this whole process was through the maternal behavior exhibited by Henrietta. Mothers are teachers and she was quick to educate her chicks on drinking, eating, and the safety of a mother’s wing. It is a beautiful thing to watch the chicks imprint onto their mother. I won’t retire the hovabator incubator, but I will certainly enable our hens to go broody and hatch chicks as often as possible this coming Spring and Summer.