I always have had a strong fascination with seeds and eggs. These beautiful inanimate objects that create new life.
When I was a kid, I loved to climb the apple trees at my Oma’s house and look in the Robin nests. All those beautiful, small, perfect orbs that little baby Robins would come out of. My Oma had some German friends who owned a small bakery in the country, and we would go to buy bread from them. They also had a pond with resident ducks who had eggs nestled in the cattails around it. I remember asking if I could take some eggs home to hatch them. They agreed; probably knowing it was hopeless but willing the humor me. I made a nest in my room. I didn’t really know the specifics of hatching, just that they had to be kept warm. I covered the eggs with blankets. I was SO excited to hatch the babies. I’d daydream about it all day long. I’d check on the eggs all the time. And then….the eggs started to stink. My dad had to break the news that meant it was all over. We had a tearful funeral in the backyard for my eggs. And somehow I’ve never lost that fascination with hatching eggs…..
When our first hen went broody, I felt like my kid self again; checking on her. Waiting for the baby chicks to hatch out. And the first year we failed. None made it. I cried. My husband didn’t understand. I explained how I felt like my kid self all over again–so hopeful, only to be disappointed.
Well I am happy to report that I am on my second year of successful chicken hatching with broody hens! I’d like to pass along my lessons learned to any who are interested in learning how its done.
There are some pros and cons to working with a broody hen to hatch eggs rather than an incubator.
You cannot hatch eggs whenever you want like an incubator. When I say “working WITH” the hen I mean it. Hens go broody on their own schedule, and each has her own temperament. If you are only hatching with broody hens, this limits how many new chicks you have each year.
If you hatch your own eggs, statistics are for having 50% roosters. When you buy baby chicks, they usually dispose of the rooster chicks so you are likely to get all hens. I am fine with some roosters as we plan to put the roosters in the freezer (although that was the plan last year and it took us several months to try butchering for the first time and the neighbors started complaining about the four roosters crowing. I think we will take them to Harrington Poultry Processing this year). If you aren’t OK with eating your chickens, consider what to do with the roosters.
You do not need an incubator or heat lamp, or really to do much other than provide food and water for the mamma and chicks as the mamma hen does all the work. She keeps the babies warm nestled in her feathers. She teaches them how to scratch around for food. And maybe other things: A friend of ours works full time with California Condors. He told me once that when they first released condors raised in captivity into the wild, they caused mayhem. I believe he said they were destroying buildings and making messes in other ways. The researchers realized they were being juvenile delinquents! They needed to be raised longer with the older condors to teach them manners! Doing that made all the difference. So, I have no research to prove it, but I like to think that mamma hens are also passing along knowledge and skills about being a chicken that we cannot fathom. Why not?
And watching the mamma with her babies scurrying around the yard is so entertaining!
That said, here is the process for hatching with a broody hen:
1. My hens tend to go broody in April or May. You cannot really make a hen go broody (although keeping one or two eggs in the nest seems to help), you just have to wait. A broody hen will not leave the nest, night or day. She will kind-of flatten her body on the eggs and growl at you if you try to get too close.
If you go in to get eggs, and suspect a hen might be broody but are not sure, check on her again a few hours later, and again that night. If the same hen is on the eggs every time, she is broody.
Also, my hens all tend to want to lay in the same nest box. So when one hen refuses to get off, there is usually an uproar in the hen house as the hens fight over the nest box.
2. You cannot leave your broody hen on the nest box to hatch her eggs. You will need to prepare a new site for her. The first year I thought, “well if that is where she wants to be, I’ll let her stay”. But little did I know I had two hens going broody at the same time. And they were fighting over the nest box and breaking each other’s eggs. It took awhile to figure out why the eggs were getting smashed. I went through a couple dozen eggs before I figured it out. Or, the mamma hen might get picked on by the other hens and decide to get off the nest halfway through, leaving the half baked eggs. Or many other scenarios. It really is best to put her in a new location.
When we moved to our current house, the previous inhabitants left a homemade rabbit hutch that I now use for broody hens:
This year, a second hen went broody while this rabbit hutch was inhabited already. So I used a dog kennel set up in the shed:
You need to give them some food and water. However, they will rarely leave the nest to eat, drink, or poop. Maybe only once every few days for all of these things.
One mistake I’ve made: if the floor cannot drain, be very careful with the water. The first year, one of my fails was for that reason. I had one hen in a different, smaller dog kennel. The water spilled. When I checked on her, the eggs and her and the poop and food and everything was in about an inch of water. I had to take it all out and try to put it back in, but the hen decided she was done and would not sit on the eggs any more.
3. Choose which eggs to put under your hen. This is the fun part! A hen will hatch any eggs you put under her. I have even heard of them hatching duck eggs. Last year I went on Craigslist and found someone selling fertile olive colored eggs and dark chocolate colored eggs who was in the same vicinity as me. I went to her house and bought a dozen eggs for $5. They hatched under my hen, and those chickens are laying this year.
This year I bought a dozen “farm fresh” eggs from one of my favorite places: Portland Homestead Supply. I asked if they were fertile, and explained my plans, and she said I wasn’t the first. Out of the dozen I bought, I picked some that were colors I don’t have yet, plus added some of the olive colored ones of mine. Here is the final assortment I decided to put under my hen:
I have read that eggs are good for up to 10 days. You can put eggs under hens after they have been refrigerated.
4. Find a place to put your hen, get it set up with a nest box and some food and water, set in the eggs, then once it is dark, go get the broody hen. Chickens seem to mostly forget what happens to them at night. If you need to clip wings, introduce a new hen, move them, etc. you always do it at night. And when they wake up in the morning, they seem to accept whatever the new situation may be. That is why you move a broody hen at night. Try to be as quick and quiet as possible. Pick her up, put her on her new clutch of eggs, leave her alone.
The next morning, go check if she is still sitting on the eggs. This year, the second broody hen, the one I put in the dog kennel, did not cooperate at first. I moved her, and in the morning she was scratching around the dog kennel, and had pooped on the eggs. So I put her back in the coop. But when I checked on her throughout the day, she was setting back on the nest box again, and at night she still was. I realized that the nest box I’d put in the dog kennel was much shallower than the nest box in the coop. So I made her a different nest box and tried again the next night. This time it worked.
The problem with a deep nest box is that once the chicks hatch, they cannot get out. So I broke the back off of this one, but put the chicken in facing the tall side so she would feel like she was sunk down in her old nest box. It worked. When the chicks hatch, they will be able to get in and out still.
5. The eggs will hatch in 21 days. Resources I have read say you should “candle” the eggs at around day 10. That means you go in at night, and one by one, you hold a bright light behind them, and are able to see if there is a heart beat and veins radiating out from the center–that the egg is alive. You remove the ones that are not alive. I guess the possible threat is that the rotten eggs could turn into bombs that explode all over the other eggs, and suffocate them or introduce bacteria. So far this has not happened to me, but may just be luck.
6. The eggs may hatch a day earlier or later than you mark in your calendar. It is a good idea to be around the day the chicks hatch. For one, it is really exciting to keep checking on the hen to see which new little face is peeking out. (This year, the first chick to hatch just sat with his head poking out of his mamma’s feathers, looking around, for hours. I wondered what he was looking at. Then I realized he was seeing the world for the first time, and I got the chills watching him.) The other reason you want to be around is that chickens are stupid. I had one hen roll half the eggs out from under her while they were hatching, and I had to shove them back under her before they died from the cold. Or the really young, weak chicks can fall out of the nest box and not be able to get back in. Things like that. It is just better to be around if possible to check on things.
7. Make sure you have water and chick starter feed around for the baby chicks. They are not quite ready for adult food when they first hatch.
I usually leave the mamma and chicks in the cage for a week together, then start leaving the door open for them to choose to roam around the yard. I wait until they are about a month old before I introduce them back into the flock (at night). I think they are much healthier to get the exercise and to eat the free-range food of bugs and seeds that can be found in the yard.
8. The new chicks will start laying at about 4 to 7 months old, depending on the variety. For mine, this fell right as the days got short enough that the hens stopped laying, and they did not actually lay their first eggs until this spring. But the first time I found a small, slightly different colored egg this spring, it was so exciting!
Well, good luck! And let me know how it goes!
My second hen is due to hatch the eggs I bought from Portland Homestead Supply in three days. I’ll post photos.