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What Does It Mean When A Chicken Goes Broody?

When we first got into raising chickens, I would occasionally hear the term broody in conversation and assume people were saying the word moody. This was confusing to me as, quite often, the ‘moody’ chicken was spoken of in an excited and positive manner. Being raised to be polite, I always offered them a smile, but secretly asked myself “who in their right mind would want a moody chicken?”

Turns out I just needed to listen a little better. The term broody refers to the behavior exhibited by a hen when she has the instinctive drive to hatch a clutch of eggs. In short, she wants to be a mama.

So in concept, the word moody might not be that far off. But not the grumpy kind of moody you want to avoid. This is the good kind of moody that is gentle and nurturing, the kind of moody the soon-to-be chicks will bond with and learn from and the kind of moody that has coined the phrase ‘watchful like a mother hen’.

Why Do Chickens Brood?

The instinct to reproduce is not something that has to be taught to chickens. Like most living creatures, when the conditions are right, a maternal drive takes over eliminating all thoughts of leisure and play. And this is a good thing as the survival of each species depends on it. Putting the welfare of future generations over personal ‘fun’ is something a broody hen understands instinctively.

As to the specific behavior of sitting on a nest for 21 days, this is because gestation takes place outside of the hen’s body. Unlike mammals, where the care for the developing young happens inside the mother, a bird’s young is external – exposed and vulnerable. This fact mandates that the mother be immobile; leaving only for the briefest of moments for food and water.

Broody Hen Symptoms

So how do you know if your hen wants to be a mama or if she’s just acting a bit lazy? There are few tell-tale signs that are reliable indicators that a hen is being broody.

  • She doesn’t leave the nest. This is the most obvious indicator. While it’s not uncommon for your hen to sit on a nest, you should take note if she is spending a lot of time on the nest. This is especially important as she will forgo the normal routine of food and water – taking only minimum amounts.
  • Aggressive/protective behavior while on the nest. As a general rule, I try not to disturb hens using a nesting box. Laying an egg takes a bit of work and I’m not looking to add any stress on them. But a broody hen is a completely different bird than a hen just laying an egg. A broody hen is protecting her young and while she might have been the sweetest, most gentle girl in the yard, she will go full Berserker on you if you look like you’re going to mess with her eggs.
  • Missing feathers from her chest. Broody hens will quite often pull feathers from their chest to line the nest. This is a common behavior among fowls and it has a host of positive benefits for the eggs. The soft feathers help insulate the incubating eggs, as well as, providing cushion for the eggs as they get moved around.
  • Large stinky piles of poo. As the hen is on the nest for almost all of her day, she is unable to relieve herself as often as she has in the past. Consequently, when she gets the opportunity, she really makes the most of it.

Is It OK For My Hen To Be Broody?

A hen’s instinct to hatch a clutch of eggs will drive her to sit on a nest. And, believe it or not, this can happen even without a rooster being present to mate/fertilize eggs. This broody behavior is entirely on the hen.

So if your hen goes broody, it’s alright to let her act on her instincts. However, if no fertilization has taken place, then clearly she is not going to hatch any chicks. In this situation, you may have to intervene as she could die for lack of proper care as she forgoes the normal amount of food and water while she’s waiting for the eggs to hatch.

How To Take Care Of A Broody Hen

If your hen has gone broody, then how you care for her depends on whether the eggs are fertilized or not.

Fertilized Eggs:

  • If you have access to fertilized eggs and are looking to raise some chicks, then the first thing you should do is move the broody hen to a secure location away from the rest of the flock. Chickens can be surprisingly viscous and a small chick away from its mama is very vulnerable.
  • Once your soon-to-be mother hen is settled in a quiet and comfortable place, then you need to provide her with easy access to food and water. Remember, a broody hen will forgo the normal amount of food and water, so bringing it closer to her and preferably where she can see it from the nest (especially water) should encourage her to care for herself a little better. However, it should be noted, that having it close and visible is no guarantee that she will use it.
  • With your hen sitting on the nest, almost continuously, there is health risk involved due to her soiling it. A nest full of poo is not good for her or any perspective chicks. It’s a good practice to monitor the condition of the bedding to ensure a healthy environment. Excessive or smelly waste should be immediately removed.
  • Now that we’ve discussed how little she is going to eat and how one must carefully monitor the conditions in the nest, I’m going to say something seemingly contradictory; give her space. Bringing new life into your feathered family can be an amazing experience. It’s easy to stress too much. Try and give your mama hen as much space as you possibly can. She’s got enough on her mind.

Unfertilized Eggs: It isn’t always convenient for someone who has a small flock to add new chicks. Room for your birds, as well as, time to properly care for them, isn’t always available. As much as we would like to, we simply can not responsibly handle the situation. In this scenario, unfertilized eggs are your only option.

  • Even though you do not have to plan for the safety of your baby chicks, your hen is still at risk. Providing her a safe place to follow her instinct will make life for you and the entire flock less stressful. As mentioned before, chickens can be surprising viscous and if the other hens take issue with your broody girl ‘hogging the nest’, they will not hesitate to take it out on her. This is especially bad for your broody hen as she could be malnourished and is inclined to stay put no matter how bad the abuse gets.
  • Once you’ve come to the realization that your hen is broody, mark it on the calendar and decide how long to let her stay broody. Sometimes, a hen will decide chicks aren’t coming and break out of their broody behavior all on their own…and sometimes she won’t. In the later case, if you don’t intervene, your hen could die.

Does A Broody Hen Lay Eggs?

Once the instinct to hatch eggs kicks in, the perspective mama hen is going to focus all of her energy to that task. Also, with her eating and drinking less, her body will have less energy to work with.

For these reasons, a broody hen will generally stop laying eggs. However, it’s unlikely that she is going to be satisfied with just one egg to hatch. Consequently, you may see your broody girl continue to lay eggs for a few days until she gets a nest full.

If you are working with unfertilized eggs and wish to speed things up, you can add eggs to her nest. Although, if you’re feeling a little stingy with regards to real eggs, quite often substitutes will provide the same result. Fake eggs (including golf balls) can give your hen the full nest feeling and get her moving along.

Can You Eat Eggs From A Broody Hen?

If you have a small flock and eggs are in limited supply, then having a hen decide she wants to hatch some of your eggs can be problematic. Provided you’re gutsy enough to try and steal a few from her, and you have your battle gear on (as she will consider your actions an act of war!) then eggs from a broody hen is a possibility. However, there are a few things to consider.

As your hen is sitting on the eggs, she is providing them with heat. In a situation where the eggs are fertilized, this provides incubation for the developing young.In other words, you run the risk of cracking open an egg and finding a chick growing inside.

In a situation where the eggs are unfertilized, the continuous heating of the egg provides an ideal situation for bacteria. And while the eggs have a natural coating to protect against bacteria, nothing is guaranteed.

Personally, I would not recommend eating any egg from a broody hen. To me it’s just not worth the risk. Fertilized or not, any unhatched eggs from a broody hen should be safely disposed of, away from the flock.

How Long Does A Chicken Brood?

Once you’ve got yourself a broody bird, it’s good idea to put a mark on the calendar. Knowing exactly how many days have passed is only going to help you when ensuring the well being of your hen. This is especially important for unfertilized eggs. If the broody hen stays too long on a nest, there is an increased chance of health issues due to malnutrition. But remove her from the eggs too soon and she’s liable to be really stressed out.

In a situation with fertilized eggs, the hen will brood between 20 to 23 days. As previously mentioned, it’s good idea to keep track of when your girl went broody. This is especially important as successful hatching is not always 100 percent. After 23 days, the longer an egg goes unhatched the more likely it isn’t going to.

Can A Broody Hen Die?

Temperature control for the developing chicks is extremely crucial. A little too hot or a little too cold and the chicks are at risk. For this reason, hens are single-minded when it comes to sitting on the nest. The instinctive drive to ensure a successful hatching overrides a hen’s desire to care for herself. Consequently, she will not leave the eggs to eat or drink as much as she should.

Without proper food and fluid intake, a broody hen will die. This is why we, as backyard farmers, need to keep a careful eye on our flocks. These birds are simply following their instincts and sometimes to their own detriment.

In a situation where the eggs are fertilized, the hen should stop being broody when her chicks arrive. These little fluff-balls are up and mobile very quickly and she will need to be on her feet to keep up with them. More importantly, chicks need to be shown ‘this is food and this is water’. For this reason, after the first day a hen must leave the nest, if only for a moment, as the chicks will need to drink water.

With unfertilized eggs, the finish-line never comes. In other words, there are no active little cheeping machines that need chasing after. And without any ‘hatching’, there is nothing to trigger the next phase of motherhood. Consequently, it’s very possible that your hen will simply stay put – slowly killing herself while she waits for something that’s never going to happen.

How To Stop A Broody Hen

Regardless of whether it’s egg loss or a general sense of well-being for your bird, it’s easy to find a reason why broody behavior should sometimes be stopped. Depending on the bird, this can be simple or, if Murphey’s Law tends to be a friend of yours, it can be very challenging as sometimes your hen will go right back to broody only weeks after you’ve ‘trained’ her not to be.

There are a variety of proven techniques that will school your bird back to normal behavior. However, the core concept of stopping a broody hen is to get her away from the nest. Some people will block off the nesting box she’s using. Some people will simply steal the eggs and remove the bedding. Others will go as far as to lock the hen in a wire cage for a few days (obviously with food and water). Whatever the technique, if your bird is away from the nest long enough, she should snap out of broody and go back to being the happy, egg-laying normal she used to be.

Do Hens Turn Their Eggs?

For those backyard farmers who are in a position to let their bird hatch a clutch of chicks, there is some other behavior you should be aware of.

Hens will roll the eggs around the nest, generally from one side to another. It might look like the mother hen is just being anxious, and to be honest, she might very well be. However, this process is actually good for the soon-to-hatch chicks as it forces them to move around inside the egg. Laying dormant for too long is not good for them.