7 October 2014

Dealing with a broody hen

Broody hens can drive you crazeeee! They're not doing anything 'wrong', of course, just trying to be good mothers. However, most of us want them out of the nest box and back to laying eggs.

Broodiness is of the big drawbacks of having a traditional breed of hen, as opposed to a modern hybrid breed like a brown shaver. Some beautiful big traditional breed hens - so feathery and well designed to incubate eggs - never go broody, but many do.

Broodiness is when a hen switches into mother mode: she wants nothing other than to incubate eggs so she can hatch chicks. Many of us keep hens without roosters, so their eggs are infertile. However, chicken instincts are strong, and the broodiness switch gets triggered regardless. It most often happens in spring.

How to tell if she's broody
You'll know your hen is broody when she spends all her time in the nest box, sitting on her eggs and whatever other eggs she can fit under her warm, cosy body. Her desire to be on her nest will be powerful.

She'll stop laying eventually, but only after she's laid her 'clutch', which could take at least a week.

Notice how her comb is no longer red and has turned pale pink
 - she's obviously not in a fertile state.
She'll also look and sound a bit different. She has, after all, been taken over by some powerful hormones. Her feathers will look fluffed and somehow more pointed, and she'll probably give an angry little cry when you try to turf her out of the nest - a sound she doesn't usually make.

Why broodiness is a problem
Hens don't eat or drink much when they're broody. Incubated fertile eggs hatch after three weeks, so the mother's health doesn't suffer. Without the relief provided by hatching eggs, broody hens can get very thin.

Plus, she stops laying, and you want her eggs, right?

How to fix it
I'm all for keeping life as natural as possible for chickens. It's not natural, however, to have no rooster and infertile eggs, so in this instance we have to accept that what we have to do to fix the broodiness is also going to be unnatural. The hen will hate it.

Some broodies are more easily snapped out of it than others. The gentle route is just to block her out of the nest box with substantial fortifications. Lift her on to her perch at night if she's nesting somewhere.

This barricading approach can be a problem if other hens need to get into the nest box. I managed to rig up a system that excluded my huge broody Orpington while still allowing my slender brown shavers a little nesting spot.

Often, though, you'll need to separate the broody hen. The standard approach is to put her in a cage with a wire mesh floor set on blocks so she can get 'air under her skirts', and leave her there until she snaps out of it. She'll need food and water and to be protected from the weather.

Some people advise leaving her there until she lays again, but I think you can tell when she comes right. She looks normal again. It will probably take days, not weeks.

When to strike
Get her out of the nest box as soon as you notice her getting broody. The warm nest stimulates further broodiness. The longer you leave it, the longer it will take her to snap out of it.

Putting fertile eggs under her
Once I had an Orpington with a chronic broodiness problem (the one in the photographs on this page). I gave in and bought her some fertile eggs. Three weeks later we had a chick - it was magnificent!

When the chick was six weeks old the mother started attacking it. Then she went broody again. I gave up and sold her as a broody to someone who wanted to start a flock. For such people, broodies are desirable.

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