27 January 2016

How to deal with a broody hen

Earlier this month I got this question from a follower: "One of the chooks keeps heading back to the coop to sit in the nesting box, sometimes, not always, sitting on an egg. She is all puffed up & filling the whole nesting box. When I give them their mash in the evening, she's not as interested as she used to be. She looks much fatter (or fluffed up?) than the other 2. What's going on? Does anyone know?"

This is a fantastic description of a broody hen: fluffed up and refusing to leave the nest box. She might also have a paler comb and, when she does go out for a quick snack and a drink, make a quiet, clucky sound, which is why another word for the condition is 'clucky'.


To me, broodiness is like a kind of craziness has grasped the bird. She can think about nothing other than sitting on her eggs, keeping them warm. Whether they are actually fertile is neither here nor there to her. In fact, although eggs make her more likely to stay on the nest, she'll sit in there even after you've taken them away. By the time she's noticeably broody she'll have paused her own egg-laying and will be tucking the other hens' eggs under her warm belly, which has probably become fairly bald to allow skin-to-shell contact.

Competition for space in the nest box.


It takes three weeks of incubation for chicken eggs to hatch, so your broody hen is likely to be in this state for a long time if you don't do anything about it. Without the stimulus of chicks appearing out of the eggs she may stay broody even longer. She'll get very thin, as incubating hens rarely eat.

If you want chicks, of course, broodiness is wonderful. You can buy fertile eggs cheaply off Trade Me, pop them under your hen, and in three weeks they'll probably hatch. A broody hen needs a quiet nest box to herself, and a safe place for her and her chicks (i.e. where cats, dogs and adult hens can't get to the chicks). They'll also need a water container that chicks can drink from but not drown in, and chick starter food. Having a mother hen and chicks is delightful.

If you don't want chicks, broodiness is a downright nuisance, and requires attention. It will be ongoing, too, because a hen that's prone to going broody will keep doing so again and again, even if you let her have chicks. She's valuable to people who want chicks, though, so you can easily sell her.

How to break broodiness

The most important thing is to keep her away from the nest. Some hens snap out of their broodiness more easily than others, and it may be a simple case of blocking off the nest box as soon as the other hens have laid, then unblocking it once darkness falls and all the birds are roosting.

A failed attempt to block off the nest box
Once I had a huge Orpington who occasionally went broody. I blocked off the main nest box, which was slightly raised, and put straw underneath it, because the Orpington's brown shaver flockmates could get under there to lay, but she was too big to squeeze in. That way the broody bird was completely excluded from a nest box, but the others had a reasonable substitute available. After about three days the Orpington would come right - but she was a particularly easy fix.

More persistent brooders will just sit somewhere else, even if it doesn't resemble a nest. My most persistent one, a blue Orpington, once just sat in mud as the rain fell on her. She was completely gripped.
A nicely constructed broody cage (in foreground)
In this case, a broody cage is a good solution. This can be anything patched together as long as it has a roof that shades and shields, four walls (wire mesh is good) and a wire mesh floor, with plenty of food and water available. The idea is to get "air under her skirts". The hen needs to stay in there for, well, as long as it takes for her to stop seeming broody! This is a shorter time than it will take for her to lay again, so you needn't leave her in there that long, as it is a bit mean. Just look out for her standing rather than sitting, feathers sitting flat and normal sounds. If she goes to the nest box when you return her to her coop, she needs longer in the broody cage.

An alternative solution

Not having a broody cage, I recently came up with a different approach. I fenced off a paved area of our property well away from the coop, and put the broody in there, alone. She squawked terribly, and escaped repeatedly until I secured the fence properly. She was so distressed at being isolated in this way that she never sat down at all (this bird has a particularly reactive personality). At night I let her go back to her pals, and made sure she was on the perch at dusk. After three or so days of this treatment she snapped out of her broodiness.

A couple of weeks later, there she was, back in the nest box all day. Intolerant as I am of broodies, and greedy for eggs, I abandoned the fight and gave her away to someone who celebrated her broodiness and let her have chicks.

Choose your breeds carefully

Sometimes modern hybrid breeds like brown shavers go broody, but it's rare. The heavy, beautiful breeds that I love so much are the worst offenders, as are the delightful little Silkies. However, even within a breed there will be unpredictable variation: some individuals just do go broody, and some just won't even if you want them to. Such is nature, teaching us yet again that we cannot control her!

Goodbye, pretty hen. You were too broody.


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