Raising chicks is easy and a lot of fun. If you donít want to order chicks or purchase them from a farm supply store, itís simple to permit a hen to hatch eggs and raise the chicks for you.
The "broody" instinct ó a henís tendency to assemble and hatch a clutch of eggs, and to care for and protect chicks ó has been nearly bred out of modern breeds. An occasional hen will "go broody," but most do not. A few traditional dual-purpose farm breeds (cochins, buff Orpingtons, Wyandottes) are recognized for broody tendencies, though you cannot be sure any specific group will produce good mothers. If you want to deal with natural mothers, get a couple of hens of the historic breeds (old English games, kraienkoppes, asils, malays, shamos or silkies), among which the broody instinct is usually the norm, not the exception. Many bantam (miniature) breeds also are more likely to go broody.
You can recognize a broody hen from her Zen-like gaze and deep, careful settling into the nest. She responds to an offered hand with ruffled hackle feathers and an annoyed "Sqwarrrk!" At night, she stays on her nest after her sisters have gone to roost.
If your flock doesnít include an adult male (a cock, frequently called a "rooster"), the eggs being laid by hens wonít hatch. If you want eggs to hatch from your chickens, you will need one cock for about every 12 to 15 hens.
The eggs you will set under your broody hen will not need to be collected all on the same day. You may include eggs gathered over several days (up to a limit of approximately 10 days), since the fertilized germ cells stay dormant until a hen starts to set on the eggs and the temperature of the eggs is increased to a constant incubation temperature. You may not add to the clutch (or allow other hens to do so) after embryo development has started, because the eggs would not be on the same schedule for hatching.
But broody hens are terrific surrogate mothers and will hatch almost any eggs that fit under them. Some hatcheries offer hatching eggs and ship them through the mail. You also may purchase hatching eggs at online auctions.
Donít consider letting your hen incubate eggs in a coop where other birds can access her nest. Relocate the broody hen (only at night) to a nest in a calm corner, with a physical barrier to exclude other hens. Provide feed, water and adequate space for her to vacate the nest to stretch and relieve herself.
After you see that a hen has "gone broody," set her on plastic or wooden eggs to begin with. If she is restless at first, provide her time to settle on the fake eggs, often by the end of the first day. Then (again working only at night), swap the fake eggs for fertile eggs collected from your best hens or bought from good stock.
Chicken broodies typically tolerate a move to another nest. Females of other domestic fowl (ducks, geese, guineas and turkeys) cannot be relocated after their onset of broodiness without "breaking them up" (disrupting the broody mind-set). Plan in advance for such hatches, and let your broody female go on with her work where she has chosen to "set," easily adding a kind of partition to prevent disturbance.
The amount of eggs to set directly relates to the size of the hen. The hen needs to completely cover the clutch, because it is her body heat that encourages the growth of the embryos.
Monitor discreetly each day, making sure the hen has food and water. Do not be worried about feed intake; certain hens eat little while brooding. Hens may prefer to leave the nest for a brief outing.
The literature will indicate to you that incubation is 21 days for chicken eggs (and up to 36 days for other species). But be ready at 20 days. I have found that, when using natural mothers, eggs are likely to hatch in 20 days.
Hatch-out of the entire clutch takes approximately 16 hours. In reality, this means you can leave unhatched eggs under the warm hen overnight for a final chance to hatch. Beyond that point, they are unlikely to hatch.
Relocating the New Family
I recommend moving the hen with her clutch directly to the pasture where the hardworking mother hen forages natural foods for her babies.
If you must return the mother hen and her brood to the original flock, supplement the laying hensí additional mineral needs with crushed oyster shell. To supply for the higher protein needs of the chicks, feed protein-dense feeds from a small "creep feeder" shelter. You donít need to be concerned about the safety of the vulnerable chicks with the older, often times contentious, adult members of the flock Ė they know the new mama will kick butt if any are stupid enough to mess with her babies.
For more information on heritage chickens, read "Enjoy Heritage Chickens" at Mother Earth News.