Broody hens make good mamas.
A mama hen strutting about with her brood of chicks in tow is the quintessential farm image everyone knows and loves. Brooding is the process by which newly hatched chicks, or birds of any kind, grow up, learn to eat and drink, and are kept at the temperature necessary for them to survive and thrive. Before humans figured out how to replicate the brooding process, mama hens had to do all the work.
Behavior and Biology
Brooding is more than just a behavior; there’s a strong biological drive as well. Brooding in hens is triggered by increased production of the hormone prolactin. As prolactin production increases, it inhibits the hormone gonadotropin, which is responsible for releasing follicles that will become eggs. This hormonal change is why broody hens don’t lay eggs.
Prolactin will stimulate the hen to pull feathers to line the nest (“feather one’s nest,” as the old saying goes), which also exposes the brood patch on the breast and under the wing. The brood patch gives the eggs direct contact with the hen’s skin, and keeps them at the temperature necessary for incubation and growth.
Several factors can stimulate increased prolactin production; warmer weather, eggs accumulating in the nest, and for some hens, the mere presence of chicks will trigger brooding.
A broody hen devotes all her energy to her task. She will stay on the nest full time, only getting up occasionally to eat or drink, and defecate. As they are not eating as much, brooding can take a toll on a hen’s physical condition.
Is Your Hen Broody?
How can you tell if a hen is broody? One of the surest signs is a hen taking up residence in a nest box. She’ll fluff up and growl if you try to take her eggs away. And if you give her an egg, she’ll tuck it under her wing, most likely giving you a long-suffering look while she’s at it.
Brooding chicks under a hen was at one time pretty much the only way to get chicks, even though in some places in the world, people had figured out pretty clever ways to successfully incubate poultry eggs. And, until the invention of the modern chicken diet, barnyard chickens subsisted on whatever they could forage, and what scraps they were fed. As a result, they weren’t always in the best condition for the job, and chick mortality was high. Fortunately, modern poultry diets keep birds in better condition, so they’re better able to keep up with the demands of the job.
Modern Production vs Nature
Unfortunately, broodiness has been seen as a detriment in modern poultry production. Egg producers aren’t interested in a hen that stops laying eggs for any length of time, and the trait has been lost in many breeds. A few are still known for brooding, though. Silkies, Nankins, Sussexes, and Orpingtons are among the breeds known to still be willing to brood.
A lot depends on the individual hen, though. Some may quit halfway through the process, leaving you with a clutch of eggs in need of an incubator. And, unfortunately, you won’t know if your hen is broody until she’s proved herself.
Help Your Hens Succeed
You can help her succeed by giving her a nesting place away from the regular hustle and bustle of the coop. The hen will want a dark, private place to nest if she can find it. If she starts nesting in a box that other hens want to use to lay, she may get bullied off the nest. And you don’t want other hens adding eggs to her clutch once they’ve started incubating.
If you’ve decided to skip all that and just order chicks, you’ll still need a place to brood them until they’re big enough to fend for themselves.
One way is to set up a heat lamp in a confined area, such as an empty stock tank, or a brooder box created just for that purpose. It should have solid sides to protect the chicks from drafts. It will take a bit of observation and fine-tuning to get the temperature just right. Just-hatched chicks need temperatures of about 95 degrees for the first week, but you can begin lowering the temperature 5 degrees per week after that. A point-and-shoot digital thermometer can be helpful in making sure it isn’t too hot or too cold under the lamp. You can get a good idea of the chicks’ comfort level by their behavior, but it’s nice to have an accurate idea of the temperatures. Hang the lamp so that it’s also possible for chicks to get away from the heat if necessary.
Using a heat lamp bulb has a few downsides. They put out a tremendous amount of heat, and if you’re not careful where and how you hang a heat lamp, it can be dangerous. They also have to be on all the time to provide heat, and the chicks are always exposed to light, even with the red heat lamp bulbs.
Fortunately, other alternatives, such as heated brooder plates, exist that can provide the needed warmth without some of the drawbacks of heat lamp bulbs.
Hens or Brooder Boxes
Which is better? A mother hen or a brooder box? Each has pros and cons. Letting the hen do the work is cheaper, requires no electricity, and is more fun to watch, but the hen can only brood the number of chicks she’s able to cover with her wings. If she gets separated from a chick for any reason, that chick is vulnerable to predators or the elements.
A brooder box may cost a bit more in electricity for heat, but many more chicks can be raised in the box than under the hen. It’s easier to keep them safe and secure in a brooder box, and they can’t wander off.
If you only want to raise a few chicks for your own flock, a broody hen might be the way to go. Just make sure you set her up to succeed, and she’ll hopefully be happy to do the work for you!