To produce a baby chicken, you need a fertilized egg. Fertile eggs will only hatch if they have been incubated – and this takes 21 days of careful incubation under specific conditions.
There are different ways to hatch fertilized chicken eggs, but by far the best way is how Mother Nature intended – allowing a broody hen to hatch and raise her chicks. But just how do you hatch chickens under a brooding hen?
What is a Brooding Hen?
A brooding or “broody” hen is a hen that is committed to hatching her eggs and raising her chicks. She will spend almost all her time sitting on her nest, emerging only briefly to eat, drink, and poop.
At this time hens may seem temperamental – and will defend her eggs enthusiastically, growling, potentially biting, and puffing herself up if you approach the nest, and may even pluck out her own breast and tummy feathers so she can be closer to her eggs. She will be a great mother to her hatched chicks.
Some breeds of chicken are much broodier than others, and the broodiest will be so keen that they’ll even sit and brood on a nest with no eggs. If there are eggs in the nest, but no rooster, the hen will not understand that her eggs are not fertile and she will attempt to hatch them regardless.
The Broodiest Chicken Breeds Include:
- Old English Games
A brooding hen will stop laying and will also eat and drink less. If your chicken is brooding on eggs that are not fertile, it’s best to lift her from the nest several times daily to ensure she eats and drinks, and remove the eggs, until she gets over her broodiness and rejoins her flock.
Setting a Brooding Hen
If your brooding hen is going to be hatching fertile eggs, you may need to separate her from the rest of the flock. This is because hens like to lay eggs in the safest nest and, like a cuckoo, other hens from your flock may add their own eggs to your hens’ batch.
Too many eggs to sit on means those on the outside may be partially uncovered and if too cold, they will die within the egg. Moving her will provide her with some respite from this if you have room to do so.
There is, however, a chance that moving a broody hen will break her broodiness. The best time to move your broody hen and sit her on the nest of eggs is later in the day, as this will give her time to adjust to her new location.
(If you decide not to move her, you’ll need to mark her eggs and remove any new ones every day).
Steps to Setting a Broody Chicken
1. Prepare Nesting Box
Set up her new nesting box, with fresh bedding such as straw, and have it ready for her in the evening, with the eggs settled in the new nest, depending on the size of your chicken you usually set her on 12 fertile eggs. If you’re using her own eggs, you’ll need to carefully take them from her, wearing gloves. Set your hen carefully down on her new nest, near but not on top of her eggs.
2. Require Fertile Eggs
If you don’t have a rooster, you are going to need to purchase fertilized eggs. Make sure your brooding hen is sitting before you give her fertile eggs – simply check this using infertile eggs or even golf balls. When she gets up to eat, switch these out for the fertile eggs.
3. Provide Clean Water and Feed
Your hen will need easy close access to fresh water and food – she won’t leave the nest to eat and drink very much at all while brooding.
How long does it take for the Chickens to Hatch?
You can usually rely on your hen to do the hard work of incubating the eggs for you. Chicken eggs will hatch after 21 days of incubation.
Most broody hens will evict any bad eggs. It’s good to check the eggs at day 10 (“candling”) to make sure there is a developing chick inside.
A good egg will have veins and embryos; a bad egg will be clear and smell.
Never remove a hatching egg from under a hen; most hens will get all their eggs hatched without issues. The hen will monitor the temperature of the eggs and will make sure that she is covering them all, unless she has too many.
If your hen is brooding for the first time, keep a watch as occasionally they can accidentally crush or, very rarely, reject and even kill newly hatched chicks. She will continue to sit on her eggs until they have all hatched.
Preparation before the Chicks Hatch
- A safe coop they can’t escape from and which cats, dogs, foxes, snakes, lizards, and other birds can’t gain access to. Depending on your flock, you may wish to keep the chicks separated from them for a time. If you do separate them, make sure the flock can still see and interact with the hen and her brood.
- Chick starter food. If you are raising the chicks with the rest of the flock, all the birds will need to eat this as chicks can’t eat layer pellets. They can and will learn to forage for grubs and greens.
- A shallow water dish so that they can’t drown. You will need to check this a couple of times a day to make sure they have clean water.
When can Chicks look after Themselves?
As long as you provide food and water and appropriate shelter, your hen will raise her chicks. She will:
- Keep them warm when they are cold
- Protect them at night (sleeping on top of them)
- Show them food and water
- Allow them to play on her
- Keep them safe from the rest of the flock
When the chicks are old enough to care for themselves, the hen will integrate them with the flock and then “abandon” them. When she starts leaving them during the day or pecking at them, it’s time to let her and them back with the flock.
She’ll eventually stop sleeping with them and will start laying eggs and will brood once again. Depending on the breed of chicken she may not get broody again till Spring the following year.
A broody mother hen is very maternal and she will hatch out and protect her chickens from any perceived dangers. She’s the best way to incubate and care for chicks – just the way Nature intended.