We get the phone call all the time. “What is wrong with my hen? She has been staying in the nest box and she won’t move. I go to pick her up and she fluffs up, makes dinosaur noises, and even tries to peck me.” You most likely have a broody hen.
Broodiness is a condition where a hen’s maternal clock goes off and she sets to hatch eggs. Most hens never go broody but some go broody often. As an urban farmer, you probably collect the eggs daily. And the fact that you likely do not have a rooster and thus do not have fertilized eggs is of little concern to the broody hen. Even when you remove any inspiration eggs from the nest, a broody hen will still create a clutch of eggs in her head and try to hatch nothing. It is both frustrating as well as beautiful and poetic.
Here are a couple thoughts on how to deal with broody hens. First, you may want to add an additional nest box so the other hens still have a place to lay. A broody hen will not lay eggs but she will occupy the box. The other hens are usually cool with it but you might as well try to smooth things out.
If you want to just let nature run it’s course you can just let the hen set. It takes about 21 days for eggs to hatch so ideally after 21 days she will give up. It wouldn’t hurt to pick her up once in while and put her in front of her food. Broody hens usually do not starve themselves, but you are welcome to force her to eat once in a while.
You can also try to break her of her broodiness. To do this, build a cage with a wire bottom and place her in the cage. The cage can be elevated on some bricks so that there is plenty of air flowing under her. Give her only food and water and no bedding material. The cold air will drop her body temperature and she will usually snap out of it in 72 hours. We have had success placing a broody hen on a concrete pad with a cage over her and only food and water. It may sound harsh but it usually works.
Another option is to slip some newly hatched chicks (or fertilized eggs) under her. For the urban farmer it is pretty easy to get newly hatched chicks from your local feed store. Once you have established that the hen is indeed broody (she has not moved for at least a week), you can take your newly hatched chicks and slip them under her wing. If you do this early in the morning and when it is still dark, the hen very likely will think that she was successful and will do all the hard work of raising the chicks. Breed of chick does not seem to be an issue. The photo above is of a Salmon Faverolle hen with her two different colored Ameraucanas. She couldn’t be more proud of the work she has done so far and is doing a great job of protecting the chicks from the elements as well as the coop mates. Keep some chick starter and water near the nest box and before long you will have your next generation of hens.
Tricking a broody hen to take hatch-lings does not always work. Just because a hen wants to be a mommy doesn’t mean that she will make a good mommy. Be sure to have a back-up plan.
Urban farming is still farming and dealing with a broody hen is just part of the adventure. Embrace this time to learn more about your backyard flock and enjoy the satisfaction of urban homesteading.