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I have spent the last 20+ years keeping, breeding, and showing chickens, ducks, and quails. Over that time I have had my fair share of hens that went broody for no apparent reason. Sometimes even insisting they should sit on empty nests.
Going broody is the term we use for any bird that decides they are ready to answer nature’s call to sit on their eggs until they hatch.
Sadly, this is not always an activity we wish to encourage our hens to do, and it can be incredibly frustrating if one of your hens decides she will stop laying and start sitting instead.
In this article, I explore why hens go broody and what you should do to either discourage them or make them comfortable if you are going to let her hatch out the eggs.
What Does ‘going broody’ mean?
Going broody is the name given to the situation where one or more hens in your flock decide they wish to sit on their eggs.
Chickens are domesticated birds that are hundreds of generations from their wild ancestors.
A chicken’s wild ancestors would have laid maybe 6 to 8 eggs in their nests over the course of a week or so, then sat on those eggs until they hatched. After which she would raise her chicks.
Over the last 100 to 200 years, dedicated, talented breeders have taken the wild Jungle Fowl and bred many different breeds of domesticated chickens. This was done to either improve egg production or to improve other traits the breeders felt were desirable, such as color, decorative plumage, or taste.
During the process of creating these new strains, much of a chicken’s maternal instincts were bred out of the birds, and these days many breeds of chickens have no interest in sitting on their eggs. They just want to lay an egg, then get on with their day.
However, sometimes a hen will suddenly develop the desire to sit on her eggs, and that desire can be incredibly strong. The wild ancestor of the domesticated chicken, the Southeast Asian Red Junglefowl, will defend its nest to death, and those instincts still lurk deep down inside our own hens.
What Causes a Hen To Go Broody?
It is generally accepted that broodiness is brought on by a combination of a chicken maturing and the change in daylight hours thanks to the arrival of spring.
As the days get longer, the hens know that it would be the right time to raise a brood of chicks if they were living in the wild.
The increasing amount of sunlight causes the chicken’s body to release a hormone known as prolactin. Prolactin is created in the chicken’s pituitary gland.
The combination of the longer spring and summer days with the release of additional prolactin into the chicken’s body can sometimes cause a hen to become broody, where she will have an almost uncontrollable desire to sit on her eggs (or any other chickens eggs for that matter).
What Are The Signs A Hen Has Gone Broody?
There are many signs a hen has gone broody. Not all hens show all signs, but once you get to know your birds, you will soon notice if the behavior of one of them has changed.
Some of the most common signs a hen has gone broody are;
Not all hens show all of these signs. The most obvious sign is that the hen rarely leaves her nest. If your hen hasn’t left the nest all day, there is a good chance she has gone broody.
Can You Stop a Hen Going Broody?
Stopping a hen from going broody in the first place is an incredibly hard thing to do as you never know when one of your girls is going to get the urge to sit on her eggs.
You can try to discourage your hens from becoming broody by removing their eggs on a regular basis.
In the wild, a chicken’s ancestors would have laid maybe 4 to 6 eggs over the course of a few days before sitting on them all. That way, all of the eggs would hatch on or around the same day.
It is widely accepted that a chicken is more likely to get the urge to go broody if she finds herself with a nestbox full of eggs. In theory, if the nestbox is empty every time she goes to it, she is less likely to feel it is time to start sitting.
Although, it should be pointed out from personal experience that removing the eggs frequently does not always help as I have had hens in the past that insisted on sitting in totally empty nest boxes!
Can You Break a hen’s broodiness?
Once a hen has decided she wants to sit on her eggs, it can be incredibly tricky to persuade her otherwise. Hens can be extremely stubborn when they want to be.
There are a number of different things we can do to try and convenience our hens they should not be sitting on their eggs. Some techniques work well with some hens, but do nothing for another group of hens.
To successfully break your hen’s desire to sit on her eggs may take a combination of different tactics.
Over the years I have had success (at least in part) with each of the techniques below.
Lift her off the nest
One of the first techniques I was ever taught to help stop a broody hen from sitting on her nest was to keep lifting her off the nest and putting her back with the other hens.
The technique is incredibly simple. You open the nestbox, lift the broody hen out and place her on the floor of her enclosure.
This can work, but you might have to remove her several times a day for a week or more. Great if you have the time, but if you are out at work all day, she will simply spend the majority of her time on the nest.
This technique also comes with a warning. As you try and lift her off, there is a good chance she will peck you, and hens can peck hard, so maybe consider wearing a thick pair of gloves each time you lift her off.
Remove the eggs from under her
Sometimes you can successfully encourage a chicken to stop being broody by simply removing the eggs from her nestbox. This does not always work, but in theory at least, if the nestbox is empty, she won’t want to sit in it.
As with my previous suggestion, there is a good chance the hen will peck at you as you try to remove her eggs. After all, as far as she is concerned you as a predator taking her babies.
You may wish to lift her off the nest first, or simply push your hand under her body and feel for any eggs. Both techniques work in my experience, and it may just depend on the temperament of your hen.
Block off the nestbox
If you find your broody hen only wants to sit in one of the nest boxes, which is surprisingly common, you could try just blocking off that particular nestbox with a small piece of timber.
If your hen is totally fixated on that particular nestbox, not being able to access it may be enough to break her desire to sit in it.
Do be careful however that she doesn’t then go and sit in a different nestbox, meaning you now have two nest boxes out of action.
If your nestbox-to-chicken ratio is low, you may not have enough nestboxes to go around.
Remove the nestbox altogether
If you have just a single hen living on her own, which is not ideal, but does happen sometimes, you could try removing the nestboxes altogether.
If your hen has nowhere to sit, she will soon give up on the idea.
Of course, this technique does not work if you have several hens together as the other girls will still want to lay either daily or once every few days.
Hens wishing to lay but who do not have access to a suitable nest box can become incredibly stressed.
Adding frozen water bottles
Whilst this is not a technique I am especially fond of, placing a number of small plastic bottles containing frozen water into the nestbox will discourage the hen from sitting in there.
Clearly, the idea here is the ice bottles will make the hen uncomfortable and encourage her to move on.
There is however a good chance she will simply go and sit in a different nestbox, so if you are going to try this method, be prepared to move the bottles if required.
Are Some Breeds More Likely To Go Broody?
In my experience, some breeds of chickens are definitely more likely to go broody than others.
I have a small flock of Buff Orpington Bantams made up of one rooster and three hens (see picture above). At any one time at least one of the hens has decided she wants to go broody and sit in the nest boxes.
It seems the reproductive instincts are stronger in some breeds of chickens than in others. In my experience, the following breeds of chickens are some of the most likely to go broody.
Can you leave a broody hen?
There is a lot written about how to deal with a broody hen and how to break a hen’s broodiness, but very few people discuss the benefits of leaving a broody hen to get on with it.
Firstly, removing a hen from the nest, and her being desperate to get back on it before you remove her from it once again is a stressful experience for the hen. Leaving her to sit and get the broodiness out of her system will be best for her mental health.
The hen’s natural instincts are telling her she needs to get back on the nest before a predator takes her babies. She is likely not aware that her eggs aren’t even fertile in the first place.
Secondly, a broody hen can be useful if you are hoping to hatch out some baby chickens.
Broody hens will typically sit on any eggs, whether they have laid those eggs, another chicken has, or even if a duck or goose laid the eggs.
If you want to hatch out some fertile eggs, whack them under the broody hen and she will do all the hard work for you.
How long will a broody hen be broody?
Fertile chicken eggs take exactly 21 days to hatch once the chicken has started sitting on them. Often a hen will happily continue to sit on her eggs for another 2 or 3 days if they have not hatched.
As such, the theoretical maximum amount of time a chicken will be broody is up to 4 weeks, however, in practice, they sometimes sit there for longer.
With that said, a hen can suddenly snap out of her broodiness without warning. She may well get up off the nest and never return. Even hens sitting on a clutch of fertile eggs can sometimes decide they have had enough and leave the eggs.
When Will the eggs hatch?
So one important caveat that should be pointed out here, is that for an egg to hatch, there must be a rooster present to fertilize the eggs. It does not matter how long a hen sits on a non-fertilized egg, it will never hatch.
Assuming the eggs the hen is sitting on were fertilized by a rooster, it takes 21 days for a chick to develop inside the egg and then hatch.
Sometimes it can take another day or two for the chick to break out of the egg, but in the main, it will be 21 days between the hen first sitting and the eggs hatching.
The table below looks at the number of days it takes for the eggs of some of the most popular homestead birds to hatch.
|Bird||Number of Days to Hatch|
|Goose||28 – 35 days|
|Pheasant||24 – 25 days|
|Partridge||23 – 25 days|
How Should You Look After A Broody Hen?
If you decide you want your hen to sit on her eggs until they hatch, or you are planning on just letting her get through her broodiness, there are a few things you can do to make the whole experience a little easier for her.
1. Keep her safe
As discussed above, a broody hen will defend her nest vigorously. She will take on most comers, including other hens, and would be predators.
If you can reduce the frequency with which she is disturbed, then the whole process of sitting on her eggs will be more enjoyable for her.
In an ideal world, you would relocate the broody hen to a nest where no other hens will disturb her.
If you don’t have anywhere to move her to, ensure she has enough bedding and make sure there are no draughts. Chickens hate sitting in a draught.
2. Give her access to food and water
Broody hens sitting on their nests rarely get off even to eat or drink. In fact, they usually only leave their nest once a day for food and water.
It is essential that when the broody hen gets up off her nest she has access to food and fresh drinking water.
I will usually put a small drinker right next to the nestbox with the broody hen sitting in it. That way, she does not have far to go to drink, and she will be more inclined to drink frequently.
3. Candle her eggs
As the chick develops inside the egg, it is possible to see through the shell to monitor the growth of the chick by shining a bright light through the egg. This process is known as candling the egg.
In my experience, it is essential to check the development of the eggs at least twice during the incubation period to make sure the chicks are growing as they should be.
Sometimes, a chick dies during the development stages, and if an egg is left under a broody hen after the developing chick has died, that egg is going to get pretty rotten and will smell terrible if the shell gets broken.
It is far better to remove any eggs that either were not fertile or where the chick died during development.
4. Move the hen prior to hatching
As the day of hatching approaches, the best course of action is to move your broody hen and her eggs to a private location where she can tend to her newborn chicks without interference from the other hens.
It is also fairly important to allow the chicks a space to grow up without the roster present. Some roosters take little to no notice of newborn chicks, but others will actively kill the chicks given a chance.
In my experience, the best bet is to move the hen and her eggs to a large crate with their own food and water source so she can be alone with her babies for the first few days after they hatch.
Broodiness is just part of being a chicken keeper. Some hens are prone to it, others take no interest in their eggs whatsoever.
When I first started chicken keeping, I would battle every broody hen in my flock. I was determined to get them off the nest and back into the run with the rest of the hens.
These days I am a lot more laid back about it. If one of my hens goes broody, I try to take advantage by slipping some fertile eggs under her. If I don’t have any fertile eggs, I just let her sit there and get it out of her system.
Life is too short to have a battle of whits with a chicken!
If you found this article helpful, why not check out another one I wrote recently titled ‘Why Are My Chickens Awake At Night?’.
- Origin and History of the Chicken extension.wisc.edu