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In This Place

A Hen Goes Broody

Elspeth Hay

Last spring, one of our chickens went broody. If you’re wondering what broody means, I was too. A hen going broody means her mothering instincts kick in and she starts sitting on the eggs she lays in hopes of hatching them. After four years with chickens, this was the first time we’d had a hen go broody, so we decided to keep a sound diary and share the process.

The first thing we learned about hens going broody is that it’s contagious. Just the night before only our speckled Sussex was sitting on the nest refusing to get off her eggs. But by morning, a Plymouth Barred Rock named Harriet had joined her.

When a hen goes broody she puffs up her feathers to make herself look big and also to cover and warm as many eggs as possible.

And you can hear she also gets defensive—she doesn’t want anyone disturbing her nest. But our hens weren’t going to be able to hatch the eggs they were sitting on—we don’t have a rooster, so we needed to get in there and swap them out for fertilized eggs. This is easiest to do after it’s dark, because chickens have terrible night vision.

On a Friday night, I went over to Victoria’s, her eggs are all fertilized, and she gave me a dozen that were still warm from the hen's bodies and I came home and immediately took the girls out to the coop and we wrote numbers on them, in pencil.

I took away the unfertilized eggs but wrote numbers on the fertilized ones so that if the other hens kept laying, those new eggs wouldn’t get mixed in.

The hens were sleeping and amazingly didn’t get upset at all by this nighttime intrusion. That night marked the start of a 21 day wait. Left to their own devices hens will collect a clutch of up to 12 eggs, laying them one day at a time. But the timer for development doesn’t start until a hen starts sitting on the clutch of eggs around the clock—my hens had already done that of course, but now they were starting with fertilized eggs and they can’t tell time, they’ll sit until the eggs hatch. On day 11, we headed out to the coop at night with a flashlight to do something called candling.

We were trying to shine a light through the eggshells to see which embryos were developing and which ones were not. We didn’t see much, though we thought we could make out veins in three of the twelve eggs. Then, on day 19, one of our broody hens kicked a cracked egg out of the nest.

We’re not sure exactly what happened, if the hens kicked this chick out of the nest on purpose or if the shell cracked through an accident, but it was pretty hard to watch. At 19 days the chicks are almost fully formed, covered in feathers and a wet coating. We buried this early chick and checked on the coop constantly for the next two days, waiting for day 21.

Elspeth Hay

That morning, nothing. But by afternoon even though none of the eggs were cracked, we started hearing something. It was a peep!

And that night, there was a broken egg.

In the end, the two mothers successfully hatched two baby chicks—not a great success rate considering we gave them twelve eggs, but I’m not sure if they actually were all fertilized or not. Chicks can survive on their last nourishment from the egg for up to three days without food and water, but by day two our broody hens were off the nest, teaching their chicks to drink and even taking them out into the yard for a little forage. The mothers stayed close to the chicks and protective for about six weeks, until eventually they all just became part of the flock.

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