Broody Hens Again: Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Broodiness But Were Afraid To Ask

I got some questions about broody hens after yesterday’s post, so here’s more, plus an update on my broody hen situation.

To recap what I said yesterday in a couple of sentences: Chickens are really bad moms. The maternal instinct has pretty much been bred out of most breeds of chickens.

Typically the egg laying cycle goes something like this: (1) Just prior to laying an egg the hen’s pituitary pumps tons of a hormone called prolactin into her bloodstream and she clucks, “I’m gonna lay this egg, and then by golly, I’m gonna sit on it for 21 days until it hatches – I’m gonna have me a baby chick!” (2) Hen then lays previously mentioned egg. (3) Hen’s prolactin levels return to normal. (4) Hen says, “Wait….what was I thinking?” hops out of the nest & goes about her business of pecking and scratching. (5) Somebody collects the egg and we all get omelets.

It is actually a good thing hens are bad moms – if they started pining about all those lost eggs, got depressed and stopped laying eggs, we would all suffer. Also, a hen sitting on eggs is not necessary for the propagation of chickens. Some hobbyists still get baby chicks this way but the poultry industry relies on incubators almost completely.

Occasionally, though, after a hen lays an egg, her pituitary continues pumping prolactin and she gets very serious about sitting on the nest for the requisite 21 days and raising babies. That phenomenon is known to poultry people as broodiness. The term broodiness was coined to describe chicken behavior and only later was borrowed to describe people. But you can imagine how a broody hen acts. She sits alone in a dark place, growls threateningly at any chicken or person who comes near her, stops laying more eggs, and takes maybe a 5 minute break once a day to eat, drink, and poop. Otherwise, she just sits there 24/7.

Sadly, in most domestic poultry situations, because there is no rooster, a broody hen is sitting on sterile eggs that will never hatch. Also, more than likely her eggs are collected as she lays them, so she’s actually sitting on an empty nest and in deep denial.

This is exactly the situation that has been going on with my two little Silkie hens, Emily and Courtney.  Courtney has entrenched herself in a nest box with her head facing a back corner and looks just like a giant cotton ball from outside the nest box. Emily scratched out a depression in the straw on the floor in a back corner of the coop. Neither of them are sitting on any eggs, but there they sit. The perfect solution when a hen goes broody would be to give her some fertile eggs, or allow her to hatch her own, but of course then you have baby chicks and that is usually not a practical outcome. A less perfect solution is to break the hen’s broodiness.

If you surf the net, it isn’t hard to find all sorts of suggested methods for breaking broodiness. Some of them, such as dunking the hen in ice-cold water, seem extreme. I use a method that seems less cruel. I put my hens in jail. I put them in a wire crate, so they can’t go back to their nests. There’s nothing to make a nest out of in the crate, so they are unable to nest. In theory, after a few days in this situation, a hen’s raging hormones will abate and at that point she can go back in the coop with the other chickens. Normally, after some initial complaining, hens don’t seem to be too distressed to be in the crate. Eventually, they start eating again, and drinking, and roosting at night on a roost within the crate.

After a few days, they get out of jail, and are totally reformed chickens, their broodiness gone and forgotten.  In a couple of weeks they start laying eggs again.

This time, though – for the first time ever, I wanted to maintain the broodiness so these little hens could be moms for the baby chicks I’m bringing home later this month. To that end, I first decided to improve Emily’s situation. I created what I have dubbed a "luxury nest box" by turning a plastic waste basket on its side and putting a cushy excelsior pad in the bottom. Then I added a handful of golf balls – just like having real eggs to sit on! I removed Emily from the little nest she had made in the straw and put the luxury nest box down on top of her nest. Emily went to find some food and water – something she does only a couple times a day when she’s broody – and I went about my business. When I checked in with her later in the day, she was out in the main part of the coop clucking and scratching with the other hens. She had completely lost her broodiness. I was astounded. Considering the difficulty I’ve had in the past breaking Emily’s broodiness, I was amazed that I had accomplished it simply by covering her old nest with the luxury box.

One failure – on to the next hen. I took the same luxury nest box that had not provided any inspiration to Emily and put it in a small separate coop along with food and water, and then removed a protesting Courtney from her nest box and placed her in this coop. When I checked back later, Courtney had buried herself in the luxury box so far that all I could see was her fluffy white butt. And she was sitting on the pile of golf balls with great contentment. Yes! Success! Hopefully she’ll continue her vigil until the chicks show up!
All you can see is Courtney's fluffy backside as she tries with great determination to hatch golf balls .

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