Dealing with a Broody Hen
On Sunday, as we labored away in the garden layering our soil and cleaning up what was left of the annual vegetables, I noticed that one of the hens was missing from our flock. I had experienced a little bit of panic days earlier when there were no chickens in the run, and as I approached the enclosure more closely, a great whoosh and pair of large wings sprang off the top of the run and flew into the giant Elm towards the back of our property. It was a chicken hawk, or at least, that's what I think it was. I was in too much shock and awe to try and decipher the type of hawk that it was. We live in the "Hawkeye" state and after living in two others and traveling through many of them, I truly have not seen as many hawks in my life as I have living in Iowa. I see at least 3 or 4 a week, sometimes even more, especially on drives through the country. Predators are not something that we deal with a lot in our residential area; our neighbors have dogs, but really... that's about it! There is an owl that lives nearby, but we make sure that our chickens are locked in at night and they have a run that is over 6 feet tall and not easy to get into. Seeing the hawk made me think that perhaps Thelma, the missing hen, had been captured without my knowledge.
I quickly checked inside the coop and found her sitting in one of the nesting boxes, growling and fluffing her feathers in anger as I approached. I left her to her business, but when she didn't come out at all after several hours, I wondered if there was something wrong with her. After a couple of days of this, I came back out to find her in the same spot, surrounded by a lot of removed feathers and an angry look on her face. Can chickens make expressions?! As a woman, I could just feel the concentration happening, and as someone who is constantly researching chickens, I knew it was only one thing... she was broody! I was actually so excited and a little bit giddy; I ran into the yard and had to tell everyone, "Thelma's broody! She's really broody!" I don't think this is the reaction that most people have when their hen goes into a trance-like state trying to hatch eggs.
If you're new to keeping chickens or don't know much about them at all, hens lay eggs (almost) everyday, whether there is a rooster around or not. Only if a rooster is around will you have fertilized eggs, meaning eggs that can be hatched into chicks. Since we don't have a rooster, we have hens laying unfertilized eggs that will never hatch. That's more along the lines of what we want. Still, even if there is no rooster around, sometimes a hen will become broody, trying to desperately hatch the eggs she had laid. She may even steal the eggs from the other hens in the flock! Really, a chicken mama doesn't care whose baby it is, she just wants them, and will try to hatch it no matter what. For that fact, I sort of pity broody hens and feel their pain. As someone who will probably never have another baby (just being realistic), I so connect with these birds on another level entirely. They're so fascinating!
A few ways of knowing that your hen has gone broody is by checking for familiar signs.
- She won't leave the nesting boxes. Your hen will sit in the box all day, flattened like a feather-pancake. She may even growl, hiss, and peck at you if you try to touch her! However, she will leave the box once or even twice a day to eat, drink, and have a poo. And the poop smells horrendous! Holy moly.
- She's pulled out her breast feathers. Hens will remove their own breast feathers and place them around the eggs. They're trying to perfect the temperature and humidity of their own environment for the eggs to hatch. This is done by having her skin directly touch the eggs. After reaching for the eggs underneath her (some of them fake wooden eggs LOL), it is a little hot box! It actually felt so nice since it's starting to get cold out, and I have really cold hands most often.
- She won't stay out of the boxes for very long. I've been bringing Thelma out of the boxes purposely each day, and she spends about 10 minutes outside before speeding right back to her box.
- She'll lay an egg everyday for 10-14 days in a row. Most hens want a clutch of 12-14 eggs, depending on their size. A Bantam hen will want less since they are smaller. If your hen is collecting eggs and laying frequently, her hormones might be on high alert!
How do you stop it? Well, a great way would be to let her hatch eggs if it's possible for you! I think a big reason about why I was so excited to find Thelma had gone broody was because I really want to hatch our own eggs at some point. Being a person that wants to experience everything I possibly can when it comes to homesteading, hatching eggs sounds like such a magical experience to witness. You can purchase fertile eggs from most chicken hatcheries, and they're not terribly expensive. The issue for us would be that we'd have to give away most of them. We could possibly keep one or two more, so that makes it not worth it to purchase a minimum amount of eggs from our local hatchery, which is a lot more than just two. If you have a friend who might want to take them or even more room of your own, have your hen hatch the eggs! What a special experience to have.
If you can't let them hatch eggs, then you might want to try a few control tactics. The first one is always to just go out and remove her from the nesting boxes everyday. I haven't been very strict about this at all. I don't really have time to be! I like to go out to check on our girls in the morning and let them outside, make sure they have water. By that time, Thelma usually comes outside for a few minutes anyway. Then I'll go out to take a break from working the afternoon and possibly let them outside if the weather is nice. I've been picking her up and plopping her in the grass, to which she just lays there flattened out until finally giving up and joining the others.
If that doesn't work to "break" her broodiness, then you can always block off her particular box with a piece of wood nailed to the front. I don't really see how this could work, since Thelma will pick any of our boxes to sit in, she's not particular, and I cannot block them all off. Then we wouldn't have any layers. I've also read the suggestions about placing either ice or a bag of frozen vegetables in her box so that they can't warm it. Sounds interesting! Really, the only reason you would want to break the habit is because she can cause the other chickens to go broody as well. For me, I will probably just leave her be and keep removing her throughout the day. The nice thing is that it only lasts for 21 days, though they can return to the trance soon after!
Have you ever dealt with a broody hen? Are you sentimental like me or does it drive you bonkers?!