How to Hatch Chicks Under a Broody Hen: Part One
Hatching chicks under a broody (otherwise known as clucky) hen can be a fantastic experience for anyone, especially children.
But there are some things to consider before you run out and buy some fertile eggs to pop under your clucky chook from anywhere you can.
Natural incubation, as nature intended, can have many benefits to your backyard chickens' health.
In our guide, we’ll cover:
- The pros and cons of hatching chicks under a broody hen
- The best broody breeds
- How to determine if your hen will stay put
- How many eggs can she nest
- How to set a hen with fertile eggs and day-old chicks
- Basic broody hen care
First, let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages of hatching eggs under a broody hen over an incubator.
- Hatching under hens is cheaper than using an incubator.
- Chicks hatched and reared under a broody hen are usually healthier (as found by many exhibition breeders). Although, this is purely anecdotal and depends on many factors, such as nutrition, stress, etc.
- Roosters hatched under a hen may be better behaved as adult birds, having grown up with a pecking order from hatch. (But this is not always the case).
- A broody hen is not affected by power blackouts.
- Incubators require a draft-free room with a stable temperature for the best success.
- Unless you buy a fully automated incubator, you will need to monitor and adapt it for ideal temperature and humidity consistently. You’ll also need to turn the eggs twice daily until three days before hatch.
- You will save significant time over the first six weeks from hatch while the hen does most of the work in raising the chicks.
- You can’t always access fertile eggs when you need them.
- Incubators can help control disease if you’re running a vaccination program. (You must sterilise the incubator and eggs first).
- Not all broody hens will sit or are good mothers. Flightier chicken breeds may leave the nest before hatching. (See best broody breeds). I’ve also had an older Light Sussex bantam hen clumsily squash most of the eggs as they were hatching. Devastating, of course, but you can’t predict these things.
- Broody backyard chickens are highly susceptible to lice and mites, especially the dreaded red mite. (See basic broody hen care).
- You’re limited to the number of eggs you can put under a hen, and not all may be fertile. You can’t add more eggs after day 7 (once you know what’s fertile) as the hen will not sit long enough for the second batch to hatch.
Best broody breeds
- Rhode Island Red
- Belgian Bantam
Some breeders swear the best broody chicken breeds are game birds such as Old English Game bantams. While they are very protective and excellent mothers, some are ruthless to chicks different from the rest of the hatch.
Silkies are excellent mothers—they're protective but lightweight, gentle, and rarely break eggs. I've also found them to be quite accepting of day-old chicks.
Like all traits, it depends on the bloodlines and not always the breed. Not all hens in the breed list above will make great mothers. Equally, there are some surprising hens and breeds that make terrific mothers.
Is your hen really broody?
Before setting fertile eggs, ensure your broody hen is going to stay broody.
I leave my broodies on the nest for 3-4 days to ensure they will stay put. If you know your flock well or you have a hen that routinely goes broody, you may know that once she sits, she sits.
You can always start her on some dummy eggs or infertile eggs that you can dispose of later.
You'll know your hen is in it for the long haul when she protects the nest by ruffling up her feathers (to make herself look bigger and scarier than she is!). And she may give you a warning squawk or even try to peck your hand if you come near her nest. Other gentler broodies may just give a few clucks, but they shouldn't run off the nest.
How many eggs can a broody hen take?
Your hen can take as many as she can comfortably cover. However, err on the side of caution, and don't overload her with too many eggs.
A bantam can take 6-7 eggs, a silkie 8-12 eggs, and other large breeds of chickens can take around 12 to 15 eggs, as a guide.
A friend had an Old English Game (OEG) successfully hatch 19 OEG eggs in 2020, so the number of eggs depends on the season, the hen, and the nest’s shape.
How to set a broody hen with fertile eggs
When you know she's going to stay put, place the fertile eggs under her at night time.
I do this during the day and have never had a hen reject eggs. But it is possible, and therefore best to do it at night.
Candling the eggs
Egg Candling involves shining light onto an egg to see if it is growing and progressing normally, it can reveal any issues. You can do this by shining a small, powerful flashlight through the shell of the egg.
If you want to, you can candle the eggs sometime between days 7 to 10 and remove any that are clear and not fertile. Candling can avoid potential explosions of infertile rotten eggs!
Sometimes a hen will discard infertile or not-quite-right eggs herself by pushing them away. But not always.
How to set a broody hen with day-old chicks
Some breeders have success with placing day-old chicks under a broody hen. However, if you're going to do this, the chicks must be no older than 48 hours. If the chicks are any older, they are unlikely to take to the hen.
You must also introduce them at night. A hen will usually refuse chicks if you place them under her during the day. She may even peck them or can even kill them if she rejects them.
Carefully place the chicks under the hen. Leave them alone for 15-20 minutes and then quietly check there aren't any cold, chirping chicks outside the nest.
Don't disturb the nest if everything is quiet and peaceful.
Repeat in 20 minutes.
If you have a hen sitting on eggs, make sure the chicken feeder and drinker are always available and close by, whether that's inside or outside the chicken house.
If I can see that the hen has not touched her food, and she hasn't been off the nest, I will gently lift her by hand (make sure there are no eggs stuck under her wings!).
Then she will usually sprint off, making a lot of noise. Finally, she will probably poop, get a drink, have something to eat, perhaps take a short dust bath or a scratch, and return to the nest.
Some breeders prefer to leave them be, but I've had some pretty determined mother hens soil the nest and lose significant amounts of weight, and their condition deteriorate.
Don't stress if your hen leaves the nest and eggs for up to 40 minutes; they intuitively know when to return.
Check the hen and the eggs for any creepy crawlies. Broody hens are very vulnerable to lice and mites. They can cause a hen to walk off the nest, or worse—red mite can kill a broody hen. So check your hen, watch for anything crawling on the eggs and treat lice and mites as needed.
If she is soiling the nest, scoop it out and replace it with fresh bedding as soon as possible. You want to prevent the eggs and nest from becoming soiled or dirty.
You may notice that faeces from broody hens smells terrible. This is entirely normal!
The best nest for a broody hen
I love and recommend removable nests in a chicken coop. A cat carrier that's at least 30cm wide and 30cm high is perfect. The best thing about not having built-in nests is that if a hen sits, she can be easily picked up and moved to a safe location away from the flock, without disturbing her.
Don't stress if you already have built-in nests, mobile nests are not a must-have
Ensure there's enough litter in the bottom of the nest so that eggs are not broken. Lining your nests with fake grass can help provide a cushioning base. Just make sure you monitor the nests for any sign of red mite.
Can ISA Brown chickens and commercial layers go broody?
Very rarely. Because ISA Brown chickens are bred for egg lay, they’ve lost a lot of these instincts. So these types of chicken may sit, but not long enough to hatch. For this reason, I don’t recommend you hatch from a commercial layer. But some people have had success before.
Can a pullet go broody?
Yes. While it's more common for a hen, a pullet can go broody.
Why is my broody hen missing feathers on her chest?
A hen may pluck feathers from her breast area to better make contact with the eggs and control temperature and humidity. Pretty amazing!
Can I move a broody hen?
I've had mixed success moving broody hens with eggs.
If you're going to do it, move her and the dummy eggs at night before setting her with fertile eggs that you want to hatch. This is just in case the move causes her to stop sitting.
If you try to do it during the daytime, many hens will get very distressed and want to return to the (empty) original nest.
Hence I love mobile nests, as you can pick up the whole nest with the hen and the eggs and move them without too much fuss.
Do I need to turn the eggs for a broody hen?
No. Other than keeping the nest parasite and faeces free, there's no extra effort needed on your behalf.
Your hen will routinely turn the eggs herself—gently rolling and shuffling them towards the centre, warming and cooling the eggs to the perfect temperature. Just as nature intended!
Can I leave a broody hen in a communal nest to hatch chicks if I mark the eggs and know which ones are the fertile eggs?
Even if you mark the eggs and remove freshly laid eggs that the flock has added, there are reasons I don't like hens hatching chicks in the hen house with the rest of the flock:
- The nest should not be disturbed in the last three days leading up to the hatch.
- For the hatching chicks’ safety, to keep them away from the clumsy feet of other hens.
- Biosecurity - rearing chicks away from adult birds reduces not only stress but also the risk of disease.
- Often communal nests are off the ground; if a chick falls out, there's no way for them to get back in.
- Chicks need age-appropriate starter feed; you don't want your hens (especially laying hens!) consuming medicated chick starter.
Can I add more eggs to a broody hen?
No. Once you've set the clutch of eggs, don't add more eggs. Those eggs would hatch later, and the hen may have already left the nest with the first hatched chicks.
Can I let two hens share a nest and raise the hatched chicks together?
No! While I've had two hens share and raise a clutch successfully at once, I've had more drama than success.
Other pairs of hens have stolen eggs from each other, been reluctant to get off the nest to eat and drink, accidentally broken eggs, and sadly trample chicks while they were hatching. Also, once the first chicks hatch, both hens will want to get off the eggs to care for the chicks. Sharing a nest is lovely in theory, but I wouldn't recommend it!
Can a hen go broody and hatch chicks twice in a year?
Yes, this is possible. As long as the hen is in good condition, you can set her with a second clutch of eggs and hatch again.
Make sure you read part two - caring for your broody hen and her chicks.
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Elise McNamara, Chicken Consultant & Educator.