Meet Annie. She's an Australorp, which means she has the tendency to go broody (sit on eggs until they hatch instead of laying her daily egg and hopping right back out of the nesting box). Australorps are known for their broody nature and Annie, true to her breed, goes broody quite often.
In fact, she helped me write my article on Breaking a Broody Hen last spring because we didn't have room for any more chicks and I wouldn't let her sit on infertile eggs. But she really wanted to be a Mom. So I promised her that this spring, if we could coordinate our schedules, I would let her sit on some fertile eggs. We did, and she did...and now Annie has five brand new baby chicks!
HATCHING EGGS USING A BROODY HEN
It's really quite simple to let a broody hen hatch a clutch of eggs (as compared to using an incubator) because she does all the work. Just set her up a comfortable nesting box, large enough for her to turn around and keep the eggs turned ( ideally about 15" square), but dark and quiet. The box should be at ground level so any new chicks don't fall out (if its not, be ready to move the hen and her chicks once they have hatched to a safe, secure spot). It's not recommended trying to move a broody once she has chosen where she wants to sit because that can cause her to stop sitting - although in Annie's case, she was so determined, I realized I probably could have put her with the eggs in the dog crate from the beginning and she would have continued to sit!
Be sure the box is filled with soft nesting material - straw or shavings work as does a piece of sod, grass side up - and make a concave bowl in the center so the eggs don't roll out. Although you can't 'force' a hen to go broody, hanging curtains over the front of the box can help, as can leaving fake eggs in the box she seems to favor to encourage her.
Once you have the eggs collected that you plan on hatching, place the fertile eggs under her (be sure to mark them first with a pencil so you know which ones they are), and remove any 'dummy' eggs you were letting her sit on. A standard-sized hen can comfortably sit on 12-14 eggs. While you are assembling your 'clutch', store the fertile eggs pointed end down in a cool location such as a basement or garage and turn them several times a day until you have enough collected. Eggs will generally stay viable for 7-10 days after being laid if stored properly. You want to put them all under your broody hen at the same time so they will all hatch together.
Your broody hen will lose weight and her feathers will dull. This is completely normal. Be sure that she has easy access to both feed and water. She will leave the nest at least once a day to stretch her legs, eat, drink and poop. Often another hen will lay her egg in the same nest. Those eggs will be easily identifiable since they aren't marked and should be removed.
Don't handle the fertile eggs after your broody starts to set. They don't need to be candled. She should instinctively kick out any that are infertile or eggs in which the chick is not developing correctly or dies. She will turn them as she moves in the nest and will also rotate the eggs in the outer ring to the center periodically.
All you need to do is wait patiently. Twenty-one days later, your chicks should hatch. There is nearly a 100% hatch rate for eggs incubated under a broody hen. Keep the hen and her chicks separated from the rest of the flock in a safe place where the chicks can't squeeze through fencing or be vulnerable to predators until they are big enough to join the rest of the flock.
Feed them all non-medicated chick starter feed. The mother hen isn't laying eggs, so she doesn't need the additional calcium in layer feed and the calcium can damage chicks' kidneys if they are fed layer feed before they start laying. And it's as simple as that.
But back to Annie....
As soon as I realized that Annie was broody again (a quick peek at her bare breast confirmed my suspicions after catching her sitting in the same nesting box on each trip down to the coop for the past day and a half), I confirmed that my order of hatching eggs from Chicken Scratch Poultry was still on schedule. My eggs were due to arrive in two days, which was perfect timing.
I had ordered a mix of Blue Ameraucana, Coronation Sussex, and bantam Chocolate Orpington eggs - and I decided to put one of our Olive Egger eggs under Annie as well. I removed two eggs other hens had laid in Annie's nest and replaced them with the hatching eggs. Annie gladly accepted the new eggs and settled in for the duration. (Honestly I think she was quite surprised I didn't keep removing her from her nest as I had in the past!)
I put a feeder and waterer in the coop - something I don't normally do - but I wanted to make it easy for her to stay nourished and hydrated. I also kept an eye on her and made sure that I saw her out in the run at least once a day. She did leave the nest to eat and drink, then headed outside to take a few dust baths over the course of the next few weeks, and then would wander around a bit outside, but before long, she was back in the coop making a beeline for her nest.
Once I realized she seemed to know what she was doing, I sort of forget about her. No worrying about losing power or the temperature on my incubator being inconsistent, no turning of eggs, no counting days or remembering about lockdown. Annie had it under control.
Then one Saturday morning I went down to open up the coop and let everyone out and I heard faint peeping coming from the nesting box! Annie's eggs were hatching - right on time, the morning of Day 21.
Of course I spent practically the whole day in the coop checking on the progress of the pipping eggs. In all, five chicks hatched over the course of that day and the next. Worried that the chicks would fall out of the nesting box, I fashioned a crude chicken wire enclosure for that first night to keep the chicks safe.
The next morning, I hurried down to check and there were four chicks snuggled under Annie's spread wings. One additional chick hatched later that morning and I decided it was time to get everyone down to floor level.
There were three eggs left, but two never pipped and one seemed to have died in the shell. Annie was getting restless and the chicks were getting active and I was afraid they would topple out of the nesting box, so I carefully moved the whole family (unhatched eggs and all) into a large dog crate on the floor of the coop filled with fresh straw, chick starter feed and a shallow dish of water.
The chicks weren't interested in any food for the first day or two, but Annie sure dug in and soon enough began teaching the chicks to eat and drink.
Annie continued to sit on the remaining unhatched eggs for several more hours and then seemed to instinctively know that they weren't going to hatch and started to move around the crate more.
One of the chicks getting a lesson in drinking water..
Annie 'tidbitting' for the chicks (showing them a particularly good treat)
Proud momma watching her brood eat on their own.
Once the chicks started eating in earnest around day two, I added a bowl of dirt to provide the grit they need to digest their food and started adding cut herbs and weeds to their diet. Since they weren't vaccinated for Mareks and aren't eating medicated feed to guard against Coccidiosis, it's important to build strong immune systems so their bodies can fight off pathogens they encounter. Hopefully being in the coop and scratching around in the dirt outside will expose them to tiny amounts which will also help build a natural immunity.
Dandelion greens, chickweed, oregano, parsley and mint seem to be the big favorites. I also add the tiniest drop of apple cider vinegar to their water every few days and add brewer's yeast & garlic powder and probiotics to their daily feed.
Starting around day four, I let Annie and her chicks out for supervised outings at least once a day for some fresh air and so Annie can start to teach the chicks how to look for food, take dust baths and other critical chicken activities. She gently coaxes them out of the crate and then out of the coop.
I stick close as she teaches them what is good to eat and keeps an eye out for danger.
Annie gave the chicks a lesson in dust bathing yesterday afternoon. Not much interest yet from the chicks.
Pretty soon the chicks let Annie know they're getting cold, so everyone heads back to the coop. One last ruffle of her feathers to get the dirt out and Annie's ready to return to the crate.
I have heard that chicks hatched under a hen won't bond as well with a human and won't be as friendly as incubator-hatched chicks and some broodies are super protective of their chicks, but so far, Annie has been very tolerant of my incessant picture taking and handling of her babies, and the chicks are friendly and social.
Annie and her chicks will stay in the crate for another week or so and then move to a larger pen with an attached run separate from our laying hens until the chicks are probably just about 18 weeks old. That way I can keep our layers in the main run eating layer feed and not worry about having pullets in with them who need starter/grower. By then Annie will probably be sick and tired of them and ready to hatch a new brood of babies!
Annie is doing a wonderful job. And she handled it all without the help of any hi-tech electronics or man-made devices. She keeps the chicks warm and safe and shows them what is okay for them to eat. She is a wonderful Mom. I'm not quite ready to donate my brooder totes, heat lamps and incubator to Goodwill, but I have to admit that having Annie do all the work was a welcome change....and she is just LOVING it!
If you don't have a dog crate, this puppy play pen makes a wonderful in-coop brooder that can easily be carried outside on nice warm sunny days to give the chicks some fresh air.
So you don't miss a single photo of Annie and her chicks!