Can there be anything more attractive and guaranteed to elicit the ‘aah’ factor than a brood of chicks and their mother? Jeremy Hobson looks at how to hatch chicks using a broody hen.
There would be something wrong with any enthusiastic chicken-keeper if, once they were well versed in the joys of day-to-day chicken keeping, they did not then consider the possibility of hatching a few eggs.
There is, of course, the possibility of either hatching artificially with incubators or naturally under broody hens: if space permits and it is possible to hatch eggs under a broody hen or bantam, then I would most strongly advise the latter option; the hen is, after all, naturally more experienced at the job than even the most knowledgeable of incubator users and there are none of the problems concerning temperatures, humidity, egg-turning or any of the other potential difficulties that may beset those attempting to hatch artificially for the first time.
As this article is about the process of actually hatching chicks with chickens rather than the business that goes beforehand, it is necessary to make the assumption that you have some fertile eggs and a broody hen. For most people, fertile eggs will come from their own stock: basic biology obviously dictates that a cockerel will be required, but far more than this; the male bird must be of a good healthy type if it is to pass on the required ‘good’ genes to its offspring. Obviously the cock bird is only a half of the union but many knowledgeable chicken keepers believe that he is the more important half. Bear in mind though, the fact that the female needs to conform to the correct body size and shape of the breed, as these are perhaps the two main characteristics that she will pass down to the chicks.
Choosing and care of a broody hen
It is important to choose the broody hen with great care. Although some of the light breeds will go broody, they are less inclined to remain so for the required period of time and it is far better to use one of the heavier breeds or even a cross-breed – who, it must be said, quite often make the best sitters and foster mothers.
The first signs of broodiness will be a reluctance to leave the nest and, when you try to put your hand under her, she will ruffle her feathers, sit tighter in the nest and attempt to give the back of your hand an almighty battering with her beak. When you notice the first signs she should be given a couple of days before being moved to her new quarters where she will hatch and look after her chicks. If she goes broody in the house from which one is collecting fertile eggs, make sure she is not sitting on eggs that will be required for hatching at a later date, as this will affect their viability. Keep her sitting by including a couple of dummy eggs in the nest, or old eggs marked by a pencil so that they will not be inadvertently collected.
The best place to keep a broody hen whilst sitting is in an old-fashioned coop and run situated in a quiet corner well away from distractions and disturbance. Alternatively, it might be possible to set up a broody box in the corner of a larger shed or outbuilding until the chicks are hatched. Whatever method is chosen, the unit should be roughly the same dimensions as an ordinary nest box and be furnished with a wide board across the front so that she can turn round and be comfortable without risking any of the eggs disappearing over the side and becoming chilled.
An upturned grass sod or some fine damp earth should be included at the base of the box as this will help form a ‘saucer’ for the nest and also provide much-needed humidity. On top of the soil, build up a nest of clean, dry, parasite-free hay, straw or even wood-wool and be sure to pack it tightly into the corners so that no eggs can roll out. To be doubly sure about fleas and parasites, dust the nest and the feathers of the broody sparingly with flea powder – especially under the wings and around the vent area.
Do not over-face the hen by giving her too many eggs to cover: if you do, there is a very real danger that they will become chilled due to the fact that, as the hen attempts to turn them, they will be pushed away from the perfect temperature which is to be found directly under the breast of the bird; the place known as the ‘brood spot’. A hen will use her beak and feet to regularly turn the eggs. She should be allowed or lifted off the eggs once a day for food, water and the opportunity to evacuate her bowels (any faeces in the nest must be immediately removed to prevent the eggs becoming soiled). For the first week, ten minutes a day is all that she should be allowed but after that, the time can be increased up about twenty minutes until a couple of days before the chicks are due to hatch when she will anyway be reluctant to leave the nest for any time at all. Generally, chicken eggs take 21 days to hatch whilst those of bantams between 19 and 21. A couple of days before you anticipate the first eggs to begin chipping, it will pay to lightly damp down both nest and eggs with aired water because doing so will help prevent the egg membrane from drying out as the chicks begin to peck through the shell.
Once it is obvious that there are no more chicks to hatch, all the empty shells should be removed and the broody be given fresh food and water. She can be left in the box with her chicks for a few hours longer as the youngsters will happily survive on the yolk sac absorbed during the last few hours of hatching. If, for one reason or another, it is necessary to remove the hen and chicks to a new location, now is the time to do it: otherwise, quietly and gently remove whatever material was chosen to make up the nest and replace it with fresh wood shavings. I would always advocate keeping the hen confined throughout the period of chick rearing and not allow her total liberty, otherwise you may find that she takes her brood off for hikes around the garden where they are likely to get lost or even be attacked by your other birds curious to know more about these strange fluffy creatures.
Finally, it should perhaps be pointed out that, just because a hen shows signs of being the perfect broody at the outset, it does not, unfortunately, follow that she will sit for the required length of time, and it is not unknown for a bird to leave the nest before her duties are complete. If you are lucky and the eggs are still warm and another broody hen is available, there is, however, no reason why a successful hatch should not still take place.