A good broody hen will give her chicks the best start in life. She will teach them how to eat, drink and scratch for food, call them under her wings when danger approaches, and provide warmth at night.
Theoretically she is capable of raising her brood without any human help, but little chicks are very vulnerable to both predators and disease. Even adult hens may attack them. Although Mum will try to protect her family, she can’t be everywhere all the time.
Risks to young chicks
- Apart from all the usual chicken predators (foxes, badgers, stoats, mink etc), chicks may also be taken by rats, cats, grey squirrels, birds of the crow family, birds of prey – in fact just about any meat-eating creature.
- Young birds have no resistance to diseases which may be carried by healthy adults who have built up immunity.
- Ground that has been used by adult chickens is likely to contain parasites and disease.
- Coccidiosis can lead to many fatalities in young birds – it is often caused by lack of hygiene, overcrowding and stress.
Vaccinations are especially worth considering if the breed is susceptible to a particular disease (i.e. Marek’s disease in Silkies) or if you are planning to sell the birds on. Consult the vet before the chicks hatch to discuss vaccinations, as many have to be given at a very early age to be effective. Although vaccines are generally sold in large quantities, most of them are relatively inexpensive.
Choosing a broody coop
To give a hen the best chance of raising her chicks successfully, she needs a secure broody coop.
The coop should include sleeping-quarters and a run. The structure should be robust enough to keep out large predators, with no gaps to admit smaller ones. Wire mesh must be of a small gauge to stop rats getting in – and tiny chicks from getting out!
The sleeping quarters should be easy for the smallest chicks to access safely – they won’t manage a steep ramp.
Ideally the coop should have wheels or skids so it can regularly be moved to fresh ground like this one.
If a static coop is used, the base of the run can be lined with wire mesh, stapled up the sides. This makes it very secure, but you should cover the mesh with a scratching material, such as hardwood chips, to protect the chicks’ legs and feet.
Once the chicks hatch Mother Hen becomes very active, making up for the long weeks of inertia. Chicks can easily be trodden on by their mother in a restricted space, so make sure the run is large enough. Some coops advertised as being suitable for a broody hen and chicks are barely big enough for a small guinea-pig.
Once she’s decided hatching is complete, Mother Hen will lead her chicks out into the run. While they are busy exploring, clear out all the nesting material and replace it with fresh bedding.
If there are any eggs left in the nest they are unlikely to be viable. Shake them gently (be careful they don’t burst) and if the insides sound liquid, they don’t contain any chicks. Alternatively put the eggs in a bowl of warm water – if they bob about there are live chicks inside. However, once the broody has left the nest with her chicks, she won’t return to sitting duties. A chick that can’t escape the shell is likely to be weak, and if you do decide to help it out, it will need extra care to have a chance of survival.
Food and drink
Chicks can survive for 24 hours after hatching on the contents of their yolk-sacs, but a small feeder and drinker can be placed within easy reach of the nest when hatching has begun.
It’s important to choose a narrow-lipped drinker or one specially designed for chicks. The chicks quickly become very active and agile, climbing over and into everything. If they get wet it can lead to chills, and they can drown even in shallow water.
Place the drinker in the run – not in the sleeping area where it may make the bedding damp. Standing it on a tile or a piece of wood helps to keep the water clean, and prevents the surrounding ground from getting wet.
Given the chance, the chicks will jump happily into their food, adding droppings and scratching feed everywhere. Mother Hen is likely to join in the fun too. A small feeder, preferably one with a partitioned trough, will save waste and mess.
Feed good-quality chick crumbs. These can be bought either with or without the addition of a coccidiostat (to help to guard against coccidiosis). Keep medicated chick feed away from other animals, especially waterfowl. If it is eaten by laying hens there is usually an egg-withdrawal period (check with the manufacturer). The broody will share some of the chicks’ feed, so bear this in mind when she starts laying eggs again.
Mother Hen should have been fed mixed corn while sitting, and will need to continue with this while she’s with the chicks. She’ll probably break some up for them to eat too. Don’t let the chicks have access to feeds for laying hens.
If the hen and chicks aren’t on grass, you could hang up a few fresh greens for them.
Provide some chick-sized flint grit to help the chicks’ digestive systems. Never feed soluble (oyster shell) grit to young birds, as it can cause developmental problems.
Be prepared to replenish the feeder and drinker frequently. Chicks need to eat little and often, but they get through a surprising amount. Fresh, clean water is vital, so regularly check that their drinker hasn’t become clogged with debris from Mum’s scratching and dust-bathing.
Health and Safety
Make sure the coop has shade and shelter from prevailing weather.
While the hen is usually able to keep the chicks warm at night, if the weather is especially cold it may be necessary to put the broody coop inside an outbuilding, and/or provide a heat lamp (preferably one that doesn’t produce light). Try to keep extra heat to a minimum, as it can slow down feather development.
Watch for tunnels around the run – rats may try to dig their way in or the chicks might start to dig their way out! .
Always close the hen and chicks into their sleeping-quarters at night.
Warm, damp conditions are ideal for coccidia eggs (oocysts) to start developing. Oocysts can be transmitted on boots and clothing and are very resilient to normal disinfectants. They can survive in empty housing and in the ground for long periods. Prevention is better than cure:
- Scrub the broody coop between hatches and use a specialist product (see DEFRA approved Disinfectants information below) to destroy coccidia eggs.
- Make sure the nesting area of the coop stays dry – good ventilation helps avoid humidity – and change the bedding regularly.
- Don’t put the drinker inside, and try to avoid wet areas in the run.
- Regularly move the coop, or clean and disinfect the scratching material in the run.
- Keep the drinker and feeder clean and free from droppings.
Defra Approved Disinfectants
When the chicks are about six to eight weeks old, the hen usually starts showing signs of being ready to return to the flock. She may peck at the chicks and even start laying again. The chicks should be fully feathered by now and no longer sleeping under Mum. The hen can be allowed to rejoin the others (the pecking order may have changed in her absence so be ready for some squabbles), while the youngsters should continue to live in the broody coop. Continue to monitor them throughout their development.
From around six weeks, the chicks can gradually be changed over to a growers’ feed. Layers’ feeds are harmful to young birds who aren’t yet ready to produce eggs.
As the youngsters develop it may be possible to identify the cockerels, but the process isn’t necessarily straightforward – it’s even been known for a cockerel to end up in a battery house! Pointed neck and shoulder hackles can be a good early indicator, but sometimes the only way of knowing for sure is when the males begin to crow. Once you’ve picked out the cockerels, you might wish to separate them from their sisters.
There’s always likely to be a surplus of cockerels, and their eventual fate is something to be considered before putting eggs to hatch. It is difficult to find homes for unwanted males, and often the only answer is to despatch them. Be careful about offering them ‘free to a good home,’ as there are tales of domestic cockerels being used for illegal cock-fighting practice.
Introduce the pullets to the rest of the flock when they are fully grown but haven’t yet started to lay (usually around 18 weeks). By this time their mother will have forgotten them, and the procedure will be the same as for adding any new birds to an established flock. They will have to sort out their own places in the pecking order, and this is much better accomplished before they have the added stress of producing their first eggs.
Hatching & Brooding Your Own Chicks by Gail Damerow.
If you fancy incubating and hatching your own chicks then look no further than our recommended book “Hatching & Brooding Your Own Chicks” by Gail Damerow. This indispensable reference covers everything from selecting a breed and choosing the best incubator to ensuring proper sanitary conditions, understanding embryo development, and feeding and caring for newborn chicks in a brooder.
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