The sweetest hen in the flock sits in the same nest box all day, growling, puffing out her feathers, even pecking at intruders- both feathered and boot-wearing. She is not a beast to be trifled with. What’s her problem? She is broody, which means she is determined to hatch chicks, but if she is not actually going to hatch chicks, the behavior must be interrupted, or broken up, and the sooner, the better.
WHAT’S A BROODY HEN & WHAT CAUSES BROODINESS?
A broody hen is one that is inspired to sit on a nest until she hatches chicks. It is an instinct influenced by hormones and lighting factors that can be triggered by seeing a collection of eggs in a nest or another broody hunkered down in a nest box.
A hen has a hormone surge prior to egg-laying that causes her to find and prepare a nest for the arrival. The hormones usually return to normal levels after the egg is laid, but occasionally they will remain elevated, which causes the hen to sit in a chosen location, prepared to hatch eggs. Some breeds are more predisposed to broodiness than others, Silkies and Cochins, for example. I like to say that broodiness is a ‘calling.’ Not every hen will become broody in her lifetime, but those that do are committed to their calling and fiercely protective of their territory.
Some broodies will lay a clutch of eggs, which, if fertile, will wait until she is ready to sit on them, warming them until they hatch. When she is ready to begin sitting on the eggs her body releases the hormone, prolactin, which stops egg-laying temporarily. Under ordinary conditions, she will sit on the eggs for 21 days, raise her chicks and resume egg-laying approximately 6 weeks later.
If there are no fertile eggs or she sits on an empty nest, broodiness can continue long beyond three weeks, resulting in negative health consequences to the hen and potential problems for the flock.
Some allege that a broody can be dissuaded from setting by keeping eggs out of her sight by frequent collection or hanging nest box curtains, but, my experience with countless broodies has shown that a hen inclined to brood needs no encouragement and cannot be discouraged that easily. Most follow their maternal instincts regardless of caretaker trickery.
HOW TO IDENTIFY A BROODY HEN
As a general rule, a broody prefers a dark, private, comfortable location in which she will sit until her eggs hatch. Her chosen spot may be a nest box, or a hidden location away from the coop. It is not unheard of for a hen to disappear from the flock and return three weeks later with baby chicks in tow.
The sweetest hen in a flock is barely recognizable when she is broody. She is fiercely protective of her territory. When approached, she growls, shrieks, puffs out her feathers, and pecks at any intruder, trying to be as intimidating as possible in defense of her eggs.
A broody hen sits in her chosen spot, briefly leaving it once or twice a day to eat, drink and relieve herself. Broody poop is the most horrendous-looking, foul-smelling and ginormous of all specimens because the droppings are retained for hours vs. being eliminated regularly throughout the day. A broody hen does not foul her nest, keeping it clean for her anticipated chicks.
A broody plucks her own breast feathers to expose the warmth and moisture of her skin directly to the eggs. hence the expression “to feather one’s nest,” meaning to prepare for something.
THE CONSEQUENCES OF UNWANTED BROODINESS
Her calling requires her to sit and wait for chicks to hatch. The lack of fertile eggs or any eggs at all do not concern her. She obeys her calling to sit and in doing so, she will neglect herself for the good of her anticipated chicks. She eat, drinks and eliminates waste once or twice a day, at most. Her comb becomes pale, her feathers lose sheen and she loses a noticeable amount of weight. This drastic change normal routine is tolerable in 21 day stints but protracted stints are unhealthy for her.
She will continue to lose weight and becomes vulnerable to external parasites settling in among her feathers. She stops producing eggs while brooding and for five weeks or more afterwards. She cannot be relied upon for contributions to egg sales or consumption for eight weeks total, on average. Her behavior often inspires other hens in the flock to go broody, multiplying the consequences already mentioned.
Within 24 hours of the first broody appearing last summer, every nest box in my coop was full of broody hens. Broodiness begets broodiness. A broody occupies a nest box that laying hens may wish to use and they will either join her in it, creating an environment in which eggs can be broken, or may find another, less desirable place to lay their eggs. Neither option is ideal.
HOW TO BREAK A BROODY
A broody hen who is allowed to sit indefinitely can suffer long-term health consequences and even die from malnutrition. It is important to ‘break’ or stop a hen’s broodiness as soon as possible after identifying the behavior. The longer she is broody, the longer it will take to break her and the longer it will take for her to return to egg-laying. If the behavior is identified within the first day or two, it can be reversed within a day or two. To break a broody, her belly must be cooled off and her comfy nesting routine disrupted.
There are many suggested methods for broody-breaking, some unreliable or ineffective, some cruel and inhumane. I strongly recommend against any technique involving water or ice. I also do not recommend the ‘boomerang’ method of taking her out of the nest repeatedly, only for her to panic, cluck and run directly back to her chosen spot or to sit right down in protest before running back to her nest. I find this method unnecessarily protracted and stressful for everyone. Further, she continues to occupy a nest box during this time, making it unavailable for other hens to use.
This is a broody was taken out of the nest for illustration purposes only. She promptly assumed the broody position in the mulch. Shortly thereafter she was moved into the Broody Breaker.
THE BROODY BREAKER
To break a broody hen, I use a proven and reliable method consisting of a wire-bottomed cage, raised off the floor, placed in a well-lit location away from the coop. As soon as a broody is identified, she goes into the Broody Breaker. A rabbit hutch serves this purpose perfectly. The wire bottomed cage allows cooler air to circulate under the hen, cooling off her belly/breast. The key is an elevated, wire bottomed cage without litter, located away from the coop. It’s fine to provide a roost if you’d like.
A second method of breaking up a broody is to graft chicks to her, which can be risky. Learn how to graft chicks to a broody hen here.
The Broody Breaker is Rachel’s second home. Cochins are notorious broodies. Once in the Broody Breaker, she will be upset briefly but will soon settle down. Broody hens prefer comfortable, well-padded, dark, undisturbed locations for sitting. The wire bottomed cage is anything but cozy. If she is identified early in her broody state, she should be broken within a few days and back to egg laying within a week or so. The longer she is allowed to sit, the longer she will have to remain in the Broody Breaker and the longer she will take to get back to egg production.
HOW TO KNOW WHEN SHE’S BROKEN UP?
When a broody hen begins walking around the cage, eating, drinking and pooping frequently throughout the day, she may be broken up and ready to return to the coop. To test whether a hen is ready to join the flock as a contributing member again, remove her from the Broody Breaker and watch her behavior. If she is still broody she will high-tail it directly back to her chosen nest by the end of the day, if not immediately, in which case, back she goes into the Broody Breaker for another tour of duty.
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