May 25, 2016

The 411 On Broody Hens in the Backyard Flock

I have a broody hen. And it’s really annoying. Not because she’s broody, but because it makes me want her to hatch baby chicks so I can have little peep peep sounds and toddling fuzzballs meandering across my lawn. I have no room for more chickens. Which is sad. I have five, and five is more than enough in a suburban backyard. Five is two more than I originally wanted, and five is much more noisy than three. But I console myself with the fact that five is much more quiet than seven would be, or nine, or let’s be honest, the two dozen I’d actually really like (plus a pair of goats. Which I don’t think is asking too much, is it?!?)

But back to Leia. She disappeared one afternoon two weeks ago. Which in itself is unusal because she is always around, always pecking and scratching and squeezing through tiny openings to explore the neighbours’ backyards. We searched for her, convinced she had finally made the great escape. Until I found her hunkered down in the nesting box, assumedly doing her thing. Assumedly, that is, until I noticed four hours later, she was still in the nesting box, still laying that egg. My first thought: broody. My second thought: cute chickies! My third thought: never gonna happen. When I put the girls to bed that night, there was Leia, still in the nesting box. Laying all flat, with her head sort of tucked in and touching the ground at the same time. I crouched down and reached my hand toward her and got a strange warning growl. Ugh.

What’s broodiness and why do hens go broody?

Going broody is sort of like the stereotypical depiction of women of a certain age having babies on the brain. All they think about, talk about, dream about are babies; making babies, and finding good baby-daddies. It’s baby mayhem. Hens are sort of the same. Minus Tinder. For whatever reason, this urge to nest comes on, and they’ll go through the action of incubating a clutch of eggs, regardless of whether the eggs are fertilized, the eggs are actually theirs, or the eggs are even actually eggs (hello, baby golf balls). The hen will sit on the eggs all day and all night. They’ll get up twice a day to eat, drink, and poop. They don’t dustbathe, exercise, or wander. They lose weight and are at a greater risk of developing parasites. They also will pull out their own breast feathers so the eggs can get even closer to their super warm skin.

hens will pluck their breast feathers when broody in order to keep the egg closer to her warm skin.

Leia had already started plucking her breast feathers to help keep her eggs toasty warm

It’s not clear why some hens are always broody and why others never seem to do it. Some breeds are more prone to broody behaviour, like silkies and aracaunas, while others, especially hybrid breeds who have had the broodiness bred out of them, may never go broody their entire lives. Having a broody chicken can be a real bonus if you want to breed more chickens from eggs and many chicken owners will do their best to force their hens to go broody. But, if, like me, you have a teeny, tiny backyard egg operation, then broody hens are not desirable. When a hen goes broody, she will stop laying for at least 21 days; which is the duration of the egg incubation process. And often the halt in egg production lasts longer than that, sometimes up to six weeks. If you have a hen that tends toward broodiness, know that she will probably try to go broody a few times a season, which if you do the math is a lot of eggs that will never make it to your fridge!

There are some who believe that it’s better to let your hen continue through the brood, even if there is no chance of offspring. However, broodiness is really stressful on a hen. Weight loss, dehydration and increased risk of parasites are all good reasons to reconsider letting a hen brood when there are no fertilized eggs to hatch. Another good reason: broodiness is contagious! If the other girls see your girl chillin’ on the nest, makin’ some babies, all of a sudden, they’ll want in the game too, and soon you’ll have a flock of brooders and no eggs for breakfast!

Signs your hen is broody

  • She spends all day in the nest. She won’t come out to eat or drink. Not even if you offer treats.
  • She sleeps in the nest.
  • If you touch her, she’ll snap, bite, or growl at you.
  • She has a funny stare. Sort of a half-distance zen-like gaze, and she’ll sit really, really still.
  • The breast feathers will be picked clean. This is so she can get the eggs even closer to her body.

Breaking Broodiness

When a hen goes broody, her belly and vent become very warm: nature’s hot water bottle. This is so they can become incubators for the eggs. In order to stop the broodiness, the hen’s body needs to be cooled off to internally turn off the broodiness. That’s why catching it as early as possible will make your life so much easier! If you consider the case of Leia, by sheer luck, we caught her the very first day she was broody and she had already started pulling out her breast feathers! It happens that fast! You may not catch it right away, but the earlier you do, the easier it will be to reverse the broodiness. For every day that your hen is broody, it will take as long to stop the process. So, if you don’t notice for a week or more, it will take a week or two to stop the broodiness.

broody hen hunkered down in nesting box

Leia, in the broody zone.

Remove the broody hen from the nesting box

This is your first step. Be really careful when you do it, as even the sweetest birds may peck the crap out of you as you attempt to remove them. Most advice I’ve read is to wear gloves. But if you’ve read some of my posts, then you know I don’t believe in gloves. Ever.  And prefer to have constantly bloodied and scarred hands. Don’t ask.

When I took Leia off the nest, she was shaking. I walked a few steps with her, then heard a loud splat. She had been holding her egg between her feet and her breast, even as I carried her. I felt terrible. Breaking broodiness isn’t easy. You’ll probably feel bad, but you have to remember that broodiness is hard on the hen’s body, and if you aren’t able to offer her fertilized eggs to nest on, then all that stress and starvation and fatigue will be for nothing.

Once you take the hen off the nesting box, take her away from the coop. If you free range, take her to a nice sunny spot, offer her some treats and some fresh water. She’ll probably be hungry and thirsty. Keep an eye on her throughout the day. Every time she returns to the coop to nest, go, pick her up again, and take her back to wherever the other girls are. You may have to do this many times a day depending on how stubborn your hen is.

Remove the nesting box bedding and eggs

Once you’ve taken your girl off the nest, remove the eggs and nesting material from the box. This will make her spot less attractive. If it’s curtained, pull the curtains back temporarily.

That first day, Leia returned to the coop half a dozen times. I couldn’t lock her out completely as the other girls hadn’t laid their eggs yet. So, I just made myself available and checked on her periodically and took her back out of the nest every time I found her there. There weren’t any eggs in the box, but she still went back and assumed the position.

Block off the favourite nesting box

You also may want to temporarily block off the favourite nesting spot. If she can’t get into it, she may give up.

I blocked off her nesting box just before it was time for the girls to roost for the evening. I just wrapped it in some chicken wire. It didn’t stop Leia from sitting on top of the chicken wire though. I hung out until the other girls had roosted, then put Leia on the roost beside Luke, where I knew she’d feel more comfortable. I checked on her after dark and she was still there.

Return the hen to her roosting spot at night

If after the above steps, your hen is still brooding, then wait until after dark, go to the coop, gently take her off of her nest, and put her up on the roost with the other girls. Chickens can’t see well at night and your hen most likely won’t return to the nesting box until the next morning. It may be enough time to break the broodiness and cool her body down a bit.

The next day, Leia emerged from the coop with the other girls. She didn’t try to return to the nest again, but she was exceptionally noisy for a few days, and would randomly puff up her feathers, flap her wings and scream at the other hens. I imagine she did this to keep the girls away from her eggs, even though there weren’t any. Instincts die hard, I guess. She returned to the roost on her own at night. On the third day, I uncovered the nesting box, but kept the curtains drawn. She wasn’t interested in the nest anymore

It took exactly 10 days for Leia to, finally, start laying again! She was so proud of herself, she sang for over a minute and the other girls actually joined in and sang along!

Broody Buster

The above mentioned options should be tried over a couple of days, but no longer. If your hen is still brooding, it’s probably time for the broody buster. I haven’t had to try this myself, but I’m pretty sure Leia will push my limits this summer, she’s that kind of bird. Okay, so here’s the theory behind the broody buster: it’s a wire cage like a dog kennel or rabbit hutch or some DIY option you can cobble together. The bottom of the cage is chicken wire or hardware cloth so your hen won’t be able to nest on it. Hens want something dark and cozy to nest on, and wire is definitely not that! The wire also allows for as much air flow as possible so the hen’s body can cool down. Put your broody hen in the buster for a few days, along with some food and water. To check if the broodiness is broken, return her to the flock. If she resumes her broody behaviour, then she goes back into the buster for a few more days. The hope is that eventually she’ll get over it and return to her normal chickeny behaviour.

Happy Breaking Broody!

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