We have another expectant mother at the One Hour Homestead! Mark your calendars for 21 days from now. A broody hen is sitting on a nest of eggs; in a few weeks we should have a clutch of fluffy little peeps.
Our little farm has about 13 or so resident hens, of a variety of laying breeds. No rooster is required for the ladies to lay eggs, but without one they are not fertilized.
Occasionally, a chicken will ‘go broody’. This most likely happens in spring or summer. The hen determines that she wants to hatch some chicks, then sets a nest. She lays a clutch of eggs, and sometimes also steals eggs from the other hens.
About three days ago, when I went out to do evening chores, I found this hen laying in the girls’ preferred laying spot (no, not in the nest box in their coop, layered with fresh hay and clean pine shavings; they much prefer to lay in a pile of old hay twine coiled up inside a box in the barn). Now, throughout the day, it is quite typical to find a hen here, preparing to lay an egg. But, at dusk…this was unusual. She couldn’t stay there; it was time to lock up and she needed to be put in the coop. As I reached in to pick her up, she growled, became angry and tried to peck my hand.
That specific growl…I had heard that before. Last summer, another hen went broody. She bunkered down (that time, in the nest box), and would not get out. Refusing to get up to even eat or drink; she appeared almost in a trance. After a little research and checking with a chicken mentor, it was determined that she was definitely brooding. Chickens do not lay any more eggs after they have set their nest; they wait there, keeping the eggs warmed to just the right temperature for incubation until they hatch.
Since she was not laying on fertilized eggs, she would have a very long wait. In fact, her health would likely have become compromised over time. My chicken mentor/friend suggested placing the broody hen in a wire dog cage (provisioned with food and water) raised up off the ground for a couple of days. By raising it up, air circulates under the hen, cooling her, and eventually breaking her of setting. This trick worked– the hen wanted out of that cage after a day or two, and resumed her free-ranging, bug-eating, and egg-laying ways.
But, a seed was planted. I couldn’t help but think about having one of our hens hatch some little chicks, at some point in the future. While I have raised plenty of chicks, from day-old mail ordered peeps, what could be cuter (and easier) than letting mama hen hatch her own little brood and then spend the warm summer months leading them around the pasture, teaching them to forage and scratch, as chickens do?
I like to get three or four new chicks each spring. By raising them through the spring and summer, they usually reach the age to start laying eggs by October. If these young pullets start laying by fall, they typically will lay eggs through the winter; whereas, their older coop-mates go into molt (losing many of their feathers) and take the winter off from laying. Otherwise, I would have to (gasp) buy eggs from the store.
So, I was not disappointed to find a growling, hand-pecking chicken in the nest box in the evening. Nor was I upset to find her there the following evening (despite having been carried back to the coop the night before).
Not having a rooster on the farm to fertilize the eggs, however, I needed to purchase some hatching eggs. These are fertile eggs that have been recently laid and possibly stored in the refrigerator for a few days to await placement in an incubator or under a warm, setting hen. They can be purchased from hatcheries, chicken breeders, or other backyard farms. A quick search on Craigslist resulted in a few options–one was nearby and reasonably priced.
And here we are today, with the broody hen, now nestled carefully atop 10 hatching eggs. About half of the eggs are purebred Orpington, and the other half are Orpington crossed with assorted other laying breeds. I moved the chicken from the old box to a safer location in the barn. She is now locked inside of a dog crate with plenty of fresh bedding, plus food and water. Here she will not be bothered by the other chickens trying to crowd in beside her to lay eggs or by predators (raccoons and foxes) that might wander into the barn. She fussed for about about 30 seconds after I moved her, then saw those eggs, and plopped right down on them, happy as can be.
Hopefully, from those 10 eggs, we will get a couple of nice pullets to provide us with eggs through next winter. Any extra chicks can be sold. And we can watch the proud mama hen parade her adorable babies through the yard this summer.