By P. Allen Smith – It’s a great day in Poultryville at Moss Mountain Farm when chicks are running around! I have a soft spot for those baby Henriettas and Amoses, my beloved Buff Orpingtons, and it’s rewarding to see the flock grow.
There are a couple of different ways you can expand your flock, but my go-to is using the best broody hens in my flock. For those who don’t want to expand their flocks, you will have to break the hen of her broodiness. If you’re like me and want to hatch eggs, a broody hen can be your best friend.
Keep in mind that not all breeds are created equal. Some are more broody than others. Heritage breeds are more broody than hybrids and often make the best broody hens. I have over 60 breeds of heritage poultry at Moss Mountain Farm, and I use certain breeds to take care of the hatching. My Silkies and Buff Orpingtons are broody. The Blue Andalusians and White-Faced Black Spanish … not so much.
These are my top five picks for broody breeds:
- Silkies – Who doesn’t love Silkies? They’re the most adorable breed of chicken at the farm (Shhhh! Don’t tell the others.). They’re docile and friendly, making them great pets. Silkies are not prolific egg producers, but they are known for being broody hens and good mothers. As an added bonus, Silkie chickens don’t make a lot of noise, which is ideal if you live in an urban environment.
- Orpingtons – I’ve raised Orpington chickens for a long time and highly recommend this breed to people starting a backyard flock. Amos and Henrietta, Buff Orpingtons, are favorites among visitors to the farm. Originally developed as excellent meat birds, these dual-purpose chickens are also good producers of medium to large brown eggs, are good brooders, and excellent mothers. They are hardy and early maturing, adaptable to free range, adaptable to confinement, docile, affectionate, and easily handled.
- Cochins – Cochins are popular show birds and excellent brooders. They are good mothers and foster mothers. They are medium producers of brown-tinted eggs and are adaptable to confinement or free range. They’re peaceful and easy to handle.
- Australorp – Australorp chickens are known for being good brooders and mothers and excellent producers of medium-sized brown eggs. They mature early and are very cold hardy. They adapt well to confinement or free range and are quiet, docile, and easily handled.
- Modern Game – This game bird is a low producer of white to lightly tinted small eggs. They are broody and are protective mothers. They are hardy in heat and are less tolerant of close confinement than other breeds. They need to be active! Originally developed for exhibition, these birds have style!
If you’ve raised chickens long enough, you know a broody hen when you encounter one. There are a few tell-tale signs. She’ll usually start spending most of her time on her nest and will only get up a couple times a day. This is when she’ll eat, drink, and poop. She’ll be eating less than usual, and she will eliminate a lot of waste at one time. You may notice that she is more aggressive with other birds and animals, and with you, especially if you reach for her while she’s on the nest. If you notice that your hen is plucking off her own breast feathers, you’ve got a broody hen on your hands!
We separate broody hens from the rest of the flock to keep the other hens in the flock from settling into the nest and laying, potentially breaking the eggs.
You have a couple of options when it comes to getting your hen to sit on fertilized eggs. If you have a rooster, that shouldn’t be a problem. If you don’t, then you need to get eggs that are already fertilized. We have set turkey, duck, and peafowl eggs under chickens with good success.
Now, if this is your first time learning how to hatch chicken eggs with a broody hen, I recommend a trial run. Before committing your best hatching eggs, let her sit on ordinary hatching eggs to see how she does. Sometimes a broody hen will abandon her nest. The best broody hens won’t. It’s best to know what you’re working with, so get to know your hens!
I recommend checking on the eggs to see how they’re developing on the 10th day. You can do this with an ovascope or special candling flashlight. Even a bright flashlight will do just fine. You’ll want to do this when it’s dark. Holding the egg, shine the light on the bottom of the egg until you can see what’s inside. You should see the embryo with a network of blood vessels extending from it. If not, you can check back after a few more days. If you still don’t see any development or if the egg smells bad, you should remove the egg from the nest.
After day 16 or 17, I recommend that you no longer handle the eggs. They need to be left alone leading up to the hatching day.
Once you have the fertilized eggs, wait for the hen to get off the nest and switch out the infertile eggs for the fertile ones. You can expect her to sit on them for exactly 21 days until they hatch. Hatching day is very exciting, but try not to interfere. It’s best to let the mama do her thing! The best broody hens know just what to do.
Once the chicks have arrived, I usually leave them with their mom and the rest of the flock. I find this to be the easiest way for the mother hen and babies to adjust. Some people choose to remove the chicks and raise them in a brooder or to remove the mother and chicks into a separate brooding pen. It’s a matter of personal preference and weighing the pros and cons. If you choose to leave the mother hen and chicks with the flock, be sure to switch the whole flock over to starter feed, since layer pellets are not safe for chicks.
The hen will usually take care of protecting her chicks and will make sure that they learn to take care of themselves. When the chicks are ready to live on their own, the hen will usually abandon them and start roosting with members of her flock.
Sometimes a chick and its momma will stay bonded for a long time, and it’s fun to see that bond in action.
This year, at our Spring Poultry Workshop, we’re focusing on heritage breeds. Poultry enthusiasts of all levels will learn how to raise happy, healthy flocks. You can find out more at www.pallensmith.com. We’d love to have you join us.
I wish you success as you expand your own flock of heritage poultry!
Do you have breeds that make the best broody hens in your flock? Let us know in the comments below.