One of the joys of keeping chickens is raising chicks, and not much is more exciting than seeing a mother hen raise her own baby chicks!
Last year we decided to keep a rooster so we could hatch fertile eggs naturally. While this was more of a long range goal on our part, our hens had other plans.
Our first natural hatch happened by accident.
Best Laid Plans
I have a divided run and separate coops, each with their own rooster. My goal was to keep everyone separated so all my birds could breed true, but no one ever stays where they are supposed to.
Last spring, I had decided that with the weather getting warmer and the days getting longer, I needed to do a better job of keeping everyone penned in. The day I decided to schedule free range time was the day I noticed that not one, but two, of my hens had decided to go broody.
Some Rules Are Meant To Be Broken
Based on previous research, I learned that hens should be laying for about one year before they should be allowed to hatch their eggs. One of my gals — a beautiful, sweet tempered Rhode Island Red — was well over a year old.
But the other, a buff Orpington, was just under twelve months. She seemed pretty determined however, so I decided to ignore the rules and let her do her thing.
Although It's A Good Idea…
It's a good idea to separate broody hens from the rest of the flock and from each other. This keeps them from switching nests and continually adding freshly-laid eggs to the clutch. It will also protect the young chicks from other chickens and from a rooster who could potentially become territorial.
However, during this time (when my 2 hens went broody) I was too busy to tend to them. Segregating chickens and creating the perfect scenario for hatching was the last thing on my mind.
I decided to just let the situation play out. One chick brooded in one nest box, with another hen in the box beside her. The remaining hens and rooster went in and out as they pleased.
Nevertheless, three weeks later, while outside working in the garden, I heard the familiar “distress” call of a small chick. I peeked into the coop and saw a tiny one wandering around looking for mom. She promptly called to him and he disappeared underneath her wing.
A few days later, I noticed another, this one from the other mama. In the end, two was all we got, but I was delighted with those two and they did remarkably well in spite of my hands-off approach!
Things I Learned
The hens left their nests periodically to eat, drink, and “use the powder room”. When they returned to their coop, they did often switch nests. I never figured out if this was intentional or not. In the end they each hatched the other’s eggs but no one seemed to notice or care.
They collected eggs laid by the other hens and added them to their clutches, so all the eggs were of a different age and didn’t hatch at the same time. In fact, the new mothers were so distracted with their little chicks that neither of them returned to sit on the nest full time like she should have. A few chicks died while hatching, the rest didn’t hatch, and the entire lot began to smell. I reluctantly pitched the remaining eggs, but once I did everyone was content with mothering and stayed quite busy.
There was no need to provide crumble for the chicks. Each mama fed her baby by crumbling the food up for it and placing it at his feet. A heat lamp wasn't necessary either. The mother was the source of heat and for the first few days each chick stayed safely underneath its mama.
The rooster and the other hens didn't harm the chicks, but I did take some precautions.
For the first two weeks, I let the older gang out in the morning, then closed up the coop, leaving the two mamas and their babies safe inside. By nightfall, the babies had been called to bed underneath their mother’s wing and it was safe enough to let the older flock back in for the night.
At two weeks, I opened the coop and allowed everyone to “free range” inside a fenced-in run together. The babies did just fine.
At one point, one mama grew bored and was less attentive to her chick. The other mama picked up the slack and ended up mothering both of them. She did a wonderful job and was very attentive.
Facts about Broody Hens
It takes about three weeks for eggs to hatch.
Longer, warmer days will usually cause a hen to go broody, but as anyone who has chickens knows, they always do whatever they want — whenever they want, thankyouverymuch.
A broody hen rarely leaves her nest, at least not when she is being watched. It's a good idea to provide food and water close by.
Because she stays on the nest, she relieves herself less often. Therefore, broody hen droppings are quite large but should not be cause for concern.
Chicks raised by a mother hen will perhaps be more skittish and less people-friendly than those raised by yourself in an artificial brooder.
In The End…
By allowing the mothers to do their jobs, hatching chicks was an incredibly easy and stress-free process. In the end however, only two chicks hatched and survived: a cockerel and pullet pair. I have a better hatch and survival rate when I do it myself.
I decided that if I don't need to increase my flock, I'm fine allowing the girls to go broody when they please. If on the other hand, I really need chicks, I get better results if I raise them myself.
Have you ever allowed your hens to hatch their own chicks? How was your experience?
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