Is my hen is broody? and/or how to break your broody

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Is my hen is broody? and/or how to break your broody
« on: February 17, 2011, 07:46 »
As it is coming up to spring we will probably find that some of our hens will start to go broody.  I thought I would try to address some of the questions which surround this. (disclaimer: I'm not an expert, so please don't take the information below to be "gospel" or the only answer)

First of all... what is broodiness, and how can you tell if your hen is broody.

OK; broodiness is a natural instinct in female hens to sit on eggs to incubate them, and later to raise any offspring until approximately 8 weeks of age.

Broodiness varies from breed to breed, and even from hen to hen.  Some breeds, such as silkies, are infamous for their brooding instinct; others, e.g. hybrid layers, have all but had thier brooding instinct  bred out of them and are classed as "non-sitters".

Broodiness is hormonally driven (no jokes please lads!), mainly by the production of prolactin in the pituitary gland; and it is a cyclical affair during the spring months, but it is not confined to spring, especially in particularly broody breeds (e.g. silkies, brahmas, cochins, pekins etc).

The drive to brood can be extreme, and hens have been known to sit not only on eggs, but on golf balls, even pebbles.  A broody will hoard eggs from other hens, and if you have more than one broody hen they will squabble over the eggs and try to steal them off each other.

You will be able to recognise broodiness, or even impending broodiness by several signs.

1) Broodiness is usually preceded by a reluctance to leave a nesting box.  At first the hen may only show some indecision, and wander in and out of the nesting area several times without ever settling.

2) Once the hormones are in full swing the hen will settle herself in a nesting place (not necessarily in her nesting box, but this is most usual), and she will start to pluck out her lower breast and abdominal feathers.  This is to a) line the nest and b) expose her bare skin to the potential eggs to faciliatate the incubation process.  In fact her abdomen will heat up to a much warmer level than normal - and you will be able to quite readily feel this - especially if you are aware of what your hens normal body temperature is.

3) At this point the hen will probably start gathering eggs.  In a communal nest box, she will sit on any eggs laid by other hens in the flock.

4) As you approach the hen she will puff up all her feathers (to look big and menacing to potential predators) and she will "growl" or "squeal" at you.  Even the most placid hens may become aggressive and peck at anything approaching the nest.

5) During the incubation period (usually 21 days from the last egg being layed), the hen will come off the nest two or three times a day for up to 20 or 30 minutes at a time in order to eat, drink and toilet.  However during this time, her food intake will be reduced to almost one-fifth of normal (The behaviour of the domestic chicken: a review of the literature, DGM Wood-Gush, The British journal of Animal Behavious, Vol 3, issue 3, pp81-110, 1955)

6) Whilst the hen is incubating she will move and reposition the eggs as often as every 10 minutes, rolling them over, moving them from the outside to the inside etc to ensure that all of the eggs incubated evenly.  Hens have been known to sense if an egg has "quit" half way through, and she may remove this egg from her nest.

7) If a hen squashes an egg, something heavier, feather footed, or inexperienced broodies are more likely to do, she will eat the remains.  She will also eat any chicks which pip and fail to hatch, or any chicks which die shortly after hatching.  As gruesome as it sounds, it is natures way of keeping the nest area clean.  However, unknown broodies must be watched at first, as although some hens will happily sit on eggs, they do not brood chicks, and may kill them as they hatch.  This is more likely to happen in a) first time broodies or b) if the hen is disturbed while the ggs are hatching.  If a hen is a known chick killer, then it is better to either a) not let her sit at all, or b) remove the eggs just before hatching and place them in an artificial hatcher/incubator.  Sometimes it is possible to reintroduce hatched and dried chicks to the broody hen when they are a day or two old, and she may accept them... but careful watching is required, and an emergency artifical brooder should be available just in case.

8) Once all of the viable eggs have hatched, the hen will normally wait 24 hours before leaving the nest to show her offspring how to eat and drink.  Chicks will normally stay with mum for 6 to 8 weeks before she abandons them.

It is imprtant to note that if you let your hen brood eggs, she will need a separate area, a small coop or hutch, and run from the rest of the flock in order to brood in peace.  The coop should be big enough to accomodate mum and her brood of chicks when the chicks are half grown at 6 weeks.

Opinions differ on how to integrate mum and chicks back into the existing flock.  Personally, I have had good experiences with letting mum and chicks in the same space as the main flock from day 1.  Mum will protect the chicks, keeping them close to her, especially during the first days.  This way, I have found, there are less pecking order fights than trying to introduce half grown chicks who have had no contact with the flock previously (e.g. artificially incubated chicks) - but everyone should find their own way of doing this.

How to break your broody

Of course, you may not want your hen to be broody, and there are several anecdotal ways of breaking the brooding cycle.  This can range from removing the hen from the nesting area each time she goes to settle, or even sitting the hen in a bucket of cold water.  However my preferred way is the cage method.

As already discussed, the brooding instinct is hormonally driven, and to some extent is self perpetuating so you need to intervene and 'switch off' the hormone production.  the aim is two fold: a) not give the hen any where comfortable to nest, and b) to cool her abdomen down.

If you don't have a purpose build anti-broody cage, a travelling wire frames dog cage is ideal.  Remove the plastic pan from the bottom, and place the hen in the cage.  Food and water can be provided in "D cups" (lads, please!!!  :dry: ::) ).  Stand the cage securely on breeze blocks or bricks, so the cage os off the ground.  This will ensure airflow to the underside.

If you have a fox-secure run, or a coop large enough, the hen can remain in the cage overnight.  As this is hormone related, it is not possible to turn off the broodiness like a lightswitch, and it will take anywhere from a couple of days to even a week or more for the broodiness to break.

It is not cruel to keep the hen in the cage while you are de-broodying her.

Brooding can be very, very tough on hens.  As mentioned earlier, their food intake dramatically reduces which can lead to significant weight loss.  Muscle atrophy/weakness from lack of exercise can also occur.  It has been known for hens to literally starve themselves to death trying to brood infertile eggs or other objects.

In this light, I would recommend breaking a broody who had been sitting unsuccessfully on believed fertile eggs, or replacing the dud eggs with day old chicks acquired from another source.

I believe it is too hard on hens to let them sit a second cycle if the first eggs turn out to be no good - but that id my own personal opinion.

Good luck :)


Sarah Mitchell

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Re: Is my hen is broody? and/or how to break your broody
« Reply #1 on: February 23, 2011, 13:03 »
Hi Casey76 this is excellent advice and I am adding it to my chicken library.  Thank you for taking the time to write it.  As a silkie, pekin and wyandotte owner I am completely familiar with broodyness and I have some very determined ladies who put up robust resistance to my attempts to discourage them!   :D
Mad chicken woman



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Re: Is my hen is broody? and/or how to break your broody
« Reply #2 on: February 23, 2011, 13:12 »
Yes good advice , we had a couple of Bantams go broody one we dipped her bottom in a bucket of cold water  and the second we had to cage her as she was positive she was going to sit wet botty or not .

Bless um thier doing what thier programmed to do  .


AL Hathaway

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Re: Is my hen is broody? and/or how to break your broody
« Reply #3 on: March 19, 2011, 13:08 »
Thank you Casey76... Guess i will go find out if my little Pekin is broodie
We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals." - Immanuel_Kant


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