Chickens can act pretty strange sometimes. But if you raise chickens, one behavior you’ll want to know how to recognize quickly is broodiness. Broodiness in a chicken is important to identify because depending on your goals with your flock, you might manage the situation in two different ways.
What is a Broody Chicken Let’s begin with what the heck a broody chicken is.
A broody chicken is a female chicken, or hen, experiencing the natural instinct to raise a brood of chicks. Essentially, it’s a hen who’s kicked into mothering mode. Once a chicken becomes broody, she’ll choose a nesting spot and stay there longer each day. Eventually, she’ll only leave once or twice every 24 hours for a quick trip to water and food. A broody chicken eats very little. She’ll lose weight and her feathers will start looking dull. Most broody chickens will continue laying eggs each day in their chosen nest (up to 14 eggs, depending on their size) at which point they stop laying. They’ll then stay on the nest for the next few weeks, until their eggs hatch. Some chickens are less picky and might steal another chicken’s eggs for their nests. I’ve even seen a hen brood over one egg and a golf ball.
Broodiness is a natural occurrence in any female chicken. It’s more common in mature hens but I’ve had a chicken barely past pullet become broody, so it can happen anytime. It typically kicks in due to some combination of hormones, age, and instincts. Some breeds, such as Brahmas, Cochins, Silkies, and Orpingtons tend especially toward broodiness. When starting a flock, it’s useful to consider whether you’re interested in raising your own chicks. If so, these broodier varieties might be for you.
Broodiness can happen whether a hen’s eggs are fertilized or not. If a rooster fertilizes the eggs, then after about three weeks of brooding, a hen may hatch a brood of chicks. But if there’s no rooster around and no one interferes, some chickens might brood over unfertilized eggs indefinitely. As they wait for their eggs to hatch, the hen can become quite depleted. Some chickens will even starve themselves to death brooding over unfertilized eggs in extreme cases. Others, after the natural cycle of several weeks, others will snap out of it and abandon the nest.
Broodiness can be an excellent trait in chickens for the ambitious homesteader. If you have roosters and are interested in growing your flock, discovering a broody chicken is great news. Chicks naturally hatched by their own mothers are said to be better foragers, among other qualities, and there’s often a local market for chicks if you want to sell them.
However, broodiness is less desirable if you’re keeping your flock primarily for egg production. A broody chicken left to raise her own chicks likely won’t lay again for at least 10 to 12 weeks. If eggs are the goal, this isn’t great. However, there are plenty of ways to manage a broody chicken. If successfully disrupted, a hen may resume laying as early as two to four weeks after the behavior starts.
How to Recognize A Broody Chicken If you’ve never seen a broody chicken, it might be easy to miss. If you’re like me, you check on your laying hens for eggs every morning and then again whenever your schedule allows. If you have a lot of similar-looking chickens, it might take a few days to notice one particular chicken hasn’t left her nesting box. But here’s a giveaway—if you pop your head into the coop before closing the chickens in at night and there’s one still sitting in a laying box, you might just have a broody chicken on your hands.
Almost all breeds of chickens, excluding some meat birds like Cornish Crosses, instinctually roost at night, which means perching somewhere above danger. Night is not the time for laying eggs. If your chicken mama is still on the nest come nightfall, she might just be broody. Here are some other behaviors to look for.
Once she gets going, a broody chicken doesn’t want you anywhere near her nest or eggs. Her nest might be inside a laying box, or it might be some other protected, dark place she’s decided to settle down in. A broody chicken might squawk, chirrup, or even growl if you get too close. Yes, chickens growl. If you try to encourage her off her nest or are so bold as to put your hand nearby, she might fluff up her feathers and peck at the offending limb.
You might also notice a broody chicken pulling out her own breast feathers to add to her nest. This helps insulate the nest to make it nice and cozy, plus her bare skin helps her to more efficiently transfer body heat to her eggs.
What to Do With a Broody Chicken If you discover a brooder, the first question to consider is, do you want a broody chicken? If there are roosters around and the eggs might be viable, then you need to decide if you’d like your chicken mama to hatch some chicks to add to your flock. If so, then there’s not much else to do. If your hen is in a laying flock, you might move her nest to a quieter, safer spot to continue her brooding. You can check on her daily, make sure she stays safe and her area stays clean. You can even sneak in a few extra eggs for her to hatch, though that’s a story for another time.
Breaking Broodiness Let’s say you don’t have roosters in your flock, you don’t want chicks, or you’re focusing on egg production. In these situations, it often makes the most sense for a farmer to try and break a chicken of her broodiness.
There are some pretty extreme methods I’ve heard to break a chicken of broodiness, some of which I wouldn’t recommend. There’s dumping a bucket of cold water over the chicken, which just seems cruel. Or there’s putting ice packs in the nesting box or blowing a fan at the nest, but in my experience neither is super effective. Regardless of how you do it, the factors at play in breaking broodiness seem to be temperature, light, and nesting material.
The best way I’ve found to break a chicken of her broodiness is fairly simple and also seems the most humane. You set up an enclosure that’s safe, solitary, and lets in lots of light. I use an old wire-sided dog crate, but anything secure from predators that also lets in light is ok. You include food and water but no nesting or bedding material. This part is crucial. Situate the crate somewhere away from the rest of the flock.
Next, you need to capture your broody chicken, which might be the most challenging step. If you need to pull her off her nest, I recommend wearing thick gloves as she’ll likely put up a fight. Once you catch her, place her in the crate and leave her there for about three days, making sure she has adequate food and water. If it rains, snows, or is too cold at night, I cover the crate. Otherwise, I leave it uncovered.
After about three days, your chicken should be broken of her broodiness. You can get an idea just by opening the crate and seeing what she does. If she’s usually a good-tempered chicken and pecks at you, she might still be broody. Once you return her to the flock, watch her behavior for the next few days. If you see signs that she’s still broody, put her back in solitary for a few more days.
Perpetually Broody Chickens Some chickens are just broody. You can do everything right to discourage broodiness but some hens just seem wired for it. If you manage a laying flock and encounter a chicken like this, you may decide she isn’t the best fit for your flock. As mentioned above, broodiness can be a highly coveted trait to some homesteaders, so it’s worth putting the word out in case someone would love to rehome her. She could also end up in the soup pot. It’s up to you.