Chickens That Hatch Their Own Eggs

"Setting" or "brooding" are words that mark that dramatic turning point when a hen decides to start her family. Then she stops just laying her eggs and walking away, and instead she stays to sit on them, keep them warm, and so incubate out a family. It's desirable or undesirable—depending on whether you want chicks or eggs. Or whether you want her to incubate or your machine to incubate. You can recognize a broody because her manner of speech changes from the everyday sing-song to a lower-pitched "come here" cluck that she will use to call her chicks. There's no known way to force a hen to get broody. A dimly lit, private, comfy nest with several eggs in it may help incline her that way. When I was young, several of the hens in my mother's flock would be broody at any one time. Five years ago you might get 5 hens that would go broody from a flock of 50 commercial-breed layers. Now scarcely one out of a 100 of them will try. And the one that does is likely to forget all about it after a few days on the nest, get up, walk away, and not return. If you want a hen to hatch out some eggs, you'd be best off choosing one from among the breeds that are known to still have genes for that behavior. (See the breed descriptions at the beginning of this chapter.)

A good reference on this subject is Bantams: A Complete Pet Owner's Manual by Helga Fritzsche. The BROODING: Just as soon as the weather starts to get nice, your broody-capable hen begins to want to set. A roaming chicken may make a nest in some secret place where she thinks it will be dry and safe and far from all the fleas and mites that may infest a chicken house. (Young birds are extra vulnerable to ectoparasites.) Or, in a hen house, she may choose the place where she is used to laying her eggs. She begins to lay eggs in the nest, an egg a day. Each day, before and after her laying, she sits a little longer on there. Under natural conditions a good setting hen will lay 10-14 eggs in her nest. There may be more than 1 hen laying in the same nest. Or you may not want every one of those eggs to be set. In that case, mark with a pencil the ones you're going to let her set and take the rest. When she's ready to incubate the eggs seriously, she may perfect her nest by picking feathers off her breast with her beak; these feathers will help insulate the nest. By exposing breast skin she is also able to share her body heat more efficiently with the eggs.

Once a hen has begun to set, you can, if she is in an absolutely unacceptable place, try to move her (carefully!) to a more suitable brooding nest that you have prepared. But brooding hens need to be undisturbed, and the move itself may cause her to give it up because of the disturbance. If you have more than 1 hen setting at a time, it helps if they are reasonably far from each other, perhaps in separate portable coops. But, again, it's risky to move them. Another preparation might be to sprinkle the setting hen with a louse-repellent powder, once you separate her from the rest of them.

Nest Design. The brooding nest should be roomy enough that the hen can turn around in it and turn her eggs, and near enough to the ground that the chicks won't take a disastrous fall overboard once they hatch—although they are very light and tend to survive such falls well. (After they are hatched you'll take away the nest so that then the chicks can easily enter and leave their shelter together with their mother.) The typical human-designed egg-laying nest is not the best egg-brooding nest. Chickens are descended from ground-nesting species, rather than tree-nesting ones. An ideal nest is a little wooden house about 15 inches square and at least 16 inches deep, with the top roofed and the front side open. It sits directly on the ground. The ideal nesting material is grass turf. You can make a nest by laying the turf grass-side down, or grass-side up, or you can make a thicker nest by cutting 2 turfs of the right size, then placing their dirt sides together and placing them inside. In either case, pound down the center of the nest sufficiently to make it into a shallow saucer-shape so that the eggs won't roll out. And moisten it with water. Eggs Per Hen. A large hen that can cover and keep warm 14 regular-sized eggs will have to be given proportionately fewer if some of them are exceptionally large: 6-7 turkey eggs, 9-11 duck eggs, 4-5 goose eggs. Those numbers are not absolute but average: it all comes down to how large— and well-feathered—the bird is, and how large the eggs are. Insofar as possible, match egg size to bird. A small bantam hen finds a goose egg awkward to sit on; large birds are likely to break very small eggs (like quail). A bantam hen that isn't heavily feathered may be able to cover only 8 eggs or so. Don't give a hen more eggs than she can adequately cover. If you do, you may lose the whole clutch, because she rotates eggs from the inside to the outside of the nest, so they'd all get chilled sooner or later. You can try the clutch on for size so to speak: give the eggs to her, and then look to see if she can cover them all. If you have goose eggs under a hen, you'll have to turn them 3 times a day yourself, because they are too big and heavy for a chicken to get properly turned.

Eggs-in-Waiting. Some chicken-owners, anxious to assist nature, collect the eggs and care for them as with incubator eggs-in-waiting until the hen actually commences setting. Since it's impossible to predict exactly what day she'll go broody, such eggs are marked with pencil stating the date collected. When the hen does commence setting, you supply her with a clutch selected from the eggs fresh enough to be the best bets for hatchability.

Egg Adoption. After a hen has begun to set, on one of the first few nights she stays on the nest, slip the eggs to be adopted under her late at night. It can be disastrous to put eggs under her after she's already been setting very many days because after 23 or more days of faithful egg-attendance, the hen may say "to-Hell-with-it" and leave the nest. On the other hand, many modern hens have such a weakened broody instinct that they are not dependable brooders and will soon give up and leave the eggs anyway. If you're worried your hen might not be dependable, let her set on fake eggs for a few days. Take her off the eggs a couple times. If she gets back on the nest each time, she's a good bet and deserves some real eggs to hatch. While she's setting, she will be very protective of her eggs and upset with you as soon as she realizes you're planning to do something under her. She'll peck at you with her hard little beak, and it can do damage. Wear a heavy shirt with long sleeves. You could wear a mitten, but I'd rather take a peck than take a chance with fumbling the eggs. Place them carefully under her, one by one, giving her a chance to receive and arrange to her satisfaction each individual one. Inter-Species Brooding and Mothering. If you have commercial breeds as well as ones that will go broody, you can put their eggs under the broody hen. Setting hens of breeds that are good broodies and good mothers will hatch and try to mother even large eggs like those of ducks or geese, although they will get quite unhappy when those "chicks" jump into water and swim. If you want an egg to be adopted, follow the rules for eggs-in-waiting. Rare eggs that you're eager to try hatching can be kept for 4-5 weeks— until you have a broody hen that's just starting to set a clutch of eggs. The long wait will lower hatchability, but you might still get offspring. If there are eggs hatching at widely varying times, the hen may choose to follow an existing family and give up on the unhatched eggs. (It may help to take the first few hatchlings into the house for nurturing.) If all the eggs are low hatchers, she may give up before they're done. As you get to know your hens better, you'll learn which you can count on to stay with it for a long incubation.

Days to Hatch. Chicken eggs, all breeds, take an average of 21 days to hatch. That's exactly 3 weeks. But the length of time for a specific egg can vary from 19 to 22 days or more. If the hen continued laying eggs for a few days after she started setting, chicks may appear for a day or two. Or maybe another hen laid eggs in the nest during some of the brooder's time off the nest. Those will also hatch later. Any eggs left after the brooder gives up probably aren't going to hatch at all. A difficulty of inter-species egg adoption is that various eggs will have varying days to hatch. Pheasant, Bobwhite quail, and Chukar partridge eggs take 23-25 days to hatch. Guinea eggs take 26-28 days. Turkey, duck, and peafowl eggs take 28 days. Goose eggs take 29-31 days. Muscovy duck eggs take 33-35 days, and swan eggs take 35-37 days.

Human body warmth is just right to hatch eggs. Women of ample mammary endowment have incubated eggs kept between their breasts for the necessary number of days! The Brooding Routine. Now your hen has her final clutch of eggs to brood. She sets on the nest for 3 weeks. On the first night she stays on the eggs, you can start counting toward 21. Many times a day she turns each egg in her nest very carefully halfway over and rotates eggs on the outside of the nest to the inside—which ensures equal sharing of the warmest and coolest locations in her nest by all the eggs. The broody hen is a willing martyr. She eats very little. She loses weight and her feathers get duller. She's very irritable toward visitors: she clucks, ruffles her feathers, even pecks at them. Now that she's seriously setting, she leaves her nest only once a day for food and water. She'll be gone only about 15 minutes, or maybe a half hour, if the weather is warm and the sun is shining so she doesn't worry as much about the eggs' chilling. Like a chick in the egg, a setting hen is receiving nourishment independently because, once she starts to set, she stops laying and instead begins to absorb the food energy stored in her conveyer belt of formerly developing eggs. Yet it's a friendly, helpful act to also leave fresh food and clean water close by for her. Her feeding excursion is a good time for you to peek and see what her nest looks like. But don't handle her eggs or nest while she's gone. Too much of a foreign scent around could cause her to leave that nest and refuse to return to it again.

She talks to her chicks while they're still in the egg and has a good sense of what's going on with them in there. If something like a severe thunderstorm or a prolonged chilling kills all the chicks in their eggs, the hen will know it. Be careful you don't accidentally shut a setting hen away from her eggs. She'll be frantic, and with good reason. Nevertheless, eggs that have been uncovered a night are not necessarily dead, though it may set the hatching back a day. The last 24 hours before hatching, she won't leave her nest even for the usual food and water recess. Humidity Assistance. You can help keep the humidity right by keeping the earth between the 2 turfs damp. If the weather is seriously dry, you can also help the hen by adding humidity. Some growers do that by spraying her eggs with a light mist of luke-warm water once a day, while she is on her break, starting on the 16th day. Other growers believe that spraying water on incubating chicken eggs promotes fungal growth and embryonic death and suggest instead flotation of the eggs—on the 19th day of incubation—in water that is exactly 97°F and for only 1 minute. But in real life it doesn't have to be that exact. Certain other species require even more humidity and even stronger measures. (See "The Waterfowl: Ducks and Geese.") The Mothering

Taking in the First-Hatched Chicks. A newly hatched chick is wet and could be fatally chilled if the mother isn't sitting on it to dry it and keep it warm. Some folks feel it's best to take the first-hatched chicks into the house—once they're safely separated from the egg and dried off. That's to save the hen the conflict of wondering if she should sit on the remaining eggs or follow lively chicks that have jumped out of the nest and are out in the cold peeping mournfully and maybe dying of chill. For just a few chicks that soon will be returned to the mother, keep them in a warm, dark place in the house—maybe in a box lined with newspaper and partly covered with warm cloth. Put the box where the brooding temperature is right, near a heater or under a light. Give them food and water using the general directions for chick care. It can also be a favor to the hen to pull out from under her the abandoned shells of fully hatched chicks. Returning Chicks or Adoption. Return your borrowed chicks, if possible, the first night after the hatching is finished and the hen has been moving about with her chicks. This is also the time to give her any chicks you want adopted. A hen can mother more chicks than she can hatch. She can mother as many as she can hover over and cover when they need warmth. She doesn't literally sit on top of them; instead she stands and covers them—a blanket of warm feathers fluffed out all around them—plus dispenses the heat coming directly off the bare spots on her breast where she pulled out her feathers. Hens have been known to bring up as many as 25 chicks. So, if you have access to orphan chicks, or your own incubator chicks, or mail-order chicks, and if the timing is right, you can add them to the hen's family at this stage. The important thing is that your chicks, to be successfully adopted, have to be the same age as the hen's own chicks—preferably just 1 or 2 days old. Older chicks won't be as likely to obey the hen, and the hen will be more likely to reject them. Putting Chicks Under a Hen. To accomplish the return or adoption of chicks is just like adding eggs-in-waiting to a hen's clutch. You wait until late at night, then slip each chick under her. The chick will be attracted to her warmth and will nestle under her. She'll fluff up more as needed and cuddle the new ones together with her others. To give chicks to a hen who has been allowed to set on fake eggs, put the chicks under her as above, taking away a dummy egg after each chick has been placed under her. You can't get a chicken to adopt chicks unless first she has become broody and set for 3 weeks or so. That's when she gets her mothering instinct activated. She might kill chicks given to her prematurely. These things have to unfold naturally, and there's a time for this and a time for that. Chick Rejection and Obedience. Check the next day to see if she's rejected a chick. She does that by pecking at it whenever it comes near. It will soon give up and go hide its head because she won't peck at it if its bright eyes aren't showing. You can try to put the outcast chick under another hen, or raise it yourself in the house. You can't change chicks from one hen to another if their original mother is nearby in the same poultry flock. The chicks will remember the sound of their own mother's voice and always want to go back to her. And if you did inter-species brooding, you can't count on the young of very different species—guineas, wild ducks, peafowl—to follow and obey a hen mother. You have to watch and see if the babies are successfully bonding to the adoptive parent. If not, you'll have to mother them yourself.

Chicken Mothering, Food/Water. Hens, especially ones who are descended from a line of mothers who hatched and mothered their own chicks, can be very wise mothers. After only a few hours, the chicks know their mother. She teaches her chicks to come when called and to eat and drink. (Make food and water available. If it seems like it's taking time for the chicks to get started, remember they are equipped at hatching for 3 days in a desert. But if she's an inexperienced or inadequate mother, you can help by showing the chicks how to nourish themselves, same as for brooder chicks.) An experienced mother cracks seeds that are too large for the chicks in her beak and feeds them the small pieces. She teaches them what is and isn't good to eat. She'll find a bug, put it down where she wants them to gather, call the chicks, and tell them if it is or isn't good food. Chicken Mothering, Protection. She watches carefully to see if the chicks are getting chilled and need to be called under her for a warming up, and to make sure she hasn't lost track of one. She can be fearless in defense of her babies. She can be dangerous to pet rabbits or guinea pigs that might happen to be in the area. An angry bantam fluffs out her feathers to the max to make herself look much bigger than she really is. She'll stand her ground against a far larger animal, making little pecking charges to try to drive it off. Unfortunately, a mother hen's blindly aggressive behavior may also extend to other mother hens—in which case chicks sometimes get trampled in the conflict, or may even be pecked by the other mother. (That's why it's wise to establish such families on opposite sides of your barnyard, or in separate coops.) She teaches her babies to be careful when cats come around and to look out for hawks. Separation from Mother. A lost, scared chick sounds the alarm with a very distinctive, loud, "Peep, peep, peep." That's their S.O.S., and whoever is mother—you or the hen—better hurry and see what the problem is. A common serious problem occurs when 1 chick gets trapped somehow away from the group. The hen is torn; she doesn't want to leave the rest of her chicks unprotected, unwarmed, and alone, yet she doesn't want to abandon the separated one. In a case like that, you should interfere. It's generally as simple as lifting the isolated chick over some kind of barrier.

Housing for a Hen and Chicks: Keep the chicks away from the chicken house to start with, both to protect them from vermin and to prevent them from being pecked by larger birds, who can be very cruel. Or a predator, such as a roaming cat, might get a chick. You have 3 choices for housing: leave them alone to tough it out and hope for the best, start them in a big cardboard box or A-frame and then gradually set them free, or start them in a chicken coop or subdivided pen and keep them living like that quite a while. Chicken coop containment is especially wise with a chicken mother who is just learning the ropes herself, not having been raised by a natural mother. She may not know enough to encourage her chicks to keep warm. Leaving them alone is the riskiest option.

Cardboard Box or A-Frame Housing. You can place hen and chicks in a large cardboard box with a chicken-wire cover. Such a box should have appropriate litter, food, and water. It doesn't need a heat source. The hen will hover over the chicks when they need it to warm them. The big problems with box-housing are the small size and fragile construction. Instead, you may want to build an old-time Aframe chicken coop, the size of which is about 4 feet by 4 feet. It has no bottom, and no nest in it; anything else is too difficult for the chicks to get in and out of. There are slats across the opening, close enough together to keep the hen in, and aviary netting or a 6-inch board across the bottom to keep the chicks in. You can gradually phase some freedom into this setting by leaving hen and chicks shut in there for a couple of days, then letting them out together in the daytime and shutting them in again at night. In the Aframe, make available water in a chick-waterer and baby chick starter food. Arrange things so the babies don't get their feet wet. After 10 days or so you can let the cooped hen and chicks do whatever they want and they'll probably be fine.

Chicken Coop. The last option is a classic chicken coop. A coop ensures that the mother and her chicks don't get separated (unless a chick squeezes through the wire and gets lost). Move the family into the coop at the end of a week in the cardboard box or the A-frame, or, better yet, situate the A-frame right inside the coop and at the end of the first week, or whenever weather is suitable, just pull the board or netting off that keeps the chicks and their mother inside their house and let them have the freedom of the coop. A coop can be created by subdividing space from a regular chicken house or large bird pen or by creating a special portable unit. Ideal is a portable ground pen enclosing a little roofed box house (A-framed or rectangular) in which the hen can hover over her babies.

Good dimensions are 4 feet wide by about 6 feet long and Vh feet high, with a wooden frame and a hinged roof. The house for such a coop can be built onto the end of it. If it has a low wooden floor and a swinging door, you can just shoo the family into it and shut the door when you want to move them. That way the coop itself doesn't have to have a bottom, which helps keep the grass under it nicer and more accessible to the birds. In good weather, put the coop right outside, moving it whenever the grass underneath seems significantly soiled or trampled. The coop should allow sunshine to enter, yet have spots of shade, and the little house should be rain-proof and heavy enough not to blow over in a wind. If the weather is cold, damp, or uncertain, put the coop in a sheltered place—inside your barn or in a shed. A coop of this design has other uses too. You can use it to isolate purebred birds for controlled breeding, or to isolate a sick bird, or to isolate newly purchased birds that are still in their quarantine period, or to house transition-size young birds.

A Second Family: It's almost unheard of now for chickens to set more than once a year, and that's a shame. The old-time hard-working bantam hens used to have as many as 4 families a year. After raising one family, when the early spring chicks were about 2 months old and could find their own food and get along without their mother, she chose a new nesting place, pecking and scolding the youngsters if they came near her. They would give up on being mothered and join the general flock. (Even if she doesn't want to set again, feel free to take the mother away when the chicks are 8 weeks old, or older. They will now be fine without her and can be treated like transition-age chicks from the brooder.) Such a talented chicken mother would begin laying again. When she had enough eggs she'd get broody, set again, and start another family. If I were a breeder of household poultry, I'd select for that characteristic alone!

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