Hens Acting Broody
When a hen "goes broody" it means she has decided she wants to sit on her eggs and hatch chicks.
A normal hen will sit on the nest for an hour or so each day while she lays her egg. When she is done she will leave the nest and resume her daily activities. In contrast, a broody hen will sit on the nest all day and all night except for a short daily break. This behavior is called "setting" or "brooding."
A broody Hen with her chick
A broody hen will try to gather a bunch of eggs (called a "clutch") together in one nest. Broody hens may look for secret places to lay their eggs so that you don't take them away. When a broody hen feels that she has enough eggs, she will stop laying and start sitting on the eggs she has collected.
A hen's eggs can only start to develop into chicks if they are fertile and have proper warmth for a period of time. The amount of time a non-broody hen spends on the nest every day is not enough for an embryo to begin to develop. When a broody hen starts spending all her time on the nest, however, the eggs will have the constant warmth they need and the embryos will begin to grow. Once the embryos start to develop, they cannot get cold again or they will die.
While a hen is broody, she will exhibit many behaviors that may seem abnormal. The most obvious sign of broodiness is the hen's constant attention to her nest. She will also act differently while she is off the nest. She will keep her feathers puffed up and make a soft, constant "buk. buk. buk." While she eats her food she may act excited and make a quick, loud, staccato "buk-buk-buk!" like a rooster does when he finds food to share with his hens. She will probably also be more defensive of her nest than a non-broody hen. She may even attack people or animals that she would normally run away from.
Most broody hens keep their feathers puffed up even when they are off the nest.
Broody hens will also pluck feathers from their underside to line and insulate their nests. This serves a double purpose, as the eggs will receive more heat and moisture if they have direct contact with the hen's skin.
Hens usually go broody in the late spring or early summer. It takes 21 days (give or take a couple) for eggs to develop and hatch. During this time, the broody hen should come off the nest for a short while every day to eat, drink, defecate, and dust-bathe. Sometimes, hens are so dedicated that they forget to take a daily break. If you notice that your hen isn't coming off the nest, you can help her by taking her off the nest around the same time each day. Make sure food and water are nearby. A hen's break will normally last anywhere from 10 minutes to half an hour. This will not harm the eggs; in fact, it has been shown to be beneficial to their development. Sometimes, if it is a hot day, the hen may stay off the nest for up to an hour. Or, if it is cold, she may come off for only a few minutes.
In addition to making sure a hen comes off the nest each day, there are a couple other things you can do to help. First of all, you can make sure the nest is clean. If it is dirty, bacteria can get into the eggs and kill the embryos inside. Secondly, if your area is dry, you can sprinkle a tiny bit of water on the eggs every day or so, especially when it gets close to hatching time.
DO NOT lift the broody hen off the nest during hatching time, no matter how badly you want to see the chicks hatch. The eggs and chicks need her warmth! Without a mother hen they will quickly become chilled and die.
I find it is a good idea to keep an incubator handy while a hen is broody. Most hens are very good mothers, but occasionally one will desert her nest or try to kill her chicks when they hatch. If an emergency such as these occurs, you can transfer the eggs to an incubator and they will still have a chance. If you are experiencing an emergency RIGHT NOW and don't have time to buy an incubator, you can try placing the eggs on an electric heating pad or under a warm lamp. Monitor the temperature with a thermometer and keep it between 98 and 102 degrees farenheit.
Hopefully, the mother hen will stay on the nest until all the eggs hatch. As soon as the chicks have hatched, place chick starter feed and a shallow dish of water by the nest. DO NOT feed chicks the same food the adult chickens eat. DO NOT use a deep dish for water or they could drown in it.
For the first couple weeks of their life, the chicks will need their mother's warmth constantly. Make sure they don't get stuck on the other side of a fence or in a laying box. Make sure all the chicks are with their mother at night, or they could be dead by morning.
A mother hen usually does a good job of defending her chicks from the other chickens, but if the rest of the flock shows unwarranted aggression towards them you should probably put them in a separate pen for their own protection.
It's hard to tell when a mother hen and her chicks will part. Some hens kick their chicks out when they're still quite young. Others keep mothering them until they are adults.
Once a hen has stopped mothering her chicks, she will start laying again and resume normal chicken behavior.
Q: Can eggs hatch without a rooster?
A: No. Visit the section on chicken reproduction if you're not clear about this.
Q: Will a hen still go broody even if there's no rooster around?
Q: Will a hen sit on eggs that aren't hers?
A: Yes. In fact, hens will even hatch eggs of other species.
Q: Will a broody hen stay broody if you move her and/or her nest?
A: It's hard to tell, but there's a good chance she will as long as you don't disturb her too much. If you really have to move her, do it during the night.