Although many small flock owners choose to incubate their eggs with an electric incubator, if you have roosters in your flock, there is a good chance your hens might become broody.
In fact, even without a rooster your hen might become broody (of course in that case it is a bit more futile unless you purchase some hatching eggs for her, or perhaps manage to somehow convince her to become a surrogate to some day old chicks).
Some types of chickens – usually the ones intended to be ‘egg machines’ – have been bred so that they are naturally less likely to want to raise some chicks, as broodiness decreases egg production, makes hens more vulnerable to disease and detrimental behaviors, and can affect the morale of the rest of your flock. Springtime is the natural time for a hen to go broody as it is warm and there is plenty of food and greenery around for her and her chicks in the coming months as they are being raised, but it is possible for a hen to go broody at any time.
If your hen becomes broody, she will probably give you a few hints. Some of the signs include staying in a nesting box for most of the day (possibly with some little cooing kinds of noises), having an area of featherless skin on her tummy, and not wanting you near her nest. If you find her exhibiting those kinds of signs she could very likely be broody.
Follow these steps to keep your hen comfortable through the incubation period and increase the probability of her eggs hatching into adorable chicks.
Step 1: Prepare a space your broody hen
Leaving your hen to hatch her eggs in the coop causes one of the nesting areas to be continually occupied. This can cause bullying, rivalries, and attacks among your hens.
Give your broody hen a space that is quiet, clean, secluded (she won’t feel as safe if it is like there is a spotlight on her as she is sitting on the nest) and free of any drafts. The area should be big enough to accommodate the hen and her chicks when they hatch. Make a nest for your hen out of litter at ground level. This way, when her chicks hatch, they will be able to enter and leave the nest freely. Be sure that there are no rats able to get to your hen as they will steal her eggs (and chicks).
Step 2: Separate your broody hen
A broody hen will be very protective of her eggs and nesting area, so it’s best to wait until night time to separate her from the rest of the flock. She’s likely to be more relaxed in the dark and not protest being moved or upset the other hens. It is possible that moving her will cause a disruption that may stop her being broody. It is a risk, but the alternative risks may be worse for example if you leave her in a high rise nestbox the chicks could fall out or if they were left to hatch where the other members of the flock can get at her or the chicks there is a chance that they will kill them, so on balance it is usually best to move her to her own safe area or broody coop. If she is so easily broken from being broody then the chances are that she would not have made it to the full term anyway.
A broody hen will sit on eggs that aren’t hers, so if you have other eggs you think are fertilized, you can add those to her nest area as well (bearing in mind how many she is likely to be able to cover and hatch – about eight is a fairly reasonable clutch size for most hens).
Step 3: Provide plenty of food and water
Provide your hen with plenty of food and water. Broodies generally will hardly leave the nest at all but usually do so for a few minutes here and there (often less than half an hour at a time) to eat, drink and toilet. Some can take their dedication to the hatch too far and not eat or drink hardly at all (with sad consequences) so keeping some near her may help reduce any liklihood of her forgetting to look after herself.
Step 4: Monitor the hen
Keep an eye on your broody hen, but don’t micromanage her. During the first few days of brooding, make sure that she returns to her nest after getting up for food, water, and defecation. To keep your hen from becoming confused, make sure that nothing else in her area looks like a nest.
Step 5: Let the hen do the work
If you incubate your eggs with a machine, you will do all of the turning and regulating. Now that your mother hen is sitting on her nest, leave it to her to turn the eggs and maintain the proper temperature and humidity.
During the final days of incubation, your hen will not turn her eggs or leave the nest very often.
After about 21 days, the eggs should hatch. A few hours before hatching, you might hear peeping and tapping from inside the eggs. The actual hatching – from first pip to chick out of the shell – can take as long as 24 hours.