Sunday, March 11, 2007

Regard it as just as desirable to build a chicken house as to build a cathedral. Frank Lloyd Wright (Famous American Architect,1867 – 1959). Actually, we’ve been building a rabbit hutch but you can never get a useful rabbit hutch quotation when you need one. We’ve had some strange goings on in our chicken house recently and some unanswered questions, so do post a comment if you know the finer points of chickens going broody. Ever since they started laying eggs, all our hens have been conveniently leaving them in the purpose-built and regulation-sized nest box. Even when let out to free-range, they dutifully come home to lay their eggs where we can collect them later. But spring is in the air and a young hen’s mind turns to having a family…perhaps? We’ve recently added some more young hens to our flock and whilst they settled in within a day or so and started to use the nest box, the speckled hen then made her own nest by our stored straw (one of those huge round bales) and started leaving eggs there.

Passing an egg always leads to a right old din with loads of loud clucking and bok-bok-bokking, which seems to be saying, hey girls, come and lay in my nest. The result is that there is one mother to a right old mix of chicks; our friend Caroline (who has given us most of our hens) had a hen with a mixed brood of no less than seventeen chicks last year. Our clutch got larger by the day with several hens now contributing but with no sign of any of them wanting to sit. Finally, we marked the existing eggs with a marker pen so we could remove the fresh eggs and still leave the clutch there in case one began to sit. The books we have were scant on detail on all of this but one did say that if one feels underneath a broody hen, she’d be very warm, as if she’s got a fever. Taking the opportunity to check this out in the evening, when the birds are on their perch for the night and quite sleepy and docile, we picked them up and felt underneath: nothing notable, temperature-wise.

Now for our question: what is a broody hen and how does she behave? All the eggs hatch in a clutch at about the same time, so we were under the impression that the eggs were laid over a period of days before the hen settled down to sit on them. But does a hen go broody first, then decide to make a nest, or make a nest and then go broody? Cecile, the sister-in-law of our farming neighbour Christiane, has offered us some fertilised Silky (see photo) eggs to put underneath one of our hens when she goes broody. We told her about the nest and a few days later she told us she had six eggs ready for us. It’s clear that ours weren’t sitting so we asked our neighbour Annike if any of her bantams were broody, which they’re noted for. She said no, so we declined the Silky eggs but a day or so later, she arrived at our front door with the news that she now had a broody bantam. This broody bird was sitting on an empty nest all the time, just making occasional forays out for food and water. We’d heard that hens that go broody stop laying, so how does all this work. It seems like another of those “chicken and egg” conundrums! In the end, we decided to give her six of our own hens’ eggs to put underneath the sitting bantam and so, if our cockerels is not firing blanks (he’s certainly making the chickeny-lurve regularly enough) we should be having our first chicks arriving very soon, courtesy of some surrogate mothering.

Read my updated notes on what happens when hen goes broody and other chickeny mysteries.


Anonymous said...

Chances are, if your hens let you pick them up and feel the temperature of their bottoms, they are far from Broody. When a hen is actually broody, her behavior will be so different from the norm, that you will KNOW without a doubt that SOMETHING IS HAPPENING.

A Broody Hen spreads herself over her eggs until she is almost flat, like a feathered pancake. She dozes on her nest all day, only getting up once or twice a day, for only a few minutes at a time. When she is up, she squawks loudly (much louder than normal), flaps her wings, fluffs out her feathers, makes a lot of noise, and then 'uses the toilet.' She eats a tiny amount of food, drinks a few sips of water, and then rushes back to her nest. She does not budge an inch until the next time she has to 'go to the toilet.' If you try to remove her eggs, she will become hostile.

Her metabolism changes so that she can survive on less food and water, so don't worry about her health. Just keep some water and food close by.

Stuart and Gabrielle said...

Thanks for your helpful advice, Gia. Based on that, none of ours have gone broody yet. I'm still not sure though whether a hen will wait for a full clutch before going broody, or go broody first, then assemble a nest full of eggs. What's your experience please?

Anonymous said...

I have to confess that I don't have any chickens of my own but I like to visit the chickens at Boggy Creek Farm ( According to their keeper, Carolann, a hen can go broody over one egg or twenty. It's just a hormonal thing. Her biological clock tells her it's time to Set some eggs, and she does.

I've learned a lot about chickens from Carolann, and I look forward to getting some chickens of my own, but that will be a year or more from now.

Anonymous said...

This is all really interesting. I'd love to have chickens but we're not allowed them at my allotment and my garden is too small. They're so vital in the permaculture system though that it's a real shame that I can't have them. It's great to hear your experiences.

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Dancingfarmer said...

Gia has it correct. You can't miss it when they go broody---though mine have always been really quiet when they do. BUT they don't leave and if you pick them up they get really mad and rush right back and try and flatten themselves down over the eggs so you won't "see" the eggs or the hen. You will know when your chicken goes broody, it's very obvious. They do lay and egg every day until they decide to sit but most of the time they will cover them up to "hide" them from site while they leave. Unlike when the just lay a regular egg which they don't cover---you know: the "regular" eggs laid especially for your breakfast

Stuart and Gabrielle said...

Thanks Gia and Monica for your helpful advice. We'll certainly tell you, via the blog, when one of ours does turn broody!
And we're looking forward to the pictures of your finished henhouse, Monica.

Anonymous said...

I have five hens and two cocks they are laying eggs and the cocks are very active. I tried leaving the eggs instead of harvesting them but my chickens wont turn broody they also insist on all laying in one nest box. I think I am just being impatient and shouls let the chicks get on with it.

Stuart and Gabrielle said...

The book I read before constructing our henhouse suggested not making divisions between nestboxes as the chickens would tend to favour one. This is certainly our experience and that of our neighbours. We have a long nestbox, about four single nestboxes wide and they almost always lay in one end but vary it occasionally. Our neighbours have two separate single nestboxes and their birds tend to use just one. They have a broody hen at the moment, sitting on a clutch and the others still manage to scramble in on top and beside her to lay their eggs, our neighbours removing the extras each evening, yet leaving the four she's been sitting on from the beginning.

You may ultimately have problems having more than one cockerel. We had the same set up for a while and there was some "handbags" but when the scrapping got bloody, then it was time to remove one. They really do have different characters and each time we've had to make a choice one which cockerel to keep, we've done it one how they behave to their hens. Our current chap is the best yet, keeping the flock tightly around him, very protective, and servicing them all frequently!

As for the broodiness: in our very limited experience, you'll just have to wait. If and when one of your hens does go broody, you'll definitely know about it and it will be almost impossible to get her off the nest (see other comments above). Broodiness has been bred out of most commercial breeds so might not occur as often as you'd like it to, but Bantams and Silkies are noted for it if you fancy adding one of those to your flock or you could look for a surrogate mum as we did. In the meantime, don't waste the eggs.

Best of luck!