Tips for Incubating and Raising Chicks with a Mother Hen

from the creater of
Henderson's Handy Dandy Chicken Chart

Don't worry. Although there are three dozen different tips on this page, incubating eggs under a mother-hen is actually pretty simple.

There are several good guides on the Web about raising chicks without their mother, such as Feathersite and Murray McMurray. When we first decided to use a broody hen to hatch out some eggs, however, I discovered there was little posted online that is specific to using a broody hen for the natural incubation of chicks. I sought and received information by reading through some of the standard chicken-raising books and consulting with a few folks, including Ron Okimoto, Jean Robocker, and the good people at the Classroom at the Coop. After trying and achieving varying degrees of success and learning from mistakes, I wrote down a few thoughts and eventually converted them into this page so there would be at least one place on the Web where some information on the natural method of hatching eggs could be found.

Preparing a Place Hen and Eggs Hen and Chicks

Preparing a Place

  1. Only use this method if you are content to hatch out a limited number of eggs. Most standard size hens can easily cover 12 to 15 eggs. Large hens of large breeds may be able to cover as many as 20. We've had better success when we have only used twelve or fewer eggs. The more eggs under a hen, the greater the risk that some eggs will not be covered effectively and consistantly enough for the chick embryo to develop healthfully and successfully.
  2. Don't use this method unless you are flexible. You will have to wait for a hen to go broody, and that won't necessarily be when it is convenient for you. There's no proven or widely accepted methods for encouraging hens to go broody. Heavy and dual purpose breeds are more likely to go broody than Mediterreanian and other breeds developed for high egg production.
  3. To tell that a hen as gone broody, look for a hen that stays flattened out in the nest box in a trance-like state and stays there all day and night for several days and nights. You can also look for a patch of naked skin on her underside. And if she warns you away with a loud squawk or gives you a sharp peck, that is more evidence that she is broody. Although I've heard that some hens go broody only after they have created a clutch of eggs often in an odd or hidden location, many of our hens have gone broody in an empty nestbox.
  4. If you want the process to be successful from incubation to hatching through chick-rearing, I highly recommend removing her to a special brooding area that you have prepared just for her. You don't have to act immediately, because once a hen has broody, she will remain broody for a good long while -- much longer than the three weeks it would take to hatch out chicks.
  5. Ideally, the special brooding area would be separate housing or a room isolated from other hens that can be used for both the incubation and hatching period and the first few weeks after the chicks have hatched. If using more than one broody hen for natural incubation at the same time, house the hens separately. Rival mother hens may attack each other's eggs and chicks.
  6. Minimally the brooding area should be somewhere quiet, dark, clean, draft-free, isolated from the rest of the flock, free of lice and ticks, and safe from potential predators. Allow ample room for the hen leave the nest to eat, drink, and poop.
  7. Prepare one comfortable ground-level nest. A wide, flat depression in litter will work. We have the luxury of a horse barn with no horses, and used stalls and a tack room that is are 8'x8' and larger. Being on the ground is important, because eventually baby chicks will climb in and out and around the nest, and you don't want them to fall or be unable to easily return to their mother. Some hens have been happy to sit in a nest inside an old apple crate, but others have preferred an open straw nest. Many different kinds of litter may be used on the floor. In addition to straw we have used kiln-dried pine shavings. Don't use anything slippery, such as newspaper.
  8. Have feed and water available at all times, even if the hen may only get up to use them once a day.
  9. Meanwhile, collect and save the eggs you wish to hatch. Since a hen will sit on eggs that aren't hers, you aren't limited in which eggs you can collect. Select eggs from healthy, mature hens who are popular with the roosters. Prefer medium to large eggs of regular shape. Don't wash the eggs, and don't use cracked, thin-shelled, or dirty eggs. It is good to mark the eggs for identification, but use a regular lead pencil, not a pen or marker.
  10. Until you are ready to place them under the hen, store the eggs at room temperature or somewhat cooler than normal room temperature. Do not refrigerate them. Ideally the eggs should be stored where there is some moisture in the air. We have stored them on a kitchen table and in a cupboard beside a bowl of water. Do not store eggs for longer than a week. I used to advise that you can safely save eggs for up to a ten days, because that is what I read. Although we have had eggs stored for ten days or more hatch, after I started to keep better track, I have noticed that the hatchability rate drops steeply after a week, and four days or under is even better. Store them in an egg carton or other safe container with the pointy end pointing down. I have read the advice to slightly shift the eggs or the angle of the carton they are in each day so that the yolks don't stick to the shells, but I haven't noticed any difference in the success of the hatch between times I have done this dutifully and when I haven't done it at all.
  11. When the brooding area is ready, wait until dark before moving the hen. That way, you won't disturb her as much, and if she does get riled up, she should be more likely to accept her new quarters.
  12. Don't trust your hen. Before placing fertile eggs under her, test her for a couple of days to see if she sticks tight to the nest. Before you place the eggs for hatching in the nest, use golf balls, artificial eggs, or other regular eggs.

Hen and Eggs

  1. Once you are sure the broody hen will be a good setter, place the fertile eggs under her all at once, so they will hatch within 24 hours of each other. Do this at night, since you are less likely to disturb her and cause her to reject and abandon the nest and eggs. Don't worry how you place the eggs. The hen will shift them numerous times over the course of the incubation.
  2. Maintain good records and keep track of time. The minimal record keeping you should do is to mark your calendar for 21 days ahead. That's when the chicks should start to hatch, although the first chicks may start a day early. You don't want to schedule the hatch for the same day as your Aunt Rena's 80th birthday celebration. If you keep good records and file them where you can find them again, you can consult them when you try natural incubation again.
  3. Watch for the hen's routine. She will likely get off the nest once a day for a few minutes to eat, drink, defecate, take a dust bath or exercise. All hens are different, so this ritual could be in the morning or in the evening, for a very short period or as long as half an hour. Some tenacious hens never seem to leave and don't seem to be eating enough, but I don't know of a good way to encourage them.
  4. Place a waterer far enough away from the hen that she won't bump it or knock it over or spill it onto the nest and eggs.
  5. We provide chick grower as her feed. Chick grower has a higher protein content than regular layer feed, and broody hens don't need the extra calcium, since they aren't laying eggs.
  6. Be sure the hen returns to the right place when she leaves the nest. Remove anything the hen might think is an extra nest, so she won't get confused and abandon the egg clutch.
  7. Don't disturb either the hen or eggs any more than you have to. The hen will do all the necessary work of turning and adjusting the eggs, and the hen's body will provide all the warmth and moisture the developing chicks will need.
  8. The less you handle the eggs, the better. If you want to inspect and candle the eggs to check on their progress (or lack of), resist the temptation of doing it too often. On the other hand, you don't want to have cracked or rotten eggs under the hen that could create health and safety problems for the developing chicks in the other eggs. We usually do not candle the eggs or do it only once, sometime between seventh and tenth day of the incubation process. If you discover a rotten egg or are absolutely sure the egg has no chick developing inside, remove it. During the last week of incubation, expect the hen to stay on the nest full time without turning or fussing with the eggs. That's all natural, so leave her alone.
  9. Have a back up or be willing to risk a failed hatch. Although most hens will be as faithful as Horton in sticking tight to the nest, some may give up on the eggs altogether or at least leave the nest for too long at the wrong time. If you have another broody hen or an artificial incubator at hand, you can still save the clutch. Don't worry too much, on the other hand, if the eggs are uncovered for many hours. We have had successful hatches even after the eggs were uncovered for eight hours at a time.
  10. Don't expect any warning when the chicks are about to hatch. The sound of peeping and tapping will give the hen a cue that the hatching is about to begin. Under the hen, however, the sound has been too muffled for us to hear.
  11. The whole hatching process will occur underneath the hen, you won't be able to see any of it. In this regard, it is not as much fun as using an incubator with a window. Each chick will emerge from its egg at its own rate, and several will likely have hatched before you have any idea that the process has even started.
  12. Be prepared to be awed, thrilled, and distracted.

Hen and Chicks

  1. Once the chicks start hatching, don't peek or remove the eggs from under the hen just to get a better look. They are exactly where they need to be. A few, infrequent inspections may be warranted. At first, hens are surprisingly good at multi-tasking between incubating eggs and caring for baby chicks. The hen will usually stay on the nest for 36 hours or longer to provide time for all the chicks to hatch and keep the hatched chicks very close under the wing.
  2. Don't handle the wet, newly hatched chicks. Wait at least until they've had a chance to dry off and fluff out, and most inspections can be made without touching them. Don't worry if the chicks don't eat and drink on the first day. New-born chicks can survive up to three days just on the yolk they absorbed before hatching.
  3. If the chicks have not all hatched after a couple of days, the mother hen will start to ignore the remaining eggs as she gets up and moves about to care for the chicks. Although I have contemplated moving them to an incubator or placing the eggs another broody hen, I have yet to have found a viable egg among any a hen has abandoned. Candling will reveal whether or not a chick has developed. Candling will not tell you whether or not the chick inside the egg has fully developed or is alive.
  4. Provide an ample supply of clean water. You can use plain water or water enhanced with an electrolite/vitamin mix. Use waterers specially designed for chicks. The right sized waterer should prevent chicks from drowning. We've used plastic waterers that attach to quart sized mason jars.
  5. Use chick-feeders designed to keep chicks from both pooping in them and wasting feed by scattering feed everywhere from scratching. We have used both long feeders and circular feeders. Feed the hen and chicks the same feed formulated for proper chick nutrition. Make sure feed is always available, even at night.We use unmedicated chick grower, since it is, but you may be more comfortable with medicated chick starter.
  6. Provide grit that is sized for chicks after a few days. Curious chicks, even when tiny, will find all manner of things to ingest, and the grit will help them digest it. Grit may be sprinkled on at first or or provided separately. Don't use ground oyster shell as a substitute for chick grit, as the calcium isn't good for young, growing birds.
  7. Maintain dry, sanitary conditions. One annoying, but natural thing a mother hen will do is demonstrate to her chicks how to scratch. The most annoying and problematic part of that is that she will kick litter into the waterers and feeders. This not only creates a mess, it has the potential of prevent ing chicks from getting clean food and water or food and water at all. Some days we have had to clean out and refill waterers three of more times. Even without that activity, litter will get dirty. Although you should remove wet litter frequently, you put off cleaning out drier dirty litter for a while by adding clean litter on top. Eventually you will need to remove all the dirty litter and replace it with new, fresh litter. Your tolerance may exceed that of the chicks and hen. When a mother hen defecates, she will produce extra large and extrordinarily smelly poop. We remove that immediately. 
  8. Allow the mother hen to do much of the raising herself. For example, since the mother hen will show them how to drink, you shouldn't have to dip each chick's beak into the water as you would if they were mail-order chicks. Remember that chickens are "precocial," so the chicks will very capable of independent activity very shortly after hatching. Although the hen may disagree, chicks really don't learn much from their mother that motherless chicks don't learn on their own in about the same time. On the other hand, do provide them with a stimulating environment -- space to run around, straw bales to climb on, perches to practice roosting on, occasional outings outside when the chicks are at least a month old and the weather conditions permit. I don't know for sure that it makes the chicks any smarter, but we think it helps to unleash the instinctive behavior of their wild bird ancestors and cuts down on bad behaviors, such as pecking at each other, which is common with bored birds closed in too close together. Enjoy the show, as the chicks explore their new world and the hen calls and scolds them or especially when the chicks poke out their heads from multiple locations about the hen's body. Since chicks are bonding with the mother hen, however, don't expect them to pay much attention to you.
  9. Keep an eye out for weak, lame, ill, and oddly behaving chicks and take appropriate measures. You, rather than the mother hen, may have to take care of pasty butts. Since the chicks depend on their mother's warmth for survival, make sure all the chicks who venture out can get back to her, and be sure they are tucked in with their mother at night.
  10. Although I've read that you can do it almost immediately, we don't introduce a mother hen and her chicks to the rest of the flock for quite a while. We don't for two reasons. We don't trust that the hen will always be able to defend her chicks from potential attack by the other hens, and we haven't figured out any good way to feed the chicks separately from the laying hens when the two groups are integrated. Also, if for any reason you want to slip a baby chick under a hen, do so at night if you can. Don't try to introduce a chick older than four days.
  11. When the mother hen loses interest with chicks, it is time to return her to the regular flock. She may show signs she is ready for a change by trying to chase them away or just ignoring them. It usually happens after about 6 weeks, but in some cases it occurs much earlier or later. Any time after the chicks have feathered out and no longer need a heat source, it is all right to separate them from the hen. If the hen is lucky, she will be readily accepted back with her old gang, and she should quickly begin laying again.
  12. When the chicks are about the same size as the adult birds, they too can be introduced to the old flock. Do it slowly, and don't expect their "mother" to recognize them or treat them special. One reason we wait so long is that when they are that size, they will be less picked upon and better able to defend themselves, but also that's about that time that the chicks are ready to consume the same feed as the adult birds. We've never lost a chicken to a hawk, and we think it might have something to do with the fact that our chicks aren't out in the open for too long or unsupervised until they are adult sized..

Notes

We have made many mistakes ourselves over the years. The first time we tried working with a broody hen, we let the hen sit on the eggs where she was in the hen house. Invariably when we would check on the hen, she had moved to a different nest box abandoning the eggs we wanted her to hatch for some freshly laid ones. We once placed eggs under a broody hen impulsively, not counting ahead, and had the eggs hatch at what turned out to be a very inconvenient time. We moved a very broody stick-tight hen to her new location during the day, and either because of the timing or other reason, she could not be convinced to stay in the floor level nest. Since we hadn't set out any eggs yet, we just left her on her new perch for the night, hoping that at least this might cure her of her broodiness, but when we returned her to the hen house, she went back to being broody in her old spot -- fortunately we had another broody hen who was more cooperative, and were able to proceed. We once staggered the addition of eggs under the hen and had to face the consequences of unhatched eggs abandoned by the hen who cared only for the tending of the first chicks that hatched out.

Our recent track record:

2014: Ten eggs placed under a broody Speckled Sussex (same one as in 2013). Six chicks hatched successfully.

2013: (1) Twelve eggs placed under a broody Speckled Sussex. Seven chicks hatched successfully. Mother hen abandoned other eggs, including one that was pipping. A chick successfully hatched from pipping egg after it was placed under a broody Chanticler, but was weak and did not survive two days. (2) A Campine hen (listed in the chart as non-broody) hatched out 14 chicks from 15 eggs all unbeknownst to us until we heard the sound of peeping coming from a bucket under the garage stairs.

2012: (1) Fifteen eggs placed under a broody Buff Orpington. Seven chicks hatched successfully; five only partially hatched; four eggs were infertile. (2) the Dorking from the year before volunteered, but she rejected eggs several times through the brooding period, and with about three days to go, she abandoned the nest to roost high above them. Not sure if a predator snuck in the barn to spook her or why else she might have acted as she did, but 0% success rate.

2011: Ten eggs placed under a broody Dorking. It took her a day to settle in after we moved her to the brooding stall. Four hatched: three Ameraucas, one Welsumer, zero Blue Orpingtons. We don't think the poor percentage was the hen's fault; we think using older, less fertile Welsumer and Orpington breeding stock was to blame.

2010: Ten eggs placed under a broody New Hampshire (same one as in 2009). Eight hatched.

2009: (1) Ten eggs placed under a broody Partridge Chantecler. Eight hatched, but one chick was found dead under hen. (2) Twelve eggs placed under a broody New Hampshire. Ten hatched. 3) Ten eggs placed under a broody Partridge Plymouth Rock. Nine hatched.

After I first wrote these tips, I have found a few other discussions of this topic on the Web:


This page authored and maintained by: John R. Henderson (jhenderson@ithaca.edu), Lodi, NY.
Last modified: July 18, 2014
URL: http://www.sagehenfarmlodi.com/chooks/chicks.html