This is the time of year when hens tend to go broody–meaning they decide to hatch some of the eggs rather than let us eat them all. When a hen goes decides she wants to sit (our colloquial way of saying “goes broody”) she loses the feathers on her breast and hunkers down over a clutch of eggs. In this way she keeps the eggs warm enough to incubate the eggs. Normally skittish or docile hens become territorial when they’re broody and will try to peck us when we go for the eggs. Once she starts sitting in earnest the hen will stay on the nest for 21 days, rarely leaving it for a drink of water or a little food, until the eggs hatch.
These two hens have gone broody and have chosen nesting boxes in the henhouse to sit in. When that happens we make sure the hens have a dozen eggs under them and we mark them. This way we’re able to remove any eggs that don’t belong in her clutch, while making sure we don’t eat any that are being incubated by the hens.
Sometimes we’ve had hens make nests in the barn or shed. As long as she’s safe from predators those sittings usually go fine and the mama returns to the henhouse in a few weeks being trailed by a dozen chicks.
Hatching eggs in the henhouse is more problematic. Often a hen will force her way into the nesting box the broody hen is sitting in (probably because it’s her favorite place to lay). She’ll lay an egg on the clutch then leave. Meanwhile the sitting hen (who has a very tiny brain, after all) will relocate to a different nesting box, leaving the eggs she’s supposed to be hatching uncovered. We have to police this kind of thing or the eggs will go cold and won’t hatch.
Not many people still hatch chicks this way. Of course on the industrial farms they use large incubator machines. Even small scale farmers often use incubators to make sure they get a good hatch and to avoid taking layers out of commission for so long.
But we prefer to let the hens reproduce as naturally as possible. And we love seeing a mama hen teaching her chicks to forage for food and gathering them under her wings at night.
Hopefully, if our hens will just act right, we’ll have a bunch of new chicks on the farm in a few weeks.