Monday, June 24, 2013

Henzilla, Breaking the Broody Hen

So, your hens are laying well. Each is giving you about 5 eggs a week and you are pleased with your success in raising laying hens.  All seem healthy and normal, until one warm day, you step into the coop and your find one of your hens flattened like a platter in the nesting box. She makes horrid rasping noises as you approach. 
Broody Buff Orpington hen
She is all puffed up and has an unpleasant disposition. Avoiding the sharp beak, you pick her up to inspect her and notice that her breast is bare, as if she is molting. You set her down on the ground and she remains puffed out almost to three times her normal size. She sits there, clucking and clucking, not moving, giving you the stink eye. The other hens either avoid her or run up and peck her comb. She yells something offensive at you in Chickenese and rushes back into the nest, clucking all the while. You watch her for a few days to see if her symptoms change.  They don’t. She doesn’t seem to be eating much. She’s certainly not laying.

Broody Americana hen
How did yesterday’s sweet little hen turn into today’s Henzilla? Don’t worry, your hen is not sick. She’s not broken either, this is a normal phase of life. What you have is a broody hen, in other words, a hen that wants to be a mother. The maternal instinct is strong within females of any species and a hen is no exception. A hen will “go broody” when her natural instinct to sit on a clutch of eggs and incubate them becomes active. This is usually triggered by warmer summer weather. The heritage breeds are more likely to go broody, as this trait is bred out of hybrid commercial laying hens. I have found that Buff Orpingtons and Bantams of all varieties go broody most often.  Those chickens labeled as “good mothers” have a reputation for being the most broody.   

If you want to hatch eggs, I recommend that you place fertile hatching eggs under the hen as soon as she goes broody. You don’t need to do anything else. The hen will incubate the eggs and you will have chicks in about 21 days, provided the eggs were fertilized.

As long as the hen is broody, she will not lay. Some hens can go multiple attempts in a row to hatch eggs. This is very hard on the hen, as it depletes her resources (fat and body heat) and she eats and drinks very little during this time. She won’t starve, but will loose conditioning. She is also at risk of loosing her position in the pecking order (not always a bad thing) and can become a target for pecking attacks from other hens. She is also an object for varmint attacks in the hen house since she is not safely roosting at night.
Broody bantam Americana hen
I have heard several methods for breaking the broodiness of the hen. As a former owner of an small organic egg farm, I've had more than my share of broody hens. Here is my tried and true, sure-fire method of breaking the broodiness of your sweet little hen  and have your girl back to her usual self in in less than a week.

Steps to Stop the Broodiness

You will need the following equipment:
·       Pail or dishpan
·       wire cage—this can be a live critter trap, small pet cage, old rabbit hutch, etc.
·       Small clip-on feeders and waterers to hang on sides of wire cage
·       Length of chain or rope, optional
·       Tennis balls, length of tube, small rock, brick, etc., optional

Outfit cage with clip-on feeder and waterer. Place feed and water in cage. Do not place bedding in the cage, the chicken needs to be on the wire floor for this method to work. Find a protected location to place the cage. You can either hang the cage or set the cage on top of a moving base or a tennis ball, food can, brick or other small object. The cage needs to be wobbly and moving. The cage should be teetering or swaying, not in a fixed location or platform. 
Notice the tilt in wire cage
 Now for the high drama part. 

Chicken in a bucket
Place cold water in pail. Remove hen from coop and dunk her several times or hold her in the water until her breast/keel area feels cold*. You now have a mad, wet hen. Place the mad, wet hen into the broody cage. Leave the hen in the broody cage for 4 days, checking on her daily.
The Broody Cage of Shame
Old school method
The reason why we put the hen in an unstable wire cage is to get her as far away as possible from an environment conducive to incubating eggs. The wire floor of the cage can be cool and drafty, not warm and cozy. The unstableness of the cage does not allow the hen's eggs to remain safe and in one location.  

I’m assuming that you have become a somewhat of a chicken whisperer at this point in your chicken rearing experience. You can probably read your hen's noises well and can determine when something is wrong. You know your hen's normal sounds are more along the lines of a “bock-bock” or “puck-puck”. You have probably noticed that while she is broody, she changed her tone. She clucks, a lot. When the hen’s broody "cluck-cluck" voice changes back to her normal "bock-bock" voice and she is no longer puffy, she is no longer broody. Do give her at least 4 full days in the broody cage to confirm that she is no longer broody. A hen may go back onto the nest and resume setting if she still clucking.

And that's it. Your hen is no longer broody and will resume laying eggs soon. You may now put the hen back into her regular coop. I recommend putting her on a roost at dusk in the main coop.

*This cold water dunking step can be skipped if desired.