Hatching chicks from your own eggs- or convincing a motherly hen to raise a batch of hatchery chicks- is a fun way to experience a less popular side of modern chicken keeping:
Watching a line of chicks trail behind a mama hen as she teaches them to scratch and forage is a delightful scene for any chicken keeper.
It’s not as hard as you might think to hatch your own or even to convince your hen to adopt hatched chicks. One of the biggest challenges to do it, though, is that when your hen finally goes broody she’ll often be in a spot that’s not ideal for hatching or raising chicks.
Why Move a Brooding Hen?
Naturally, hens tend to “go broody” (the term for the hormonal changes that cause a hen to build a nest, fill it with eggs, and sit on it nearly 24/7) wherever they are used to laying eggs.
In modern coops, my hens are laying in nesting boxes that are elevated off the ground (where chicks might be injured if they fell) and/or shared with other hens. When a hen goes broody in a shared nest, they may steal eggs, get confused about which eggs they’ve been sitting on, let other hens sit on their eggs (which can leave eggs at irregular temperatures and/or break your mama-hen of her broodiness if another chicken chases her from a thieved nest.) Moving your broody hen may be necessary to keep chicks or eggs safe- but moving a disgruntled mama hen isn’t easy!
Move her With Eggs or Without?
If she’s already been sitting on eggs, you can try moving them with her but I tend to have a little better success rate when I notice I have a broody hen, move her and get her settled in a chick-friendly spot, and then give her eggs to sit on. But you WILL need eggs on the destination nest to keep her interested. I use wooden eggs to keep my hen busy while I procure eggs or chicks.
How I Move a Broody Hen without Disrupting her Brooding:
I have a particular bantam hen who- although she seethes with hatred towards me- is happy to go broody at least 4 times a year- or seemingly anytime I don’t collect eggs by noon! This hen, “Phyllis,” has happily been a mother to hatchery chicks, her own eggs, and even adopted eggs I placed under her. Over a dozen or so attempts to relocate her after going broody, I’ve managed to “break” her out of her broodiness a few times by making mistakes in handling her. If you’re trying to move your broody hen or encourage adoption, the following are a few tips I’ve picked up from trial and error and some sage chicken-raising advice from an older farmer.
1. Prep Your New Nest
Moving your brooding hen and then clanking around with cages and other chores can easily break a hen of broodiness. Prep your space and all the supplies you’ll and for the move in advance.
I like to set my brooding hen up with a nest in a flexible/flat sided bucket or a dish busing tub. Moving her to a nest in a portable container makes it easy and low stress to move her from a quiet confined space where she’ll be happy sitting on eggs to a larger space to care for her growing chicks when they hatch.
for best results you’ll need:
- gloves with wrist protection
- a hand towel or small bath towel
- headlamp with a red-light setting
- bus tub or flexible bucket (optional: for low contact carrying)
- A small crate or laundry basket (NOTE: stick to a very small cage at first, she needs to not have the option to walk off for the first few days)
- food and water bowls that are one-chicken sized and screw to crate walls.
- wooden eggs (Decoy eggs can help you ensure she’s settled and brooding in the new nest before you give her fertilized eggs)
2. Plan during the Day for a Nighttime Move
Moving a hen at night is exponentially more likely to be successful than a daytime move, but it will require planning in advance.
Ideally, a nighttime move goes so smoothly that the hen falls back asleep without noticing anything has changed. During daylight, set up your broody hen’s new nest with everything she’ll need, so when you return and move her you can be quick, quiet, and less disruptive. I like to move hens 2-4 hours after sundown or occasionally in the wee hours of the morning.
4. Practice Proper Prophylactics.
I’m kidding. And also not kidding! Basically: wear gloves, long sleeves, and if you spend much time with animals, invest in some scratch and bite-proof “high top” gloves.
Plan to cover your hen’s head with a towel as soon as you approach to move her. The towel blocks light and if she attempts to peck your hands the towel should add an extra layer of protection. Darkness under the towel while you move her will help keep her calm.
4. Use Low or No Light
Move your brooding hen at night and DO NOT TURN ON LIGHTS unless it’s absolutely necessary. The key to success is for the hen to be moved and settled into a new nest before she ever wakes up and darkness helps a lot. When I move Phyllis I carry her from the coop’s nesting box into a cage in the stable, but instead of using flashlights and overhead fluorescents to see where I’m going, I navigate using a headlamp with a red-light setting.
5. Support her Body & Minimize Movement
The first half dozen or so time I did this, I carried the hen by lifting her gently out of the nest, supporting her legs, and gently holding her wings down under the towel as I carried her. These attempts had a reasonable success rate, but my success rate went up when I started moving her in a tub.
Instead of carrying hens from point A to point B, I used a shallow flexible bucket or, later, a plastic bus tub that I would leave her in once I relocated her. Using a carry-able container to move her meant instead of going from Point A to Point B being held by a human (very stressful!) the only human touching involved was to lift her immediately from her nest into the tub, which was then relocated with her.
As you transport her to your brooder or other location, she may or may not be squawking, flapping, and pecking- don’t let go. Having well-protected arms is a big help if and when they get defensive.
6. Close Confinement in New Nest
If the move is very successful and your chicken settles back to sleep, you may have a docile and willing new nest occupant, as she wakes up the next morning in the new digs and thinks she must have fallen asleep there and the nighttime excursion was just a dream!
However some broody hens won’t be so docile about the move. Waking up in a new and strange location, they may want to flee- breaking their brood in the process. To help calm and settle your brooding hen after you move her, place her nest in a small dog crate or overturned laundry basket (the type with lots of large holes in the sides, weighted so she can’t scoot out) and cover the cage partially with a towel. The towel helps minimize distractions and may reduce stress about being in a new location.
For the first 8 hours, I recommend not providing food or water- any reason to get off her nest may break the brood right after you move a broody hen. The next morning, when typically the hen has adopted the nest as their own and is happy to stay put, I add a small feeder for food and water.
Some hens will protest placement on the new nest, however, and the protest isn’t necessarily a sign of failure. Many hens will immediately settle and be hard at work hatching eggs the next morning, but if your hen doesn’t immediately settle, don’t give up. Just keep your broody hen confined to that nest until she either adopts it or proves her brood is broken. Sometimes after a day or two of protest, my hens will actually settle down and return to brooding but if 2-3 days after the move your hen is clearly uninterested in hatching the eggs, return her to your flock and try again next time
If you successfully move your hen, she can hatch eggs or even be coaxed into caring for hatchery chicks.