Considering the recent boom in demand for laying hens, hatching under a hen may gain more attention than it has enjoyed for some time. Chicks have been scarce and a lot of new people have gained an interest in raising their own chickens. Just as with most ventures in self sufficiency, raising poultry is an acquired skill. It takes time to master, and incubation is one of the most challenging aspects of keeping poultry. Still, it can be very rewarding.
Reasons one might consider hatching under a hen:
- The most obvious reason to use a hen would be that you have one and you don’t have an incubator. Incubators cost, and have a learning curve. It’s possible that you don’t have an incubator and want to try hatching chicks. It’s possible that you have a “biological incubator” in your flock…
- You may not want to hatch a whole lot of chicks. A standard size hen incubates up to 14 eggs. Bantams handle fewer eggs per clutch.
- By using a hen, one does not have to keep track of temperature, humidity or egg turning.
- You may be attracted to the fact that a hen that hatches chicks will generally do an excellent job of brooding (keeping them warm and safe). Without a hen to brood the chicks one has to set up a special place with a heat lamp to keep them warm and safe.
- It is both beautiful and heart warming to observe how a hen cares for her babies!
Decent article on How to Hatch Chicks Naturally
For such a natural process there are a remarkable number of things that can go wrong, wrecking a potential hatch. While it is true that we often have hens pop out of the hay barn with unplanned clutches, it’s also true that purposefully using a hen requires that special requirements be met in order to avoid failure.
Here are some special considerations for using a hen to hatch eggs:
- Some breeds of chicken are more inclined to hatch eggs than others. The term for willingness and ability to hatch eggs is “broody.” Cackle Hatchery has a great Blog on Breeds which Make Good “Broodies.” The super egg laying breeds and hybrids generally are not good candidates for hatching eggs.
- Most hens, once they start setting on eggs cannot be moved To do so causes them to quit and their eggs die. Because of this, when setting out to hatch under a hen, it’s usually best to have a small, separate pen, with shelter and a nest box, just for her. Put her in there and keep her in there until she goes “broody.” The hen will probably lay a good number of eggs before “going broody.” It can help if you leave those eggs in the nest, to help give her the urge to hatch eggs. Once she is in the mood you can use her for hatching either those eggs (if she had access to a rooster), or better, for hatching fresh, new eggs (swap the fresh for the old).
- Shared nests usually spell “disaster.”
- Don’t let a hen try to hatch eggs in a coop with other hens, as this often causes a hatch failure due to interference from the other hens.
Two hens, sharing the same clutch will compete for the eggs What you won’t see is that underneath they’re playing “footsie,” trying to get the eggs from the other hen. Eventually the eggs are so jostled that they die. Don’t let more than one hen set on a nest to incubate it.
- Be sure that all eggs placed under the hen start incubation at the same time. Don’t add more later, as latecomers will most likely be abandoned to die before they can hatch out.
All eggs need to start incubating at the same time.
- Beware of predators! Most people have no idea what predators cross their land at night. If using a hen to hatch chicks it is a good idea to protect her from nocturnal visitors. A sturdy pen or cage is helpful. Our livestock guardian dogs are on patrol all night, so we rarely have predator trouble. See Why Would A Person Get a Livestock Guardian Dog?
Tip: How to tell if a hen is broody
There are a number of signs which tell when a hen is ready to hatch eggs. Most hens start showing some of these signs and then gradually as they become more broody, show more and more signs with greater intensity.
- She’ll want to stay on her nest, hardly leaving it.
- The hen will puff her feathers and make a bird like growling noise when you reach under her, looking for eggs She’ll also, probably, peck your hand.
YouTube video showing broody hens:
- The hen will stop laying eggs, altogether, when she is really broody. I call this being “hard broody.” Most broody hens continue to lay some eggs as they are entering into this state. Eventually they stop laying and get really serious about incubating eggs… whether or not they have eggs under them! Hens operate by instinct, not intelligence, so they will try to incubate an empty nest if that’s all they have.
- A hen in the advanced stages of broodiness will usually get bare spots on her breast. This isn’t a problem at all, it’s nature’s way of insuring better warmth, through more direct contact between her skin and the eggs.
Anecdote: The all time best broody hen
Bantam Cochins have proven themselves to us to be the most determined (and forgiving) of all hens to hatch eggs. I once had one sit all summer on a doorknob, without hatching out a door or any such thing! Back in 2001 our kids had permission to collect eggs on a farm where we were renting. There, they encountered a Mille Fleur bantam Cochin hen, whom they nicknamed “Cutie.” They were amused, when collecting eggs, that if they would set the egg basket on the ground, Cutie would climb in, settle down, and get ready to hatch those eggs!