The term broody hen refers to a time when a hen begins the process of sitting on her eggs in order to keep them warm enough for chicks to develop and hatch. This can be a delicate time, but the good news is that your job is more or less to step back and let mom do her thing.
If your flock is fence-free like mine, locating and recognizing a broody hen may be a little challenging. Our girls love to find the most obscure nooks in which to lay their eggs. Between that and the general scattering that occurs every day, it can sometimes be weeks before we notice someone is brooding. Normally we’ll notice that someone has been missing for a few days, and a quick search will find her sitting on a nest.
Chicken and turkey hens tend to find deep nooks and corners for their nests, but ducks prefer to keep their nests more hidden. If you suspect you may have a broody duck, look for areas where she might be concealed. Our Khaki Campbell hen made her nest this year in a small thicket of dead branches and tall grass, and buried the eggs in pine straw and leaves when she needed to get up to find food or water. When sitting on the nest, she tucked her head in her feathers and made herself nearly impossible to see. Watch your male ducks for signs if you cannot find her. Our drakes normally stayed within range of the nest, probably to serve as protection.
When you do find a broody hen, it is best to leave her alone unless disturbing her is necessary. During the first week or two it is common for the hen to get up once or twice a day to eat and drink, but as the eggs get closer to hatching the hen will do nothing but sit on them until the chicks are hatched. Trust that she knows what to do, and try not to hinder her in any way. If you need to move a nest, move the eggs and the hen to a safe, enclosed area, and provide food and water. She’ll be upset, but ultimately won’t want to leave her eggs. Broody hens can be very temperamental expect hissing, threatening clucks, and some pecking if you get too close! Occasionally you may also have a protective male to deal with if he decides he doesn’t approve of your meddling.
Chicken eggs take an average of 21 days to hatch, while ducks and turkeys can take up to 28. Because hens of all species tend to consolidate their eggs into a single nest with other birds in the flock, it’s possible that not all of the eggs will hatch on the same day. Mark down the day you discover your hen has gone broody, and check on the nest once the 21 days are up. If you notice some new chicks but the hen is still sitting on her nest, it is because not all of the eggs have hatched yet. You may want to check the remaining eggs at this point unfertilized or dud eggs that haven’t developed chicks will have gone bad by this point, and will be significantly lighter than an egg containing a chick. Throw these eggs away, or the hen may neglect her chicks while she waits for eggs that will never hatch.
If you are lucky enough to find an egg that is hatching leave it alone! Hatching can take a long time, but the long struggle that a chick experiences is necessary for it to have the strength to survive in the world. Watching an egg hatch can be a great learning experience for both adults and kids, but be sure to give the babies and momma bird the space they need.
If the time between hatchings is more than a day, you may need to move the chicks that have already hatched to a safe place where they can be hand-raised until the mother hen is ready to take care of them. Taking a chick from its mom might seem mean, but remember that a broody hen will eventually stop getting up from her eggs, and that means that if a chick hatches early she won’t try to protect it or lead it to food. Place your chicks in an enclosed area or even a large box, and provide food, water, and a heat lamp.
Most stores that provide farm supplies will carry feed that is small enough for a chick to eat, but sometimes I soak regular chicken feed pellets in a little water to make it softer and easier for tiny beaks to peck. Once all of the chicks have hatched, you can try to reintroduce the hand-raised ones to their mom, but be sure to keep an eye on her until you are sure she will take care of them.